SEMUR-EN-AUXOIS, France — It all started with a distressing photo of a man and his dog, trying to board a train out of Ukraine in the early days of the Russian invasion.
The picture was posted on a Facebook group for Irish setter lovers of the world.
"And there was really a crowd everywhere, so he was desperately trying to put himself in [the train] and he was holding this big Irish setter," says Macha Levitin, a Moscow native who has lived for the past 13 years in this small medieval village in France's Burgundy region.
Since Russia launched its war with Ukraine in February, millions of Ukrainians have had to flee the country. Many bring their pets — on leashes, in cages or held in their arms. The world has taken notice, and some have gone out of their way to help.
"I was just amazed by this attitude. It was just absolutely out of the question for them to leave their cats and dogs back in Ukraine," says Levitin, 45, who lives with her husband, two daughters and an Irish setter named Safra.
She didn't think she could help the man in the picture, but she wanted to help someone, and their pets. And so began her mission. Levitin has managed to help several people and dogs from Ukraine find safety in France.
There is no complete data on the number of pets evacuated from Ukraine during the war, according to Humane Society International. But Yavor Gechev, an official with the charity's Europe office, tells NPR that by early May, veterinarians at a Polish-Ukrainian border crossing estimated at least 30,000 cats and dogs had come out of Ukraine. That number doesn't include other pets or stray animals rescued by charities and refugees, Gechev explains.
She searched her Facebook group for dog lovers in Ukraine
Levitin combed the thousands of members of the Irish setter Facebook group, looking for Russian and Ukrainian names.
"I saw Yuri Mazarenko, so for me it was evident he was a Russian-speaking or Ukrainian-speaking person," she says. "So I just wrote to him. I said, 'Hi, my name is Macha. I'm writing to you from France. If you need any help, tell me how can I help you.'"
Mazurenko, 61, remembers what was happening when he got that first message. "Oh yes," he says with an ironic chortle. "We were crouching next to a wall, being bombed."
Mazurenko and his wife, Tanya Grigorieva, were sheltering beside a load-bearing wall in their home in the northern Ukrainian town of Chernihiv. His wife had recently suffered a stroke, which made it difficult for her to get down to the bomb shelter.
They eventually made it out of Chernihiv, which was surrounded by Russian troops. Grivorieva arrived in France first, in mid-April, and Mazurenko made it over on May 1. Today the couple and their Irish setter Rolly and cat Jan are living with Levitin in this French village. He calls her their guardian angel.
Rolly got very sick after fleeing but pulled through
Mazurenko is an artist. Levitin has helped him set up an exhibit of his paintings in the village's tourism office. He says his life has taken such an unexpected turn.
"Every artist dreams of having an exhibit in France," he says. "It's just a shame the circumstances that made it possible are a war."
The day after arriving, Rolly the dog fell gravely ill. Though he was "as calm as a samurai" during the shelling, Mazurenko says, he believes the dog's infection was brought on by the stress he'd been through.
Levitin has her own theory. "I think he decided to die because he fulfilled his duty of bringing his owners to safety," she says. "He did his job and was done."
But thanks to veterinary services, Rolly is once again robust and running along a country path with his tongue lolling.
A charity program called Vets for Ukrainian Pets, launched by Humane Society International, paid for the dog's medical care.
Levitin went out of her way to help, and earned their trust
Soon Levitin and Mazurenko are joined by Vlada, and her big red setter Iris. The canines and their humans greet each other enthusiastically.
Vlada prefers not to use her last name because of family still in Ukraine. She also made it to Semur-en-Auxois by way of Levitin and the Irish setter connection.
"I'm amazed at everything Macha organized for us," she says. "The trip by bus from Warsaw to Paris, then picking us up when we arrived. I came with a suitcase, a dog and a cat. I could never have done this on my own."
The irony of being rescued by a Russian is not lost on Vlada. She says the animal connection helped her to trust.
Vlada, who arrived in March, has a new job at a local leather goods manufacturer making high-end handbags. She says that too is thanks to Levitin and her "network."
Levitin knows Ukrainians will not be able to forgive Russians for what is happening. And though she left Moscow 30 years ago and had long given up on her country under President Vladimir Putin, she says this war still hurts deeply.
"Right from the beginning of the war in Ukraine, I had the feeling that just in front of my eyes, I see a ship going out to sea and we are all saying goodbye, goodbye," Levitin says. "This was a very sad feeling."
She says this time, the rupture with the West will last "a very, very long time."
As the three dogs and their owners stroll the bucolic country lanes in the spring sunshine, the war raging back in Ukraine seems far away. But it's always just below the surface for them. Vlada worries that her daughter, a newly trained doctor in the military, could be sent to the front lines.
Neither Vlada or Mazurenko knows when they will be able to return home. But both say their dogs bring them a measure of calm and stability in the chaos and uncertainty of their lives.
As Rolly whines and looks expectantly at his master to throw him a ball, Mazurenko says one thing is sure: "At extreme moments of life that no one is ever prepared for, the role of a pet is absolutely huge."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.