Originally from Sutton, Surrey, Gavin Guest worked for years as a teacher at the British International School in Ukraine. While abroad, he rescued Eli, a two-year-old West Siberian Laika mix.
On February 12, 2022, the Foreign Office advised all Brits to get out of Ukraine. For Guest, leaving the country wouldn’t be so simple. He would need special permission to bring Eli with him, and there was no chance he was leaving without Eli.
Prior to the Russian invasion later that month, Guest spent weeks trying to get the pet waiver that would let him bring Eli back to England with him. When the permit still hadn’t gone through and Russia invaded, Guest was forced to flee the country on foot.
Leaving Eli Behind Was “Never In Question”
Though Guest alone could have left the country before Russia invaded, he would never do so without Eli. Waiver or not, Guest was only going to escape Ukraine with his dog.
“If I didn’t have Eli I would have left when the UK announced all British nationals should come home last month. But it was never in question that I would have left the country without him,” he told Mirror.
Guest rescued Eli in 2021, and they’ve been best friends ever since.
“I rescued him a year ago, he was a dog in need and I was a person in need. We had just come out of Covid and he was good for my mental health.”
The waiver he needed to travel to the UK with Eli usually takes three months to receive. But as war brewed, the deadline to leave the country moved up quickly.
Chaos At The Romanian Border
On February 24, Guest and a co-worker drove 500 kilometers to the border with their dogs in tow. They had heard the Romanian border was “more favorable with pets.” When they arrived in Terebleche, everything at the border was chaos.
“There was a 12km queue of cars when we got there. We got out and walked to the border with our two dogs and all of the possessions we could carry.”
When Guest, his colleague, and their dogs tried to pass, the Ukrainian border guards told them no men were allowed through. He described the nightmarish scene:
“There were women and children being squashed against the metal border gate. It was snowing, cold and chaotic. It was pandemonium. There must have been 5,000 people there and there was lots of screaming and pushing to get across. The guards were armed and shouting back.”
The British consulate in Romania even sent a car out to collect Gavin, his colleague, and the two dogs from the Ukrainian side of the border. However, the embassy team couldn’t get past the Ukrainian guards.
“The consulate said they were only 30 meters away from us. I couldn’t understand it.”
Ultimately, Guest and his friend decided to leave the chaos and re-attempt crossing the border in a few days.
A Second Attempt At Fleeing Ukraine
On February 26, the foursome returned to the border to try again. They found the rules had become even stricter by that time. Not only were men prevented from exiting Ukraine, but even older boys.
Guest managed to find another English speaker at the border and explained their situation as foreign nationals with rescue dogs.
“He spoke English and I told him ‘I’ve been here for three days with two dogs, I can’t keep coming to the front. They are rescue dogs and people are trampling on them’. He said no men could leave, and I said I understood. I asked him to let us know when it was our turn and he smiled and put his thumb up.”
Miraculously, the group was called to the front of the queue just a short time after that. Some Ukrainians waiting near the border had urged the guards to allow exception on their behalf.
“They pleaded with them to let us through. The guards then opened a road block barrier and said ‘go now’.”
Though he felt incredibly relieved to finally be allowed passage, Guest also felt guilt and humility going over the border.
“I walked through and then looked around to see the faces that had helped us. They were smiling and some people were clapping. It was so nice but I felt so sad and guilty.”
Finally On The Way Home To The UK
Once across the border, Guest stayed in Romania to complete the paperwork for Eli at last. Then it was an overnight train to Vienna and a long drive back to the UK. On March 3, both ex-pats and their dogs finally arrived home.
For Guest, the last several days had been a nightmare.
“It has been mentally and physically draining. What I saw at the border – the crying women and children – is something I never want to go through again.”
Still, he can’t imagine a scenario in which he would leave his dog behind in Ukraine, even if it would have been easier to cross the border without him.
“We could have left Ukraine a few weeks ago and this problem wouldn’t have happened. But I was determined to get Eli out of the country and I’m very happy that I made the right decision. It was all worthwhile and if I had to do it again I would.”
Despite all the horrors Guest experienced in Ukraine and at the border, he still plans to return to Kyiv when it’s safer.
“I’m damned sure I’m going back, that is my home. I won’t allow Putin to determine my future in terms of not going back to a city where the people are so amazing.”