This is one in an occasional series of dispatches about life amid the war in Ukraine.
OLEKSANDRO-SHULTYNE, Ukraine — The bombardment began at night. Rockets rained down. On one street, every house blew up, scattering bricks and debris.
At dawn, medics stationed in the village ventured out of a cellar, looking for human casualties. Instead, they saw four older villagers, all apparently unhurt, leading a cow wounded by shrapnel. The medics decided to treat the animal.
“We are used to human doses and didn’t know how much painkiller to inject, but figured out approximately,” said Volodymyr, a combat medic in the Ukrainian Army, who asked to be identified only his first name in keeping with military rules. “After that, we extracted all the shrapnel we could find and treated the wounds.”
Home farming is widespread in Ukraine. In frontline villages where most residents have fled because of the war, those who stayed behind often did so because they didn’t want to abandon dairy cows, animals so prized they are often considered to be almost family members.
Cows are included in religious celebrations. Their milk provides a source of income. Visitors would struggle to find a cow in any Ukrainian village whose family hadn’t given it a name. The animal also holds a special significance in a country with agonizing memories of the Holodomor, the famine engineered by Joseph Stalin 90 years ago, said Olena Braichenko, the founder of Yizhakultura, an independent project about the gastronomic culture of Ukraine.
Separation can be heartbreaking. Tetyana, a 53-year-old woman who fled a village near Bakhmut last May, left three cows behind. “It has been almost a year. Sometimes I think I let it go, but then I remember my cows and cry,” she said by phone from the Zhytomyr region, where she now lives. Like others interviewed for this article, she asked that her full name not be used for safety reasons.
“I ran around to the neighbors asking to take my cows, but no one wanted them,” she recalled. “I ran to the butchers, asking to cut their throats as I couldn’t do it myself, but they refused.”
“I just left them tethered, she added. “I understood I couldn’t let them go as they would destroy other people’s gardens.” Her village, Vasiukivka, remains occupied by Russians, and Tetyana has no idea what became of the animals.
The medics who treated the wounded cow in Oleksandro-Shultyne named her Buryonka, or Brownie. Buryonka had a concussion and multiple shrapnel injuries. For two days, she could barely stand. The medics treated her with antibiotics, and on the third day, she finally stood up.
She and four other cows whose barns had burned were brought to the yard of an abandoned house where the medics look after wounded soldiers. Now the cows are in their care, too. BThat allowed several families to evacuate, knowing their livestock was in good hands.
Buryonka is still very weak but is giving milk again. Her owner fled to a nearby village but still returns to milk Buryonka and the four other cows, giving some to the soldiers and other residents while keeping some for herself.
Zina Richkova, 71, one of the neighbors who helped save Buryonka, also lost her barn in the shelling. She has three hens and one rooster, which now live with her in her kitchen.
“With them around, I have somebody to speak with,” she said. “I don’t want to kill them. When I hear in the morning the rooster singing, it means I am alive.”