This is one in an occasional series of posts about life amid the war in Ukraine.
OLEKSANDRO-SHULTYNE, Ukraine — The bombing began at night. Rockets rained down. In one street every house exploded, stones and rubble were scattered.
At daybreak, medics stationed in the village ventured out of a basement, looking for human victims. Instead, they saw four elderly villagers, all apparently unharmed, leading a cow injured by shrapnel. The doctors decided to treat the animal.
“We are used to human doses and didn’t know how much painkiller to inject, but found out roughly,” said Volodymyr, a combat medic in the Ukrainian army, who asked to identify only his first name in accordance with military rules. “Then we took out all the shrapnel we could find and treated the wounds.”
Home farming is widespread in Ukraine. In frontline villages where most of the inhabitants have fled because of the war, those who stayed behind often did so because they did not want to leave behind dairy cows, animals so prized that they are often considered almost relatives.
Cows are included in religious observances. Their milk provides a source of income. Visitors would struggle to find a cow in any Ukrainian village whose family failed to name it. The animal also has special significance in a country with painful memories of the Holodomor, the famine caused by Joseph Stalin 90 years ago, said Olena Braichenko, the founder of Yizhakultura, an independent project on Ukraine’s gastronomic culture.
Divorce can be heartbreaking. Tetyana, a 53-year-old woman who fled a village near Bakhmut last May, left behind three cows. “It’s been almost a year. Sometimes I think I let it go, but then I remember my cows and cry,” she said by phone from the Zhytomyr region, where she now lives. Like others interviewed for this article, she asked not to use her full name for security reasons.
“I ran to the neighbors to ask if they could take my cows, but no one wanted them,” she recalls. “I ran to the butchers and asked to cut their throats because I couldn’t do it myself, but they refused.”
“I just left them tied up,” she added. “I understood that I couldn’t let them go, because they would destroy other people’s gardens.” Her village, Vasiukivka, remains occupied by Russians and Tetyana has no idea what has become of the animals.
The medics who treated the injured cow in Oleksandro-Shultyne called her Buryonka or Brownie. Buryonka had a concussion and multiple shrapnel wounds. For two days she could barely stand. The doctors treated her with antibiotics and on the third day she finally got up.
She and four other cows whose barns had burned down were taken to the yard of an abandoned house where medics tend to wounded soldiers. Now the cows are also under their care. BAs a result, several families were able to evacuate, knowing that their livestock was in good hands.
Buryonka is still very weak but gives milk again. Her owner fled to a nearby village, but still returns to milk Buryonka and the four other cows, give some to the soldiers and other residents, and keep some for herself.
Zina Richkova, 71, one of the neighbors who helped save Buryonka, also lost her shed in the shelling. She has three chickens and a rooster, who now live with her in her kitchen.
“With them around, I have someone to talk to,” she said. ‘I don’t want to kill them. When I hear the rooster sing in the morning, it means I’m alive.”