With her dogs, this young Ukrainian veterinarian helps children traumatized by the war – Edition du soir Ouest-France

Correspondence in Dnipro (Ukraine), Philippe LOBJOIS

Irina Bezuglaia, 32, is a veterinarian. Refugee in Dnipro, in the south of Ukraine, after having had to flee her city of Kharkiv in the east of the country, she put her knowledge of suffering dogs at the service of refugee children, like her. Reportage.

Behind her computer screen, Irina Bezuglaia gives her last advice to the twenty people connected via Zoom with her. At 32, this young veterinarian with long brown hair, also a dog trainer, has already written six books on man’s best friend. But for three months, with the Russian invasion in Ukraine, his work has taken a more humanitarian turn in the face of the traumas that the bombs have caused, both to humans and animals. Before the war, in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, in her Sunny Dog center, Irina advised future dog owners on the purchase of an animal, then guided them in training. Pandemic obliges, she and her partner Yulia then started working remotely with Zoom to continue their activity. “Then the war came and everything changed” she said, looking sad.

With the bombings, the dogs go crazy

From February 24, the date of the beginning of the Russian invasion, “I started having customers on the phone in the middle of a panic attack”, she testifies. “We could hear their children screaming behind them and their dogs barking. It was very difficult, she continues. I had almost fifteen people a day on Zoom: I tried to calm them down, to explain to them what to do with their animal. »

A man, accompanied by his dog, observes the damage of a Russian artillery bomb on a residential building in Kharkiv on April 10. Like humans, animals face the intense stress of shelling. (Photo: VASILIY ZHLOBSKY / EPA-EFE)

Both animals and masters spent their days locked up in shelters, cellars or storerooms, facing prolonged periods of stress. With the bombardments the dogs literally go crazy: the animal can become aggressive again very quickly or totally prostrate. »

During the first days of the war, Irina tries to stay in Kharkiv despite the bombardments. But she lives in a block of buildings, in the northeast of the city, in the district of Saltivca, one of the places most targeted by Russian artillery. “At the beginning of March, a missile fell right next to our house. »The young woman decides to leave Kharkiv with her three trained dogs to first reach the city of Poltava 150 km to the west. A 12-hour journey on the road saturated with people who, like her, are fleeing the war.

Irina, here in January 2022, two months before the start of the war, with one of her three dogs, Lata, who helped her support some children, refugees like her, from March. (Photo: Irina Bezuglaia)

The children were prostrate in a corner

In a refugee center, she finds “whole families with their children and their dogs, she recalls. The children were prostrate in a corner, as if they were uninterested in the world. » When the sirens sound, they cower or lie on the ground, petrified. The parents panic and scream, ordering them to be quiet.

After a few days, Irina moved to another refugee center in Kremenchuk, further south of Kharkiv. “It was in this center that I thought maybe I could help. » She sees the children left to themselves in front of a telephone. “Many were stressed, their muscles tense, their gaze a little empty, as if lost. They could sit still in a corner for hours, disconnected from life, stuck in their trauma. It was very impressive, she relates.​Often their parents themselves would go from hysteria to the deepest despondency, and then start crying. The children imitated them and it was terrible to see. »

Unable to sit idly by, Irina decides to offer her services. “I explained to the parents that I was a veterinarian, that I had taken care of dogs since I was little. And that if they wanted, I could try to help their children with what I had learned to do to help traumatized animals. »

Children are profoundly affected by the consequences of war and the fear that affects them like their parents. Here, a little boy tries to occupy himself in an underground shelter in Lysytchansk on May 26, as the city is threatened by the Russian offensive in Donbass, in the south-east of the country. (Photo: ZUMA PRESS/EPA-EFE)

Their world had crumbled

To take care of the dogs, Irina knows that you have to loosen them, get them out of their torpor. To the children, she will first propose to make paper objects. ” Cocottes, planes or small boats. They had to regain control over something,she explains. Their world had collapsed. They must have fled and no longer had any bearings. »

Then she asks them to draw on a piece of paper the place where they would feel safest in the world. “One of them drew a cellar guarded by three huge dragons: his father, his mother and his uncle. For a second, it was a bunker at the bottom of the sea. A third still had drawn his old house but very precisely, down to the smallest detail, as if he didn’t want to forget anything…”

But the one that marks Irina the most is a little boy: “He had drawn a transparent cube, but on a star, in the middle of a dark night. He had become very wild, no longer wanted to talk to adults. He remained in his corner, mute. Seeing him, I said to myself that the presence of the dogs could perhaps help him. »

Irina’s three dogs know about ten tricks: stand on two legs, walk on three, play dead, hold out their paw to an adult, or turn on themselves… “I sent Lata, my Labrador, pointing out the little boy. He went to him, started stretching out a paw, then licking him, nudging him with his muzzle…” After an hour, the child had come out of his silence and was playing with the animal. “If you can’t find a connection with the kids, the dogs do. »

A lot of Ukrainians forced to flee their city to escape the war left with their animals, like this woman from Kharkiv who poses with her dog when she arrived at the border with Slovakia in early March. (Photo: MARTIN DIVISEK / EPA-EFE)

Desperate owners

Irina also continued to help owners who sent her desperate messages: “Irina, the dog has gone mad, he is aggressive. We don’t know what to do. » Animals undergo the stress of the bombs, like humans, and develop, according to her, the same pathologies. “There were a lot of dogs in the center. At the slightest dull noise, we saw them jump up or run to take refuge under the table or in the bathroom. she says.

In direct contact with animals, as with children, it begins by occupying their minds: “We spin them around plastic cones and then, while they’re concentrating on the exercise, we pop a balloon or slam a door. The dog jumps but we make him understand that it is normal, that there is no danger and that he must finish his exercise. »

And then you have to prepare for the aftermath. The young woman explains to owners that they should no longer put a leash that strangles their dog’s neck, and above all, no longer scold him.

For children forced to flee their homes because of war, being able to leave with their animal is precious. Like this little girl hugging her cat after being evacuated from Kupyansk, near Kharkiv, on May 30. (Photo: REUTERS)

Despite the parallel and the obvious potential interactions, Irina did not dare to mix traumatized children with dogs who are also traumatized. “On paper it’s very engaging, but in reality you can’t tell the dog’s reaction to a child. We can imagine that they will help each other and “fix” each other, but we haven’t taken that risk yet. »

Like her human and animal patients for whom she advocates caring to overcome the trauma of the bombs, Irina does not give herself a minute. In front of his screen at the end of May, his next remote counseling session is already full. One hundred people signed up. Just finished, on the table, his next book: Communication between dog and child.

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