The 140-mile journey that Igor Pedin, 61, embarked upon by foot from the hellscape of the besieged port city of Mariupol, through Russian occupied lands in the south-east of Ukraine and on to the relative safety of the city of Zaporizhzhia, has left him tired, sometimes tearful, and always thankful.
As the Guardian reported last week, Pedin’s feat was so extraordinary that at one of the 24 checkpoints he passed during his travels on the long journey, equivalent to trekking from London to Sheffield but through a raging war, Russian soldiers had gathered around him in the dark of the night to hear of his daring deeds, stuffing cigarettes in his pockets, and wishing him luck.
But, while Pedin says he does not require medical assistance, insisting to medics when he arrived in Zaporizhzhia that he was “happy as I am – alive”, the former ship’s cook says he is increasingly concerned for his loyal partner on their epic walk, Zhu-Zhu, his nine-year-old mongrel terrier.
Now in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Zhu-Zhu is still fearful of the whistle of a braking bus, reminiscent as it is of the bombs of Mariupol, and she sleeps long into the day. Her sense of smell, damaged by the acrid smoke of burning homes and tanks, is slowly returning, and she buries her nose into the grasses of Kyiv’s parks with some apparent satisfaction.
But Pedin says his dog’s paws were badly cut up by the walk across smashed glass, cratered roads, and the rusty frame of a burned out and broken 30-metre-high bridge that the two had to traverse during their terrifying adventure. Zhu-Zhu walks with a limp now, and Pedin worries that his dog appears to be getting physically weaker by the day.
He hopes to find a vet who will help, but with little money to his name, and relying on his parents, Georgy, 87, and Yevdokiya, 84, for the shelter that he has, Pedin admits it is for now only a hope.
“She is lame on the front right leg and she doesn’t let me see what’s wrong with her leg,” Pedin says of his dog. “She always nips me when I want to look at her paw … Zhu-Zhu now reacts very badly to sounds. When she hears sharp sounds, she constantly shudders and jumps aside.
“She is very frightened by the sound of whistling. For example, when a bus passes by and the brakes squeak. She is very afraid of that because this sound reminds her of the whistling of bombs that flew and exploded then in Mariupol. And then she was afraid of the sound of military planes in Mariupol. Who flew and dropped bombs. So she is still afraid of these sounds.”
Pedin’s tenderness towards his dog is evident. He caresses her ears, stroking off stray pieces of dry grass. The small dog, in turn, whimpers and cries when her owner is out of sight. Pedin had carried her up hills on their walk, remonstrating only once when Zhu-Zhu would not go any further. “If you don’t walk we will both die, you have to walk,” he had told his dog on one of the final days of their trek.
“On the third day of the walk, Zhu-Zhu was very tired,” he recalls. “She periodically sat down, rested and often licked her sore paws.”
The runt of a litter of 12 born in 2013, Pedin says his dog has been a loyal companion, giving him constant pleasure and love. He is determined to get the best care for her. “I can’t imagine my life without her,” he says. “Before the evacuation, I promised her to bring her alive out of Mariupol and to get to our final destination. I told her in our house before we left, ‘Just go and sing [like a marching soldier]’, and she walked to the door.
“I promised she would be with me until the end, I promised.”