In Ukraine, limbs have been lost in an instant and lives destroyed

By EMILIO MORENATTI and ELENA BECATOROS

May 18, 2022 GMT

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — War has a price — for the countries that wage it, for the soldiers who fight it, for the civilians who endure it. For nations, territory is gained and lost, and sometimes regained and lost again. But some losses are permanent. Lost lives can never be regained. Neither do limbs.

And so it is in Ukraine.

The stories of the people who undergo amputations during conflict are as varied as their wounds, as are their journeys of reconciliation with their wounds. For some, losing part of their body can be akin to some sort of death; coming to terms with it, a kind of rebirth.

For soldiers injured defending their country, their sense of purpose and belief in the cause they fought for can sometimes help them cope psychologically with amputation. For some civilians, maimed as they live their lives in a war that already terrified them, the battle can be much more difficult.

For the men, women and children who have lost limbs in the war in Ukraine, now in its third month, that journey has only just begun.

OLENA

The explosion that cost Olena Viter’s left leg also cost her son, 14-year-old Ivan, a budding musician. Her husband Volodymyr buried him, along with another boy who died in the same explosion, under a Guelder rose bush in their garden. In the midst of the fighting, they could not reach the cemetery.

“How am I supposed to live without Ivan? He will remain in my heart forever, just like the fragment that struck him,” she said. When she is alone, Olena cries.

On March 14, bombs fell on Olena’s village of Rozvazhiv, in the Kiev region. Ivan and four others perished; Olena was one of about 20 injured.

At first I thought, ‘Why did God let me live?’ said Olena, 45, her soft voice breaking. When she heard that Ivan was dead, she begged a neighbor to take his gun and shoot her.

But Volodymyr begged her, saying that he could not live without her.

Now she is enduring the devastation of the loss of her child, and the physical pain of losing her leg, cut below the knee.

“Every day I get used to a new kind of pain. I’m thinking about what kind of new pain I’ll see in the future,” she said.

She has yet to accept any of her losses.

“I still don’t accept myself as I am now,” said Olena. “I really liked dancing. I was working out. I don’t know, I have to learn it.” She can’t yet imagine what it will be like to walk again.

Perhaps, Olena said, her life was spared because she was meant to do something, to help others, perhaps as a volunteer or through donations to a music school in memory of Ivan.

“Right now I don’t know what I would like to do. I should keep looking. … I have to learn to live. How? I do not know yet.”

YANA AND NATASHA

Devastation struck out of a clear blue sky for Yana Stepanenko. On April 8, the 11-year-old went with her mother, Natasha, and twin brother Yarik to the eastern city of Kramatorsk to board an evacuation train.

Yarik stayed in the station to guard their luggage, while Yana and her mother went out to buy tea.

A rocket hit and the world went black and silent. Natasha has fallen. She couldn’t stand. She looked around and saw her little girl, her leggings dangling where her feet should be. There was blood everywhere.

“Mom, I’m dying,” Yana cried.

The injuries to mother and daughter were devastating. Yana lost two legs, one just above the ankle, the other higher on her shin. Natasha lost her left leg below the knee.

Yarik was unharmed and has been reunited with his mother and sister. The children’s father died of cancer several years ago and their stepfather is fighting at the front. So now the little boy takes care of his mother and sister, runs through the hospital corridors, gets wheelchairs and brings food.

Natasha still struggles to understand what happened.

“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it happened to us,” she said, crying softly.

She is most concerned about her daughter. “I can’t help her as a mother, I can’t lift her or help her move,” she said. “I can only support her with my words from my bed.”

Yana, like children everywhere, is eager to be up and down.

Yana misses her home and her friends and is looking forward to getting prosthetics.

“I really want to run,” she said.

SASHA

Alexander Horokhivskyi, known as Sasha, is in pain. And he is angry. He shudders as he rubs the stump of his left thigh where his leg was amputated on April 4, nearly two weeks after he was injured.

Sasha was shot in the calf by his own side. A member of the Territorial Defense mistook him for a spy because he was taking photos of bombed buildings near his home in Bobrovytsya, a city in the Chernihiv region, after coming out of a bomb shelter.

He was questioned at a police station for about 90 minutes before being taken to a congested hospital. Days later, he was transferred to a hospital in the capital Kiev, where doctors decided they had to take his leg to save his life.

The 38-year-old, an avid table tennis player, only learned of the amputation when he awoke from surgery.

“How did they dare to do all that without my permission?” he scolded. Between the drugs and the pain, he doesn’t remember much. “I swore a lot.”

His journey was painful, both physically and psychologically. He is concerned about whether he will be able to exercise or travel again. And the injustice of it all weighs upon him.

“I’m trying to understand how it could have happened. Especially the first week I couldn’t think of anything else.” It would be different if he had been injured in the fight. “But to be injured in such a way was very difficult.”

Still, he’s talked to a psychologist and he’s come a long way since those early dark days. “There’s no point going back to this moment,” he said. “Because you can’t change anything.”

NASTIA

There had been no electricity or running water for two or three days in Chernihiv’s basement, where Nastia Kuzik, her parents, her brother and another 120 people had sought shelter. Tired of the dark, she decided to go to her brother’s house nearby – just for a while.

As he walked back to the bomb shelter, the 21-year-old heard the sound: “tsch, tsch, tsch.” She ran. She was only a few steps from the entrance when the explosion knocked her to the ground.

She drifted in and out of consciousness. Every time she opened her eyes, her brother was there and told her that everything would be fine. But nothing would ever be the same.

Doctors worked hard to save her leg, but it just wasn’t possible. Her right lower leg was amputated below the knee. Her other leg was badly broken.

Now, gradually, as she goes through painful physical therapy, reality dawns on her.

“I accept it,” she said. Nastia’s usually cheerful, cheerful disposition falters. A tear runs down her cheek. “I never thought it would ever happen to me. But what can I do now?”

She works hard to be optimistic. She speaks German and has tutored children in the language, and she has always wanted to study in Germany. In early May, she was evacuated to a specialized rehabilitation center in Leipzig.

This wasn’t the way she wanted her dream to come true, but she said she would make the most of it.

ANTON

Lidiya Gladun had lost contact with 22-year-old Anton, a military medic who had been deployed to the front in eastern Ukraine, for about three weeks. Then someone sent her a Facebook message from a nurse at a hospital in Kharkiv. They had an Anton Gladun in their hospital. Did anyone know him?

Lidiya contacted the nurse, who was sparing with information about Anton’s condition. When he was good enough for that, Anton called his mother. He asked her to take some clothes to the hospital. “He was talking about flip-flops, and then he said he didn’t need flip-flops anymore.”

He believes it was a cluster bomb that hit his unit as it withdrew on March 27. Anton lost both legs and his left arm, and his right arm was injured.

For days Anton lay in a coma. When he regained consciousness, he said, “I smiled, like everything was fine, actually. I thought the most important thing was that I was alive.”

But he was haunted by nightmares and horrific hallucinations. A volunteer psychologist visited him and with his help the hallucinations disappeared. He no longer has nightmares. He’s not actually dreaming at all.

He is eager to get his prostheses and start walking. He thinks his military career is probably over, but he wants to study information technology.

What helps, he said, “is my understanding that if I were sad, crying over what happened, it would only get worse.”

EDITOR’S NOTE – AP photojournalist Emilio Morenatti lost his left leg while covering the conflict in Afghanistan in 2009. “When a part of your body is amputated, you step into the disabled community, and there is inevitably camaraderie,” said he. “My need to access this group is beyond any impediment: I am fascinated by comparing experiences, amputee to amputee. Therefore, I am no longer interested in covering the war from the front lines, but from behind the front lines, where all that remains is the raw testimony of the brutality that characterizes this damned war.”

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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