Ukraine’s Rising Amputee Crisis: The Devastating Consequences of War

2023-09-23 12:31:00
Par Orla GuerinBBC News, Kiev, Ukraine

55 minutes ago

Photo credit, Goktay Koraltan/BBC

Image caption,

After Andrii Smolenskyi was wounded in battle, his wife Alina rushed to his side.

As Ukraine’s counteroffensive continues – with limited gains and no decisive breakthrough – the number of amputees in the country is skyrocketing.

According to the Ministry of Health in kyiv, there were 15,000 in the first half of this year alone. The ministry does not disclose the number of soldiers. Authorities are closely monitoring the number of casualties, but it is likely that the vast majority of them are military personnel.

The number of people amputeed in six months is more than in the UK during the six years of the Second World War, when 12,000 of its servicemen lost a limb.

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The new war in Europe risks doing even more. Ukraine is the most mined country in the world, according to the country’s former defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov.

The Russian war creates here an army of amputees, a conveyor belt of broken bodies.

We meet some of them at a rehabilitation clinic in the capital, kyiv, and at a hospital in southeastern Ukraine.

When her husband Andrii was injured, Alina Smolenska had only one thing in mind: to go to his bedside. “I just wanted to be with him, to touch him, to tell him he wasn’t alone,” she says. “In situations like this, when someone needs support, I touch their hand.

But when she joined him in the hospital, that proved impossible.

“I saw that Andrii really didn’t have any hands, so I touched his leg and started talking to him,” she said.

I told him: ‘We are family. Don’t worry. Of course there will be difficult times, but we are together.’

Hours earlier, Andrii Smolenskyi commanded a small reconnaissance unit on Ukraine’s southern front.

Image caption,

Andrii was an unlikely soldier, but he quickly volunteered to fight.

As the 27-year-old began to emerge from a trench, an explosion tore sky and earth apart. He then remembers waking up in the hospital.

“I felt like I was having a dream,” he says, “everything was so dark.

Little by little, he realizes that he can no longer move his hands and that something is placed over his eyes, covering them.

Andrii lost his sight, most of his hearing and both arms – one amputated above the elbow, the other below. Shrapnel was buried deep beneath his skin. His face had to be reconstructed.

Four months later, we meet at a clinic in kyiv where he is undergoing rehabilitation, along with other war veterans.

Andrii is tall and thin, his humor is always present and his voice is slightly hoarse. His final operation involved removing a breathing tube from his neck.

Image caption,

Andrii and Alina on their wedding day four years ago.

Alina sits beside him on his hospital bed, her head nestled on his shoulder, her hand resting on his knee. Their words and their laughter often overlap. She’s also 27, petite and blonde, and a tower of strength.

“My wife is amazing,” says Andrii. “She’s my hero, she supports me 100%.

Alina supported him throughout his injury and his struggle to adapt, through physiotherapy and 20 surgeries (there will be more). When he is thirsty, she gently puts a straw to his lips. He now sees the world through her eyes.

Andrii is “thankful to God” that he escaped any brain damage. His call sign in the army was “Apostle”, and he believes his survival was miraculous.

“Psychologically, it was difficult to overcome this ordeal, but when I accepted my new body, I would say that I felt good,” he says. “Challenge met”.

Doctors expected him to remain in a coma for three days after his injury. He only regained consciousness after a single day. Alina says he’s “stubborn, in a good way.”

When they met one summer evening in 2018, she was immediately won over. “I realized he was an exceptional person,” she says, “extremely intelligent and thoughtful.”

They share the same love of the outdoors and hiking in the Carpathians. Four years ago this month they got married.

Adversity brought them even closer.

“In the last three months, I think I started to love him even more,” Alina says with a laugh, “because he gave me so much motivation, so much inspiration.”

The couple wants to show that life goes on after life-changing injuries. “We will do everything in our power to deal with it,” says Alina, “and our example will show everyone that anything is possible.”

Andrii was an unlikely soldier: a financial consultant and self-confessed nerd, he sang in church and loved to talk about philosophy.

But he volunteered shortly after the all-out invasion of Russia in February 2022. For him, it was a battle of good versus evil, “a war of values.”

Image caption,

Andrii surprises the doctors with his progress, supported by Alina.

Today, his fight takes place in the gym, where he trains two hours a day to regain his strength and work on his balance. And he gave himself a new mission: to help those who might come after him.

“Ukraine has never had so many amputees and people blinded by war,” he explains.

“Our medical system is not ready in some respects. Some veterans come in with very complex cases.

The legion of Ukrainian amputees is growing, mine after mine, and shell after shell.

Far from kyiv, closer to the front lines, we see some of the most recent wounded in a hospital in the southeast.

After dark, ambulances began to arrive, carrying Ukraine’s younger generation.

One of them is wrapped in a gold foil blanket to prevent hypothermia. Another has a bandaged stump in place of a leg. The amputation was hastily carried out near the battlefield to save his life.

On arrival, a number is written on the upper body of each injured person. There is no chaos, no shouting.

The staff knows what to do. Since the start of the war, they have treated 20,000 wounded soldiers, and counting.

“This is our front line,” says Dr. Oksana, an anesthesiologist.

“We do what we have to do. These are our men, our husbands, our fathers, our brothers and our sons.”

Photo credit, Goktay Koraltan/BBC

Image caption,

Oleksii lost both his legs in an explosion

In the intensive care unit we meet Oleksii, his army plate still around his neck. He is 38 years old and the father of a teenager. A few days earlier, he had lost both his legs.

“I remember going into a trench, and I think there was a wire,” he says. “I stepped on it. I remember a big explosion and my friends trying to get me out.”

The hospital director, Dr. Serhii – a father figure – holds his hand and tells him he is a hero.

“We will do everything we can to get you prosthetics quickly and running,” he says.

I ask Dr. Serhii if he ever feels overwhelmed by the influx of mutilated soldiers.

“As a rule, this feeling manifests itself every evening,” he replies.

“When we see all this grief, all these wounded arriving at the hospital. During the war, we saw more than 2,000 like Oleksii.”

Back in kyiv, Andrii and Alina keep the darkest moments to themselves.

Oleksii fights, surprising the doctors. They didn’t think he could walk with a white cane because he couldn’t hold it. But he found a solution by clenching the rope at the top of the cane between his teeth.

His voice gets louder. He hopes to be able to sing in church again and return to the mountains with Alina.

She dreams that new technologies will one day restore her sight. “I also hope to have children,” she says with a laugh, “and that our home is in a peaceful Ukraine.”

Image caption,

Even in adversity, Alina and Andrii have plans for the future together.

Alina is trying to arrange treatment abroad, possibly in the United States, where specialists have more experience with complex needs like her husband’s.

Andrii is silent when asked what is the most difficult thing today.

It’s not his injuries, he says, but the fact that he couldn’t finish what he started and win the war.

Outside the clinic, a few of his fellow sufferers gather to smoke and share stories from the trenches. All lost their legs. Their wheelchairs form a semi-circle lit by the sun. One of them claims that the government minimizes the number of amputees. He asks us not to use his name.

“There are at least three times more than they say,” he insists.

“They want to hide us. They don’t want people to know how many there really are. They’re worried about people enlisting and fighting.”

The army still pays him a small salary. “Enough to buy eight packs of cigarettes,” he said, laughing bitterly.

How long can Ukraine endure these losses and continue fighting? And to what extent will amputees, whose numbers continue to grow, be able to reintegrate into civilian life?

So many difficult questions as a second winter of war approaches.

“We are certainly not ready, as a country, to welcome large numbers of people with disabilities onto the streets,” says Olga Rudneva, general director of the Superhumans rehabilitation center. “People will have to learn to interact. It will take years.

Its new state-of-the-art center, located in the relative safety of western Ukraine, provides free prosthetic limbs to soldiers and civilians.

Olga wants amputees to be visible and a new definition of beauty to emerge in Ukraine.

“This is our new normal,” she says. “They lost their limbs fighting for Ukraine and our freedom.

Additional reporting by Wietske Burema and Natalka Sosnytska

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