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One Ukrainian man finds solace tending to his pigeons while war draws nearer

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Some of the heaviest fighting in Ukraine's war with Russia right now is in the eastern Donbas region. That's where Russian troops are slowly gaining ground. And yet, in cities and towns that lie in the path of the onslaught, people are still weeding flowerbeds in public parks. Street sweepers are still at work, and one man has found solace tending to his pigeons. NPR's Ryan Lucas reports.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: It was in a small yard tucked among Soviet-era apartment blocks that had seen better days that we happened upon Vladimir Ivanovich Kovalyov. He'd just gotten off work. He drives a bus overnight, shuttling miners to and from the local coal mine. And his first stop after work on this sunny morning was here to tend to his flock of pigeons.

VLADMIR IVANOVICH KOVALYOV: (Through interpreter) I've had pigeons since 1968, when I was in the third grade. That's when my mother bought me a couple of them for five rubles.

LUCAS: And since that day 54 years ago, he's kept pigeons.

IVANOVICH KOVALYOV: (Through interpreter) Everybody has their own hobbies. Some people play cards. Some people like fish. Other people like women or booze. Me - I like pigeons.

LUCAS: He says it gives him great joy to take care of these birds. And you can see it on his face, how often he breaks into a gold-toothed smile just talking about them. He doesn't know exactly how many pigeons he has. I'd guess there are about 80 of them. But even so, he says he can recognize each and every one of them.

IVANOVICH KOVALYOV: (Through interpreter) I know which is which by their faces. I know their grandmas and their grandpas, their fathers and mothers. If I turn around and you take one and walk away, I can turn back around and know exactly which one you took.

LUCAS: These birds flapping their wings and bobbing their heads and cooing in the little dirt yard are the kind that don't fly away, he says. These are the kind that stay close to home. And so he nabs two of them to show us.

So he's got one in each hand, a black and white bird in each hand. And he's walking over to the other side of the yard here. And he just threw one up in the air. Oh, he just threw both of them up in the air. And they're flapping up in the air, these black and white birds.

IVANOVICH KOVALYOV: (Speaking Russian).

LUCAS: (Laughter) And here they come and land. Look at that.

(SOUNDBITE OF WINGS FLAPPING)

LUCAS: And the two birds landed right back down in the dirt yard. And maybe there's something of these pigeons in Kovalyov as well because he's the kind that stays close to home, too.

IVANOVICH KOVALYOV: (Speaking Russian).

LUCAS: He says he doesn't plan to leave Pokrovsk even as the ferocious fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces inches closer. That doesn't mean he's not worried. He is. He says a missile could wipe this all out in an instant. But what will he do if the Russians come here to Pokrovsk and his birds? He won't venture far. He says he might take his pigeons to a nearby village.

IVANOVICH KOVALYOV: (Through interpreter) There's a garage. I was thinking about moving all of my birds there. I'll leave my job, and I'll go sit there with them.

LUCAS: But then he shrugs. If your time is up, then your time is up, he says. And if it's not, then we keep on living. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Pokrovsk, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.