Sitting down to tell her story for the first time, 31-year-old Alina Beskrovna realizes she is likely deaf in one ear, a result of the ceaseless bombings she’s endured.
"I don’t know what date it is," utters Alina. "I’ve been cut off from the world for five weeks."
It was just six days ago that Alina, her mother, and her three cats were able to escape from a basement in Mariupol, a Ukrainian port city nestled between Crimea and Donbas. Her father, who had been living in a nearby neighborhood at the time of the initial attack, remains missing.
Up until the Russian invasion on February 24, Mariupol had been a bustling city with 450,000 civilians proud to call it home. Now, all that remains is the dream of a past life.
Hundreds of Russian troops currently encircle Mariupol. 300,000 civilians are trapped inside, unable to escape the incessant attacks. Families, children, and elders seek shelter in basements with no electricity, gas, Wi-Fi, or cell phone service. As Alina describes, the city has become a death hole.
Alina knew her biggest chance of survival was escaping. "I have to get my family out of this hell,” she told herself.
Hearing that there was a sliver of hope for those who could make it through all 16 Russian checkpoints on the way to Zaporizhzhia, Alina and her mother quickly fled with just the clothes on their backs. For five days, the women trekked towards the Medyka border crossing between Ukraine and Poland, carrying the three cats and praying every step of the way that they would survive another day while shelling exploded overhead. At each checkpoint, Alina and her mom endured the same brutal treatment. Soldiers pointed guns in the women’s faces and interrogated them, demanding that each individual in the crowd be strip searched. In the soldiers’ eyes, everyone posed a potential threat—even the animals. Alina was forced to hand over her cats to the soldiers for frisk searches time and time again.
As the sun crossed the horizon on the dawn of March 28, Alina and her mother stepped onto Polish land at the border of Medyka. Along with humanitarian groups, IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) was there to welcome refugees and care for animals in need. Recognized as one of the top disaster response organizations, IFAW rescues animals and wildlife from hurricanes, bushfires, floods, earthquakes and now also war zones.
Alina and her family were quickly met by Diane Treadwell, a contractor who has deployed with IFAW for more than 12 years. She brought the cats into the animal service station, where Shannon Walajtys, Program Director of IFAW’s disaster response team, was waiting to help check the cats’ vitals and bring them to the clinic for vaccinations and microchips. After the procedures, Treadwell and Walajtys set up Alina and her mother in the back of the service tent where they could put down their bags, grab food, and warm up. It was the first time Alina took a moment for herself in over 30 days.
"It feels surreal just because of the contrast. This feels like a dream right now," explains Alina as she speaks to IFAW volunteers in the tent. “I feel like I might wake up at any second and end up in the basement again. I knew there were rescue missions here focusing on the animals specifically, so I’m not surprised to find help. I’m just surprised to find this level of help and this quick response and humane attitude."
In times of disaster, people are forced to make the decision to either take their animals or leave them behind. For Alina, bringing her animals, Buck, Tom and Marysia, with her was a no-brainer.
"I think people who think an animal’s life is worth less than a human life are very different kinds of people compared to my world view." She shares how two of her cats are strays that she rescued from the street. The third is a 19-year-old that she adopted after his owner passed away.
"They were just regular happy cats, playing with each other, sometimes fighting with each other… They had normal lives up until the war began. We moved them into the basement and they spent a month suffering under the bombing and the shelling, just like us."
As for what’s next for Alina, she says she plans to keep travelling until she reaches the United States or Canada.
“My thoughts are racing. I can’t finish any task I begin. I don’t think I have processed what has happened… I have my mom to take care of who doesn’t speak the language and has never been abroad. And I have three cats. So for now, I’m just focusing on being the responsible one in the family and trying to search for my father. But once that is done, I think it’s going to hit me even harder.”
When asked if she hopes to one day return to Mariupol, Alina takes a deep breath and pauses. She yearns for Ukraine and to be of service to those in need, but she is unsure what the future holds.
"When it comes to my hometown in Mariupol, I think there’s no way I am ever coming back because it is no longer there, and I don’t know how you can rebuild something like that. And even if they do, it will be Russia controlled—which means it doesn’t exist to me."
In a few days, Alina and her family will continue their journey to Germany. From there, they may seek temporary refuge in Belgium or Denmark before eventually embarking to the United States.
The months ahead are daunting for Alina, but there’s no doubt she possesses the strength to carry on. She has escaped the hands of Russian soldiers. She is alive and hopeful for a better tomorrow—for her family and the people of Ukraine.