Seeking Afina

After being captured in Mariupol, Dmitro Selyutin lost his pitbull named Afina. In order to support her son, his mother Natalia searched for the dog in the occupied city for a year.
Natalia Nikolaeva Age 47

Rehabilitation specialist, lives in Lutsk.

— I have three children. My oldest son, Dima, is 26 years old. We have a warm and friendly relationship, although it’s hard to call him sentimental: it was only from his comrades that I learned that he had been talking about how proud he is of me.

Dima started working right after finishing medical school. He worked as a waiter, bartender, sushi chef, even as a DJ and MC. In 2017, he hosted a party at one of the clubs in Kramatorsk, and within a year, he went to Donbas as a soldier in the 36th Separate Marine Brigade. He served in the Pryazovia direction. He spent six months in the combat zone and six months in the military unit. He experienced the full-scale Russian invasion in Shyrokyne. At three o’clock in the morning, he texted me: “Mom, the war has started.” From March to April, my son and his comrades held defense at the Illich Steel and Iron Works in Mariupol.

Soldiers often keep pets, and my son is no exception. He had long wanted a dog, and two years ago, he finally bought a pitbull puppy in Mariupol, whom he named Afina. The choice of breed didn’t surprise me: Dima said that pitbulls are good, intelligent, and friendly dogs. He wanted to walk with Afina sat home and hoped that she would help him search for the wounded on the front lines. Dima is unmarried and has no children, so he treated the puppy like a child: he always bought toys and treats for her whenever he had the chance.

Afina didn’t have a chance to serve the Armed Forces because she was too young. Nevertheless, she was always by my son’s side during the combat operations. His comrades said that Afina was afraid of explosions, so she never left Dmitro’s side. Even during the war, he continued to take care of her. Once, he went to look for food. He went to all the stores. He didn’t ask for anything for himself, only for the dog. He said that he could endure hunger, but Afina couldn’t. His request deeply impressed one of the store managers, who gave Dima a pile of delicacies – red fish, sausages.

Dmitro and Afina. Photo: private archive of Natalya.
Photo: private archive of Natalya.
Photo: private archive of Natalya.

In April of last year, Dmitro’s unit went on a breakthrough, but they were caught in artillery fire and then surrounded. On April 12th, receiving a message from an unknown number, I learned that Dima had been captured. Julia, his comrade, told me about his further fate. She was with him at the Illich Steel Works and also ended up in captivity, she was release in May. Julia said that Dima was taken to a filtration camp in Sartana, Donetsk region, and he didn’t have any visible injuries, but most likely, he had a concussion – she saw that his helmet was split in two. It was probably due to an explosion.

I also learned from Julia that the Russians who took our soldiers captive, upon seeing Afina, ordered my son to get rid of her. If not, they threatened to kill the dog on the spot. I know that the defenders of Azovstal were allowed to go out with their animals, so it’s unknown why they didn’t allow it here. Of course, my son drove Afina away. The dog didn’t want to go for a long time and finally ran up to Julia, who was walking behind. But the Russians still didn’t allow her to stay. In the end, Julia managed to drive Afina away, while also informing Dima about it.

After learning this story, I decided to search for Afina because I know how much my son loves her.

The Russians, upon seeing Afina, ordered my son to get rid of her. If he refused, they threatened to kill the dog on the spot.

On Facebook, I found all the communities dedicated to animal search in Mariupol that I could. These groups include not only local residents but also the occupiers, so I had to be cautious: write in Russian and not mention that the dog belonged to a soldier. I didn’t disclose the details of her disappearance, I simply stated that the animal ran away during the shelling in the area near the Illich Steel Works.

I posted the first search post on May 15th of last year. Then, every two weeks, I updated the posts in different groups. People responded, but the photos they sent me were not of our dog. It’s worth mentioning that I had never seen Afina in person, so I involved acquaintances who are dog experts and veterinarians in her identification process. We realized that we needed to search for Afina based on her coat color and ears, which are shorter than those of other pitbulls.

We were searching for Afina based on her coat color and ears, as her ears are shorter than those of other pitbulls.

Inspired by the example of Mariupol residents who managed to find their beloved pets, I never lost hope of finding Afina. But nearly a year had passed, and I was starting to lose faith. Two months ago, I decided to write one last post. And it worked. A woman from Mariupol responded, saying that her husband had seen a similar dog near the Illich Steel Works, and he even managed to take a photograph of her. We compared the photos, and it was Afina!

In one of the volunteer communities, a volunteer who had been reading my posts decided to congratulate me on the find. She sent me a private message. We got to know each other, started communicating, and I asked her to take care of Afina temporarily. The girl agreed only when I confessed that the dog belonged to my son, a soldier.

Наталія з дітьми та Афіна.
Natalia with her children and Afina

It turned out that Afina was living at a municipal enterprise that was involved in waste disposal. The new owners had crossbred Afina with a terrier, and she had puppies. I called these people, but the conversation didn’t go well. They refused to return the dog, claiming that I abandoned her when I fled from Mariupol.

The new owners of Afina refused to return the dog and claimed that I abandoned her when I fled from Mariupol.

I couldn’t reveal the truth about my son who was captured. In the end, our conversation ended with nothing. The new owners of Afina sent me away.

But I didn’t give up and, through trickery, managed to free the dog. I won’t disclose the details, as I don’t want to put the people who helped me at risk.

As for how the new owners took care of Afina, one can only speculate. When the dog finally ended up with my acquaintance, a volunteer, it was discovered that her ears were infested with ticks. Nevertheless, I am grateful that those people didn’t let my dog die.

Afina returned home through Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The transportation cost me 600 euros. Another Ukrainian woman, who lives near Mariupol, was responsible for the transportation. Afina was brought to Poland, from where I was supposed to pick her up. Since I didn’t have a car, I asked the mayor of Lutsk to allow my acquaintance, who is a driver, to accompany me abroad to retrieve the dog. The whole city knew the story of searching for Afina, and the mayor decided to support me by sending the director of the Lutsk Zoo to Poland to help me handle the dog.

The whole city knew the story of searching for Afina, and the mayor decided to support me by sending the director of the Lutsk Zoo to Poland to help me handle the dog.

On the evening of June 22nd, I finally arrived in Warsaw. I was anxious. When I saw Afina, I was completely convinced that she was my son Dima’s dog. She approached me and even allowed me to pet her, but then she immediately returned to the volunteer who brought her to the meeting. I understood that the animal still didn’t fully trust me, but I was still a bit saddened. We returned home the next day.

Today, Afina is learning to trust me, and I take care of her. I bought her the best leash, bowls, and toys.

The Red Cross confirmed the information about Dima being in captivity only in July of last year, several months after his disappearance. The last sighting of my son was in Olenivka, but his current whereabouts are unknown. Almost a year ago, I received a letter from him, which is currently the last one. He talked about being kept in decent conditions, but the smiley face at the end of the text hints at the bitter irony.

Dima knows that I am determined, so he probably suspects that I will search for the dog, although I believe he doesn’t have high hopes for success. But it doesn’t matter. I am confident that once he returns from captivity, he will quickly recover because Afina will be by his side.

Photo: Lyudmyla Herasymyuk, exclusively for Bird in Flight.

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