An Indian-born doctor who was holed up in a basement at home in war-torn Ukraine with his pet big cats for months says he is now separated from his animals.
After the war began earlier this year, Gidikumar Patil, who is single, had pledged he would not leave his home without his pets. He lived and worked as an orthopaedic doctor in a hospital in Svavtove, a small town in Severodonetsk, located in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine.
Mr Patil, who is 42 and an Ukrainian citizen since 2016, bought the animals from a zoo in the capital, Kyiv, nearly two years ago. The male cat is a 24-month-old “lepjag”, a rare hybrid of a male leopard and a female jaguar, while the female, a black panther, is 14 months old.
Two weeks ago, Mr Patil ran out of money and crossed over into Poland to earn a living so he could keep feeding his cats. The hospital where he worked was shut early in the war and has now been destroyed in a bomb attack, as Ukrainian forces have made rapid gains and have recaptured territory in the Russian-occupied region.
Now Mr Patil is living in a dormitory in a hostel in Warsaw with other Ukrainian refugees, looking to earn a living and anxious about the fate of his cats.
He says the internet in Svavtove stopped working two weeks ago, and he is checking on his cats daily by calling up a local farmer who is taking care of them.
“The caretaker tells me me the animals were missing me. The ‘lepjag’ didn’t eat properly for nearly a week. The black panther was in confusion. I want to save the animals and take them out, but I really don’t know how,” Mr Patil told the BBC on the phone from Warsaw.
Mr Patil says he was forced to leave home in Ukraine with a bag carrying his clothes, $100 and a few thousand roubles in cash. He had exhausted all his savings and sold part of his farm land, two apartments, two cars, his motorcycle and camera for a little over $100,000 (£89,908).
After the war began, he says, he spent up to $300 feeding his cats – some 5kg of meat (mostly chicken) – every day.
“As the situation worsened and bomb attacks inched closer to my home and I ran out of money, I decided to leave the cats with the caretaker, cross the border, earn some money and return,” Mr Giri said. He said he had kept enough food to last three months in the freezer for his cats and paid the caretaker $2,400 as three months of wages.
But plans haven’t quite worked out that way.
After a 12-hour-long slow minibus ride through a war zone to the nearest border, he was taken out of the vehicle by patrolling Russian soldiers and thrown into an underground room for three days for interrogation, Mr Patil said.
“I was taken out of the bus, blindfolded and taken to a small underground cell where they gave me soup and bread and interrogated me. They looked at my identity papers and since they were made in Kyiv, they suspected I was a spy, giving information to the Ukrainian military.”
Mr Giri said he told the Russian soldiers that he had “taken no sides in the war”, and ran a YouTube channel on his cats with nearly 60,000 followers and that he had been stranded at home with his animals. “I showed them my videos and my channel,” he said.
“On the third night of my detention, a Russian officer came up to me and told me his wife had watched my videos and told him that their prisoner was not a partisan but an animal lover. He said, ‘Sleep well tonight.'”
Next morning, they let him free. They confiscated his passport and gave him a letter of identity, says Mr Patil.
They dropped him near the Polish border, which he crossed by providing his biometrics and telling his story to border officials.
The Polish authorities gave him a “paper visa” which allows him to stay in the country for 90 days, he said. Then he took a night bus to Warsaw.
Now, with the situation in his hometown worsening, Mr Patil says he’s clueless about when he will be able to return to his cats. His family is sending him money from home in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where he was born.
“I have contacted the Indian embassy in Kyiv a few times on phone and WhatsApp, asking them whether they could take my cats out of Ukraine. They told me they don’t deal with wild animals,” he said. Earlier this week, he says he visited a zoo in Warsaw and sought their help in taking out his animals from the war zone.
“Somehow, I want my cats back. If the Indian government can help and pick them up and take them home to a zoo or a forest in India, it is fine. I just want to save them.”