You do what you have to do – even when the bombs are falling

Not Without my Dogs, by Kobus Olivier with Hilda van Dyk (Tafelberg)

Kobus Olivier is a cricketer – both player and coach – and his passion for the sport has taken him all around the world. After teaching cricket in Dubai, where he found the heat debilitating, he decided in 2017 he needed a holiday where it was cold, and booked a flight to Kyiv.

In just a week the city stole his heart, and in 2018 Olivier packed up his cases and his little dog Tiekie and moved to Kyiv permanently – well, that was the plan.

He got a job teaching English at a good school and also introduced and taught cricket to schoolchildren. Olivier moved into a 7th floor in a building in Peremohy Ave – the road you would take if you were driving from Belarus to Kyiv.

A year later or so Tiekie “met” a dog in the building’s courtyard, and in due course had three puppies, all of which Olivier kept. Never having married or becoming a father, he considered the dogs his children.

Olivier could speak neither Ukrainian nor Russian, but he made friends, several of them South Africans, including the SA ambassador to Ukraine, André’ Groenewald. He became head of the Ukraine Cricket Federation, and was happy in his new home.

In early 2022, as Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border, Olivier began feeling uneasy, although his feelings did not seem to be shared by the Ukrainians around him. He started watching BBC, CNN and Sky news bulletins obsessively, and became increasingly concerned.

He started converting his money into dollars, and stockpiling water, candles and non-perishable foods. He had no car, so fleeing wasn’t an option, and he knew he couldn’t take four dogs on public transport.

He put a mattress against the bathroom window, and this became the room he and the dogs retreated to when the bombing started eventually started. He was unable to use the building’s bomb shelter – formerly the underground parking garage – as there was a two-dog limit per tenant.

The noise of the bombing was very loud and frightening, and the dogs became hysterical. Olivier played music at full volume to drown out the explosions, and wondered, when he went to sleep, whether he and his dogs would he would see the morning. “At least let us all be killed together,” he would pray.

After four days the 24-hour curfew was lifted briefly so people could go out to buy food, and Olivier took the dogs down to the courtyard. But by now an endless Russian column was on its way to Kyiv, and it would have to pass Olivier’s building.

He realised he had to leave and asked for help on Facebook and Instagram. A Ukrainian offered to drive him and the dogs to the Polish border for an eye-watering R30 000.

Igor, the driver who spoke no English, Olivier and the dogs left Kyiv on March 3, passing through a roadblock every 15km, on their way to Lviv and the border.

And so the adventure began. There were terrifying moments, moments of incredible kindness from strangers, and frightening bureaucratic moments like when Olivier lost his Ukrainian ID card, which meant he could go nowhere at all.

Eventually he and the dogs made it to Poland – but then other complications arose. Poland generously took in thousands of Ukrainians, but after briefly letting Olivier and the dogs in, they told him he had to move on. He was not Ukrainian, and as a South African he had other options, they said.

But he could not leave Poland without his dogs…

Olivier experienced some of the horrors of war, and described a moment which brings it all home. While waiting to cross the Polish border he saw hundreds of people walking, their children bundled up. They had lost everything, their homes, their jobs, members of their family, in a matter of days.

“One night your life was wonderful, and the next, the sirens are blaring. You grab your child, dress him or her in something warm, then run to a bomb shelter with everything you can carry. You leave everything behind, everything you own, everything you worked for. Your dogs and cats too – of course you’ll be back.

“And then one night in the bomb shelter turns into two and two nights turn into three. And before you know it you’re on a bus heading straight for the Polish border. … The pets you left behind now have to fend for themselves. You can only hope somebody hears their barks or meows and helps them. The image of that animal all on its own in your house or apartment … it’s unthinkable.”

This is a story of terror, determination and love, heart-warmingly told.

  • Not Without My Dogs is one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for August.


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