11:27 Mar. 16, 2016
Dogs and cats become Ukraine fighters' companions
They fight rats, depression and even serve in combat roles -- dogs and yes, some cats, have turned into a prized companion for fighters on both sides of eastern Ukraine's separatist war.
In Sartana, a suburb of the Sea of Azov port city of Mariupol that remains Kiev's main stronghold in the conflict zone, two purring cats live alongside hardened government soldiers who face daily threats at the battle front.
The pets were rescued from pro-Russian rebel shells that fell on the nearby flashpoint village of Shyrokyne, devastated and all but abandoned by its 1,000 residents.
"We and the cats have a win-win relationship," machine gunner Pavlo, a 28-year-old archaeologist from Kiev who was forced to stop work on his doctoral thesis after the insurgents revolted in April 2014, says while stroking his furry friend.
"Cats are a domesticated animal. Where there is a cat, everything is alright."
The 23-month conflict has claimed the lives of nearly 9,200 people and driven more than 1.5 million from their homes.
A series of periodic truces have helped quiet some of the war's biggest guns, but increasing exchanges of fire and mines scattered throughout the conflict zone claim lives of civilians and soldiers almost daily, with night-time especially unsafe.
For soldiers like Pavlo, any sign of the long-forgotten joys of normal life is cherished, with the pets around them treated like royalty.
A large black dog that has been given the nom-de-guerre Gilza (Bullet Shell) cuddles up at Pavlo's feet as he speaks.
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"Dogs are also an irreplacable assistant," says Pavlo.
"They work like an alarm when there is a threat. That is because they hear and see much better than people do. They warn us whenever the enemy nears."
A military medical attendant who only provided his codename, Rodon, treats cats like irreplacable colleagues who help fight the spread of infectious diseases by hunting down rats and mice.
But Rodon admits that the animals' greatest value comes from the morale boost they invariably give the homesick soldiers.
"They are like an anti-depressant -- they lift your mood," Rodon says.
"You call them, and a whole swarm of them comes running your way. And you immediately feel better," says Rodon while a dog licks some food from his palm.
Besides soldiers, Rodon also treats dogs, even giving them treatments from his own medicine chest.