In the ruins of east Ukraine, farmers won't leave their animals

By Herbert Villarraga

YAMPIL, Ukraine (Reuters) - As the sound of exploding artillery echoes in the distance, Senia, a big white bunny, twitches nervously in the arms of his owner.

"He's afraid," explained the farmer, Yevhennia, stroking the rabbit.

Here in Yampil, a crater-pocked frontline village in east Ukraine recaptured by Ukrainian forces at the end of September after months under Russian occupation, buildings lie in ruins and most people have left. But not Yevhennia and Ivan, who say they could not bear to abandon their rabbits, ducks, chickens and pigeons.

It has not been easy.

"We've always kept rabbits. But when (the missiles) started falling down over the maple, in the morning I saw 15 of them on the ground, blood coming from their noses. It's the stress toll," said Ivan.

Ukrainian authorities have come with leaflets urging remaining residents to leave. Ivan and Yevhennia aren't going anywhere.

"This is my escape. I have been living here my entire life," explained Ivan.

Yevhennia said she has been raising poultry since she was a little girl, living on the farm with her mother.

"This love grew with us up until our older years. This is what we do, and we can't live without our chickens, our rabbits. So we try to do as much as we can physically manage."

Nearby in the village, a blasted stable strewn with animal bones is a monument to the dark fate of animals in a war zone. Private owners had collected a menagerie of exotic and wild animals there. Residents say the private zoo used to be visited by tour buses of children to see its ostriches, bears, wolves, kangaroos and birds.

The animals died, ran away or were killed during the months of Russian occupation, residents say.

Before the war, "there were excursions from all over Ukraine... Big buses came, with children. It was a culture centre," said Pavlo, a farmer living nearby.

"But now... it's gone."

(Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie)