This is one in a series of periodical letters about life in the midst of the war in Ukraine.
Oleksandro Choltyn, Ukraine – The bombing started at night. Rockets rained down. On one street, every house exploded, scattering bricks and debris.
At dawn, medics stationed in the village ventured out of a cellar, looking for human casualties. Instead, they see four older villagers, all apparently unharmed, who injure a cow with shrapnel. The paramedics decided to treat the animal.
“We are used to human doses and we don’t know how much painkillers to inject, but we roughly figure it out,” said Volodymyr, a combat medic in the Ukrainian army, who asked to be identified only by his first name in line with military rules. . After that we extracted all the shrapnel we could find and treated the wounds.
Home farming is widespread in Ukraine. In frontline villages where most of the population had fled because of the war, those who stayed behind often did so because they did not want to part with dairy cows, animals so highly prized that they are often considered almost members of the family.
Cows are included in religious ceremonies. Their milk provides a source of income. Visitors would struggle to find a cow in any Ukrainian village whose family did not name it. The animal also has a special significance in a country with painful memories of the Holodomor, the famine Joseph Stalin engineered 90 years ago, said Olena Brachenko, founder of Yizhakulturawhich is an independent project about the gastronomic culture of Ukraine.
Breakups can be heartbreaking. Titana, a 53-year-old woman who fled a village near Bakhmut last May, left three cows behind. “It’s been almost a year. I think sometimes I let her go, but then I remember my cows and cry,” she said by phone from Zhytomyr region, where she lives now. Like others interviewed for this article, she asked that her full name not be used for safety reasons.
“I ran to the neighbors asking to take my cows, but nobody wanted them,” she recalls. I ran to the butchers, and asked to cut their throats as I could not do it myself, but they refused.
“I just left them tied up,” she added. “I understood I couldn’t let them go because they would destroy other people’s gardens.” Her village, Vasiukivka, is still occupied by Russians, and Tetyana has no idea what happened to the animals.
The medics who treated the injured cow at Oleksandro-Shultyne named it Buryonka, or Brownie. Buryonka suffered a concussion and multiple shrapnel wounds. For two days, she could barely stand. The paramedics treated her with antibiotics, and on the third day, she finally got up.
She and four other cows whose pens had been burned are taken to the yard of an abandoned house where medics tend to wounded soldiers. Now the cows are also under their care. This allowed many families to evacuate, knowing their livestock was in good hands.
Boryonka is still very weak but gives milk again. Her owner fled to a nearby village but returned to milk Buryonka and the other four cows, giving some to soldiers and other residents while she kept some for herself.
Zina Rychkova, 71, a neighbor who helped rescue Buryonka, also lost her barn in the bombing. She has three hens and one rooster that now live with her in her kitchen.
“They are around,” she said, “I have someone to talk to.” I don’t want to kill them. When in the morning I hear a rooster singing, it means that I am alive.
“Lifelong food lover. Avid beeraholic. Zombie fanatic. Passionate travel practitioner.”