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Russia attacks Vovchansk. Animal evacuation through the eyes of a volunteer. Photo report

Wednesday, 15 May 2024, 16:30
Opinion Piece: Madison Tuff, Humanitarian Photographer

In the early morning of May 10th, explosions rocked northern Kharkiv city shortly after the Russian offensive in Vovchansk began.

Within hours, NORD DOG Animal Rescue, a front line evacuation team which I’m a volunteer for, started taking requests from villagers in and around the city to save their pets.

Hundreds of messages from worried owners have flooded the phone of our shelter director Svitlana Bachurina who has the hard job of deciding which animals are possible to save, and which are not. She then relays these requests to our the core leadership team, Pavel Khramtsov (Ukrainian), Frederik Guttormsen (Norwegian), and Noel Tock (Swiss).


Dima, a member of the local police force, who grew up in Vovchansk, acts as our navigator due to his deep knowledge of the city streets

House by house, NOR DOG has searched for abandoned pets locked in cages, chained in backyards, and even some that have been set free to roam the streets as artillery rages and fires burn nearby.

On the second day of missions our team made three entries into the city, evacuating several dogs and cats to be brought directly to their owners. However, as the situation worsens we’ve begun focusing efforts on the surrounding areas including Lyptsi, Vil’cha, Lyman, and Grafskoye.

Pavel wrangles the husky into his kennel for transport, as Noel assists with the door

Noel and Oleksander lift a dog into the back of the truck

In the past days, we’ve watched as a huge effort has been made between small civilian volunteer groups running evacuations in their personal vehicles, and local police. We travelled with two police officers Dima – a local from Vovchansk and Oleksander from Kharkiv, who provided security and directions through the city streets. The situation is unpredictable and partnering with locals to help navigate the streets has been essential in staying safe.


A dog rescued by the team, waits to be returned to his owner near Kharkiv


Noel, Dima, and Oleksander assist two soldiers, towing their vehicle with the NOR DOG truck, and evacuating them to a nearby safe place at the end of the mission

As Russian forces advance, defining the frontline is difficult and it’s been easy to come very close to their positions unknowingly. It’s been an intense week as we’ve experienced close shelling, seen FPV drones flying with explosives, and found unexploded ordnance in the streets – all of it worth it to save the lives of these animals.

Pavel and Frederik shelter in the backyard of an orphanage in Vovchansk, as officer Dima tries to find the correct address of animals needing help
Civilians carry their bags aboard a bus leaving from the volunteer rally point to Kharkiv after being evacuated
A man comforts his 10 year old cat after being rescued from Vovchansk by other volunteers
A elderly woman is led from an evacuation vehicle to a chair nearby to rest after being brought to safety by police officers and volunteers
A woman evacuates with her cat, thanks to the help of other volunteer efforts

Mother and daughter are reunited with their lost dog rescued from Vil’cha, on the outskirts of Kharkiv

Unfortunately, as animal shelters and pet-hotels in Kharkiv are at their absolute limit, we’ve simply run out of space to bring animals that no longer have owners. NOR DOG is now resorting to evacuating only animals we can reunite with owners who have fled without them. Working on little sleep and stressful days, our team continues to plan evacuations, unsure of how the war will develop.

But what gives us hope is the enormous effort of the local community and civil support, to save the lives of those who have no power in this war.

Fires burn due to constant shelling in Vil’cha

All photos: Madison Tuff, Humanitarian Photographer