“The more I get to know people, the more I like dogs,” says Valerii, paraphrasing American satirist Mark Twain as he sits with his family and his dogs at a rickety table of a farm near the village of Novyi Donbas in Eastern Ukrainian.
He’s lived here for the last four years, since the long and deadly conflict in the area forced him to abandon his happy life. Seven years he had worked on his perfect home in Dokuchaevsk, and welcomed the first granddaughter. Then the conflict started. Shells rained down each evening at 5pm, and when his neighbour’s house took a direct hit he knew it was time to grab the family and go.
Valerii, his wife, daughter, granddaughter and two dogs found shelter in an abandoned house: just a shed really. As he has done all his life, Valerii put his shoulder to the wheel and bit by bit he created a home.
“The house had been empty for three years, but it was the only option for us. I saved money, and got the essential services in as I want my girls to live in comfort,” he says.
His income comes from some allowances from the Government of Ukraine, his market garden, and the hundreds of chickens which populate the outhouses.
“I have regular customers at the market, and I can sell my stock in half an hour at the local market. My customers are urging me to bring more,” Valerii smiles.
As a displaced person, he was eligible to apply for small grants, and IOM provided him with a rotary cultivator for his burgeoning garden.
“I was left with nothing, I started from scratch, and I will achieve something, as long as I have strength,” says Valerii.
Two of his dogs, Lyalya and Dusya follow him around the yard, apparently listening to his every word.
“They feel my emotions. When I leave, they wait for me at the gates. They are my real friends. They are part of my family.”
The canine family is thriving. Lyalya’s son, Khitri, was born in Novyi Donbas. And a fourth dog, Richard, turned up one day.
“He was homeless, like we were once. So how could we walk on by?”