'400 animals is a huge number to transport anywhere, to bring them away, and to find a place for them. There are horses, cows, dogs, cats...'
More than 1 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia began its assault on the nation last week. According to TIME, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees expects this number to rise above 4 million in the coming days as the war continues. However, Andrea Cisternino won't be one of them. The fashion photographer turned animal rescuer has been living in Ukraine for the past 13 years during which he established the award-winning International Animal Protection League Charitable Foundation. Now, as artillery fire, exploding mortar shells and gunfire echoes across the country, Cisternino refuses to abandon his 400 rescue animals.
Cisternino—who was originally a fashion photographer from Italy before marrying his Ukrainian wife, Vlada Shalutko—has overcome many challenges during his time in Ukraine. Speaking to Euronews, he recalled the time he was targeted by 'dog hunters' when the government started giving out licenses and money to those who killed stray dogs. Although vandals set fire to his shelter at the time, he refused to give up and simply started all over again. A few years later, the first tensions of the conflict in the Donbas erupted and Cisternino felt he needed to start accumulating provisions since there was no knowing what was to come.
However, he never imagined that things could ever get as bad as they are right now. "They're shooting, unfortunately, this is the situation," Cisternino said. "Also here, in the close-by villages, they destroyed a bridge so that Russians won't be able to cross. We hear the Russian planes and the helicopters going to the Antonov airport (also known as Hostomel) which they took over and which is some 30 km away from here. Usually they start shooting at 5.00 in the morning and go on until 8.00. Then, after a while... well, it's a bewildering situation."
He added that although it's only been a few days, the crisis in Ukraine feels as though it's been going on for six months. "I've been here since 2009. I married and, as a photographer, I started documenting what was happening during the 2012 Euros Championship, then I decided to build an animal shelter and many things changed - my life changed," the animal rescuer said. "It is an animal shelter that was initially for dogs, then also other animals, like horses."
When asked if he foresees having to flee the country, leaving his animals and shelter behind, Cisternino said: "I don't know, I'm staying here for my animals. It depends on what happens, but 400 animals is a huge number to transport anywhere, to bring them away, and to find a place for them. There are horses, cows, dogs, cats... a bit of everything. Also, the shelter cost a lot for me - it was a sacrifice, so it's not easy to leave everything behind. At the moment I don't know, I'm here. I never imagined he (Putin) could bring about this madness because for me this is pure madness."
"But, I was already accumulating some extra provisions for the dogs, the cats and the horses because of what happened in 2014 with the situation in the Donbas. I've been trying to never find myself in the same situation, I was thinking it was not going to happen, but I was able to buy some stuff before everything was shut down," he added. Cisternino revealed that despite their past differences, he has a good relationship with the locals now. "Today we collaborate as a community - after three hard years, I won my battle. We buy the food for the dogs nearby, we buy wood from locals. I even started a free sterilization campaign and many came from the village," he said.
"They started understanding and they even apologized for the way they had been behaving. Because they hadn't understood until then. So it's okay, more than anything for my animals," Cisternino added. He revealed that his wife Vlada also doesn't want to leave the country. "She's in Kyiv now, I spoke to her on the phone just a few minutes ago," he said. "She said she's been out shopping and for a stroll. She wants to stay there in the city center - and I'm here. But no, for now, there's no question of leaving, we’ve never thought about this."