This fashion photographer turned animal rescuer has been living in Ukraine, not far from Kyiv, for the last 13 years. There, he built his award-winning International Animal Protection League Charitable Foundation.
If there was a war in your country, your first instinct would be to hide and look for shelter from the conflict. But not Andrea Cisternino.
As Russian forces continue to launch attacks across Ukraine, Cisternino refuses to flee the country because doing so would entail leaving behind his 400 rescue animals.
Before he became a champion for animal protection, Cisternino was originally a fashion photographer from Italy before he married his Ukrainian wife, Vlada Shalutko. Since moving to Ukraine, he has overcome many challenges.
“I’ve been here since 2009. I married and, as a photographer, I started documenting what was happening during the 2012 Euros Championship, then I decided to build an animal shelter and many things changed – my life changed,” he said.
Initially, the shelter was just for dogs, but he eventually accommodated other animals such as horses.
In an interview with Euronews, he recalled when he was targeted by “dog hunters” locating animals for a reward. At the time, the government was giving out licenses and money to those who eliminated stray dogs.
Vandals set his shelter on fire, but Cisternino wasn’t one to give up. He started all over again.
Now, he said he and his animal protection shelter are more accepted.
“Today we collaborate as a community – after three hard years I won my battle. We buy the food for the dogs nearby, we buy wood from locals,” he said. “I even started a free sterilisation campaign and many came from the village. They started understanding and they even apologised for the way they had been behaving. Because they hadn’t understood until then. So it’s okay, more than anything for my animals.”
A few years ago, the first tensions of the conflict in the Donbas broke out. For the first time, he felt that he needed to start accumulating provisions because he knew anything could happen.
However, Cisternino never imagined that a Russian invasion was possible. But here it was, happening before his very eyes.
“They’re shooting, unfortunately this is the situation,” he said. “Usually they start shooting at 5.00 in the morning and go on until 8.00. Then, after a while… well, it’s a bewildering situation.”
Cisternino said that although it has been a few days, the crisis feels like it has been going on for six months.
When asked if he sees himself escaping eventually, Cisternino couldn’t give a definite answer.
“I don’t know, I’m staying here for my animals,” he explained. “It depends on what happens, but 400 animals is a huge number to transport anywhere, to bring them away, and to find a place for them. There are horses, cows, dogs, cats…a bit of everything.”
He also considered the cost of building the shelter and all the sacrifices he had to make to keep it. Those things make leaving everything behind a lot harder.
“I never imagined he (Putin) could bring about this madness, because for me this is pure madness,” he said.
Fortunately for him, Cisternino was able to buy some necessities for himself before everything was shut down.
Meanwhile, his wife is currently in Kyiv and wants to stay there. Cisternino said she isn’t leaving her flat and is “calm.”
“For now, there’s no question of leaving, we’ve never thought about this,” he said.
Since the invasion started, Cisternino has been receiving plenty of messages and calls from his loved ones.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Ukraine during this tumultuous period.