March 9, 2022

Oleh Bulavenko: the Ukrainian Animal Lover who Risked & Lost his Life for his Dogs.

When your heart is tuned into a life struggling to live, it has deep impact.

That man, Oleh Bulavenko, must’ve loved his dogs.

He went back for them—all three—after bringing his wife and daughter safely to the train bound for Poland. I imagine he said a tearful goodbye, then climbed into the small car that could only hold so many at once, and drove with his son back outside of Irpin.

Could they have known they might meet such lethal fate? I’ve no doubt, they did.

As they drove back to their farmhouse to gather up their three dogs—at least one collie mix that I could see—they must’ve talked about the possibility of encountering Russian soldiers.

What happened next occurred so rapidly, they had no chance to prepare. They had no guns in that small car, only the two caretakers the patriarchs of a modest family, and three beautiful, loving, once-happy farm dogs.

Gunfire has a way of stopping everything in its tracks. It is stopping the world at present, forcing us to pay careful attention to the lethal and sadistic invasion of a free, democratic country by a ruthless dictator.

It is stopping me, in my own peaceful heart, from feeling safe and comfortable, on behalf of our own dogs.

I imagine that every sensitive, empathic, animal-loving heart feels much the same. My friends are passing links to each other, asking:

Who is helping the animals in Ukraine?

That valiant man and his son were. But on their return to evacuate all of them out safely, Russian soldiers blindly, without provocation or reason, opened fire. Amid a barrage of bullets riddling their small car, the father could be heard shouting for them to stop—they were only civilians.

The father was struck by bullets first. He opened his door and collapsed onto the asphalt.

He pleaded with the Russian soldiers to stop and they kept firing.

The bullets hit his son.

And then, two of his dogs.

They were all screaming, begging the Russian soldiers to stop. Even the two dogs. I can still hear their cries in pain.

The son jumped out of the car amidst another round of firing to run to his father’s side.

Finish me off! his father pleaded. My foot’s gone!

Dad, his son pleaded, I won’t let you die.

Suddenly, the bullets stopped; the bodies of two mortally wounded dogs lay hanging out of the passenger side of the small car. The son stayed at his father’s side as he writhed in agony on the ground.

Please, let me die, his father pleaded again.

The son begged him to hang on. He stayed by his side. The remaining third dog, a German Shepherd, waited faithfully at his hip on the asphalt.

All of this was captured on the son’s smartphone. It was running the entire time. I dare not view it again, and wouldn’t suggest any sensitive animal-loving heart expose themselves to such graphic depiction. I’ve been turned inside-out for days, holding my own dogs close.

Never in our lives, have so many of us watched a war happen in real time halfway around the world. I am ashamed, as I write, of my privileged American locale.

That, and grateful.

The Russian soldiers fled. No one came to see the lethal damage inflicted in a blind fury, delivered on a man and his son courageously attempting to save the lives of those left behind.

Decency died in the violence of that moment, where these Russian soldiers were concerned.

And tragically, that modest car was just too small to have evacuated all of the family on the first trip out.

We know the son made it out alive—he shared the video on Radio Free Europe. In the end, he’s shown crouching in a ditch, his German Shepherd curled up in a tight ball of fear by his side.

His father died. And, I’d like to believe that, as the animal-loving soul that he was, he is watching from the skies with his two dogs who died in the gunfire. I’d like to believe he’s in a safe place, watching his wounded son heal, with that sole-surviving Shepherd. I’d like to believe, as with the heart of every animal-lover who stands unhesitating and valiantly protecting these beautiful, vulnerable beings, that the father died protecting the beings he held close in his heart.

And that many of us, caught in the horrific moment of unimaginable invasion by a wretched dictator, would do the same.

~

 

I hesitate to even share of such nightmares.

But like many of the stories pouring in from Ukraine, as I sit in my own living room by a cozy fire in safety next to our disabled rescue dog, hell is being visited on innocent animals and people there. If I turn away my heart and shut off my mind, it only allows for this pernicious level of deadly force to persist.

To invoke the teachings of the late Thich Nhat Hanh from his book, Peace is Every Step:

“The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other…The truth is that everything contains everything else. We cannot just be, we can only inter-be. We are responsible for everything that happens around us.”

I’m not advocating that we saturate ourselves as though we, too, were being hit by bullets and grenades, our homes destroyed by mortar fire. In the interests of emotional and mental health, we all must self-regulate and decide how much to take in. There is such a thing as empathy fatigue.

Personally, I join the hearts of all animal lovers everywhere. I need to help where I can. There are people risking their lives as I write to bring food, water, and critical veterinary supplies to the thousands of dogs and cats in the shelters in Ukraine. Pets whose people were forced to leave behind as they fled for their own lives. And all of these beings—people included—are still vulnerable as the invasion and lethal Russian attack continue.

In such moments, I again turn to Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching. As a peace activist, he advocated for “Engaged Buddhism.” During the Vietnam War bombings, he and his monastic brothers and sisters debated:

“Should we leave the meditation halls in order to help the people suffering under the bombs?” They decided with “careful consideration…to do both—to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness.”

I think of him this morning as I write, feeling the privilege of comfort and ease by the fire, Willie Grommit ensconced safely at my side. Travel to Ukraine is out of the question.

And yet, I can donate to those who are there. This month, I redirected the funds I would’ve otherwise spent on beauty and aging products to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW.org). Next week, I’ll send more, to Four Paws International (Fourpaws.org). Spending $200 to feed my own vanity feels like a frivolity when people are fleeing for their lives and dogs are being shot by Russian soldiers.

In the words, again, of the late Thich Nhat Hanh:

“We are all interconnected.”

I would add—that when you break the heart of an animal lover and take the life he was trying to save at the cost of his own, his actions reverberate into the hearts of all, no matter the thousands of miles in between.

On behalf of the innocents in Ukraine, may peace prevail in all our hearts, no matter the ache within.

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