Author: Aliona Savchuk
Editor: Mariia Semenchenko
Illustrator: Anastasiya Kryvonosiuk
Translator: Tetiana Sanina
On February 24th, Russia started a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It marked a new stage of the Russian-Ukrainian war that has been ongoing since 2014 – since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and started the occupation of the eastern territories of Ukraine. In less than half a year, the Russian army committed tens of thousands of war crimes recorded by the law-enforcement authorities and human rights advocates. Those are torture and rape, executions and deportation of civilians and combatants in thousands of ruined to the ground and occupied towns and cities.
The war in Ukraine is not a local problem as it influences the international relations and well-being of the people worldwide. Massive refugees flow from Ukraine into Europe, the food crisis in the countries that rely on import from Ukraine, changes in electricity consumption as the result of sanctions imposed on Russia, ecological impact, and nuclear threat – are only some of the problems evoked by Russian aggression.
After the war, Ukraine will have to rebuild everything to get back to normal stable life– from the infrastructure of separate villages and towns to the economy of the whole country. One of the most important topics will be the integration of veterans back into society, especially those who were heavily injured. And of course, the support of their families and families of those who were killed is also essential.
The losses of the Ukrainian army for the last five months are almost unknown, which is understandable. Military experts and authorities say that such information has the same high value for the enemy as the data on the Ukrainian units’ location or kinds of weaponry they have because it would give them a chance to evaluate the efficiency of their tactics.
But in mid-April, Volodymyr Zelensky disclosed some information in an interview with CNN. According to him, by that moment, Ukraine had lost around 3 thousand soldiers killed and 10 thousand injured. By the end of July in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the president said that the Ukrainian army is losing up to 30 persons killed and nearly 250 wounded every day, however, he emphasized that the numbers are smaller than they were in May or June, due to new more powerful and precise equipment delivered by the western allies.
Every such number is a life of a soldier, a man or a woman, who will never come home from the frontline and whose relatives need to get used to life without their closest person. Or the life of a man or a woman whose wounds and their consequences will be treated for months or even years while they are trying to get along with a new reality. In such a case, it is a great achievement to get back to life as it was before the injury.
We will tell you the story of three soldiers who continued their fight despite the wounds. Someone returned to the frontline, someone became a volunteer, and the others tried their best in state and public sectors to improve the quality of veterans’ lives.
“We are making decisions in life and taking responsibilities.”
“On the 24th of February, I felt relieveded at least the situation somehow cleared up. You know the horrible end is better than a never ending horror – says Tymur Pliusch from the 24th Mechanized Brigade named after / in honour of King Daniel of Galicia. At that time, his unit was located near Katerynivka in the Luhansk region near the occupied Pervomaisk. – At our location, the situation escalated earlier. On February 17th, the first massive shelling along the contact line started there. I talked to the other guys and the commanders; nobody believed a full-scale invasion could happen. But everybody understood that something was going on. On the 23rd of February, at night, there was the first Grad shelling of our position. The next night, on the 24th of February, on the contrary, was much quieter than the one before. And in the morning, when I opened the news, I realized that everything had begun.”
In a month and a half of full-scale invasion, Tymur and his military fellows were “somewhere between Bakhmut and Popasna”, where he was wounded in the battle. On the 11th of April, part of their unit was shelled by the Russian army and that was when Tymur fell off the armored vehicle and heavily cut the thigh.
After that, there were two and a half months of treatment and rehabilitation in Dnipro and Vinnytsya. He was discharged from the hospital on the 24th of June, but medics didn’t want to permit him to return to the frontline. “During the examination, they found many different reasons not to do so.hey said I was physically limited, so I had to be persistent to come back to the frontline,”– Tymur says.
After the injury, as he says, he didn’t reach “the very frontline.” For some time, the unit was located on the second defense line near Bakhmut, and now it is in the withdrawal zone as it is supplied with new vehicles and people, and soldiers can have some rest. “We are waiting for a new appointment closer to the frontline,”— Tymur says.
Tymur has served under contract in the military since 2019. “That was my unfinished gestalt from 2014 – he explains – I was on Maidan, even went through the military commission, but they said that if I went to the army, then I would be excluded from the university. So I postponed the contract because of the university. Before his service in the military, Tymur graduated from the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the Economics department, and finished a one-year Erasmus program in Romania. When he came back, he joined the army. Now he is the senior soldier, a gunner-operator of an infantry fighting vehicle responsible for its functioning and weapon.
When asked why he has decided to return to the frontline despite the medics’ conclusion, the man says, “It is natural to me. First of all, I am a professional soldier. This is the responsibility taken by me, not like with the people, who were conscripted, who didn’t have a choice. If we are making decisions in our life we are taking responsibility for all the consequences.”
“I was worried about what to do next.”
Ihor Bezkaravainy is from Donetsk, so he saw from the inside how the situation in the east of Ukraine escalated in 2014. “After it became obvious that it is not any misunderstanding but a real war, I left the uncontrolled Ukrainian territory and signed the contract with the Ukrainian army,” – he says.
He calls his departure from the occupied Donetsk through separatists’ checkpoints “a kind of special operation”. At that time, a 23 years old young man in shorts and sneakers, who had a backpack with minimum stuff, according to the legend, was heading to Zaporizhzhya on his own business. “Such a tourist looking for adventures,” – Ihor jokes and adds that there were tens of thousands of such stories.
He was leaving intending to join the army. By the will of fate, he found himself on the polygon of the 93rd brigade (which in some years became known as ‘Kholodny Yar’) and used the opportunity to sign the contract. It was the fall of 2014. In a year, in September 2015, the man was heavily injured.
“It was rather a routine story that often happens during the war,” – Ihor says. By that time, he was a mechanic-driver of an infantry fighting vehicle. The group received the assignment “to go to the firing line and to show the teamwork of the unit.” Thus that was not a very secret but rather a tricky task. But we didn’t complete it because on the way to the location there was a mines’ barrier“. Ihor drove the first patrol vehicle, and hit an anti-tank mine, which exploded right under him. As a result – “traumatic amputation of the lower limb.”
“After that nobody would proceed with the task, Ihor continues ironically – we were very competently ambushed, and those who did it were not amateurs, not miners or rebels from the Donetsk region. Because the location was chosen wisely, and the mines’ barrier was made in an appropriate place. If there had been a real fight and not the patrolling of the firing point, the whole unit would have been destroyed, as there was no possibility to deploy and hold normal defense.
It happened near the Karlivske reservoir in the Donetsk direction. Ihor was evacuated to the local hospital in Selidove, where he was stabilized and then taken to Pokrovsk. From there, he was sent to the intensive care unit in Dnipro (city) and then to the military hospital in Kyiv. There he spent two months receiving treatment and got his primary prosthetics by the end of November. Around New Year, he was discharged from the hospital.
“Apparently, the most difficult thing for me was to understand what to do next and which direction I should choose,” – Ihor says. – And also that bureaucratic hell. At that moment my documents were in chaos: passport with registration in Donetsk, military ID issued in Dnipro, wounds documents filled out strangely.”
But there was no grief about leg loss, at least that is how Ihor recalls it now: “The thing is that I was lucky to survive in that situation, like very-very lucky. That is why, I guess, I managed not to get depressed. It was difficult during the first weeks after the wound – everything hurt, there were everyday bandagings and surgery every other day. It was difficult to stand up, to learn. It was painful. But emotionally the worst worry was about not understanding what I should do next”.
And then there were five years of civil service.
“It is a very interesting story. At some point in my life, I met a person who told me “So, man, you don’t need oranges, tangerines, and chocolates anymore. Let’s go and fill out all the documents [about injuries] you need because all you have looks very chaotic”. “When the paperwork process just started I felt so much hatred towards the bureaucracy and officials,” – Ihor continues sincerely. – But at some moment that person told me: “Don’t you worry that much, I bet you will be working among officials.” And I am like, “Yevhenia Ivanivna, no way!” But a year after that discussion, I joined the civil service.
He says that job gave him the goal and brought rapid career growth: “I’ve started from the very bottom, from the lowest position of the chief specialist in the Ministry of youth and sport, and in five years of intensive work I became the deputy Minister of veteran affairs.”
That was where Ihor acquired the real possibility to influence the situation, implement his ideas, and not just be someone’s instrument or agent. And his main idea was to remove the barrier between the state and veterans, which he had to overcome in the past.
“I would like the state authorities to be the service, and also the guarantees given to veterans by the state to be easy to acquire,” – Ihor says and explains. – If I have the right to use the psychologісal support service, I don’t want to gather 15 different certificates, bring them to the social security department and wait for two months to be sent to some health center. If I need psychological support, I would like to be able to choose an institution and a specialist, to visit them and say “My combat brother/sisters recommended you, let’s work”– and that’s it.”
By the moment Ihor left his position, his team succeeded in making changes in the resolution regulating the way of acquiring the guarantees. The changes were approved and the procedure that allows the Ministry of veterans’ affairs to choose professionals to work with, check their qualifications and pay for their work was launched.
“For the veterans, all the bureaucracy is left behind the scenes, it is the duty of the Ministry and service providers. They do not bother with the certificates they need to bring, just open the catalog on the web, choose, address the person or institution and work with whoever they want. I made it possible. It has been a half of the year as I am not on the team, but they work and proceed to push the changes,” Ihor summarizes. He says that according to the plan, the procedure was supposed to start working on July 1, so they are just waiting for the first results.
He left his position at the end of December, he planned to have some rest and come back to work on the reforms, but the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine changed everything.
On February 24th, my family and I were at home, like most Ukrainians. We woke up from explosions sometime around 4 and 5 am. It was scary, as I didn’t understand what was going on. The sounds of explosions were unusual,I had never heard them before. In 2014-2015 there were no air defense systems, missiles or air strikes, just artillery,”– Ihor says.
In the morning the family decided to leave Kyiv. They were deciding where to go on their actual way. First Vinnytsia, then Ternopil, and afterward they settled down in the Kopychyntsi community for several months. “It took 3-4 days to sort out everything and then I began to look for ways I could help. Because I couldn’t just sit and watch, as I didn’t want to go insane – he recalls. – After that in Ternopil, I found people I had known from the hospital time. Together we set up a volunteer storehouse drive and began to bring protective equipment for soldiers from abroad.”
For several months Ihor was busy volunteering. He says there was no goal to establish another “Come back alive” (“Povernys zhyvym”) or “Prytula Fund”. They understood that at some moment, European storages of needed equipment will be exhausted and as the part of the team is not local, they will head home. But they have done their best.
After returning to Kyiv Ihor joined the international organization IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board). According to him, this is one of the major partners of the Ministry of veterans’ affairs in the international field. “The organization deals with humanitarian issues, in particular, it has programs on veterans’ integration into civil society. Our goal is to listen to the Ukrainian organizations and charity foundations, which come with their ideas like “If we are not going to do this or that, all the veterans will feel bad. We look, analyze and respond: “no, guys this is bullshit”, or “Yes it’s a great idea, let’s do it”. Then we implement it within our possibilities. – Ihor explains – Thus, I came back to the same field of veterans’ affairs, but from the other side, from the side of civil society. Nothing had changed, except for the instruments. And I can implement the previous experience of state service.”
“I want the war to end sooner.”
“In March, there were two wounds: a shrapnel wound in the head and two shrapnels in the shoulder. But I got back on track pretty quickly. It took me two weeks, and I returned right after the moment when the wounds just healed. The third one hit the arm, and I couldn’t imagine it would be such a difficult case. The bullet came in and tore part of the muscle, broke the bone, and disrupted the functioning of the arm itself. So I have to stay home and recover,” – tells us Vlad Yakushev, a journalist from Lviv before the war, and now a writer and a scout of a marine brigade.
Before the war, he was the editor of the “Criminal reading” journal and was doing investigations. He and his friend organized a network of sports clubs for children from single-parent and low-income families. “And then Maidan happened – I had to go there. And right after the Maidan, the war started – I had to fight there.” – Vlad says.
The first time he went to the frontline was in 2015. And it was journalism that brought him there: “I wanted to join the army and not voluntary military formation. I am a reserve officer, my profession is managing the radar stations. But that profession wasn’t in demand at that moment as the enemy didn’t use aviation. So I had to wait until 2015 when the press-officer position was opened. Then they needed journalists so I became the press officer of the 14th separate motorized brigade named by prince Roman the Great”.
Vlad was fighting for two years. He returned home by the end of 2016. “Back then my lungs worked only for 50%. I have asthma and that winter was very harsh. We were located in Mariinka, very close to the Russians’ location. There were severe fights and many wounded. I had to move around while having pneumonia, so it affected my asthma, which worsened. But in a year or year and a half, I beat the disease. That was the only harm done. And small shrapnel, which stays in my flank, that’s it,” – Vlad doesn’t perceive it as a serious injury, the injury he has brought from his first rotation. Maybe because it was so long ago. Or because it is nothing compared to what he has now.
During his interwar period, he started to write books. His first book is the novel “The Punishers”, where he described the events he experienced in 2015-2016. The next two are historical and adventure novels he has published in cooperation with his friend and brother in arms Andriy Lototsky. And the last for today is “Mobilizyaka”, which tells us the story of Vlad. It was published literally on the eve before the war, on the 23rd of February.
“It had to happen sooner or later, I had no illusions,”– he says. As soon as he heard the news about the shelling, Vlad called his brothers in arms, with whom he was fighting in 2015-2016, and they decided to go to the military office together. Actually, that is how our unit of people with combat experience was established. We came and said that we were ready to fight. Eventually, we ended up in the marines scout unit. And I guess we are rather effective.”
The last wound that disabled Vlad for a long time he got at the beginning of May. “It was the fight with Kadyrov’s special forces unit. We were assigned to enter the forest and push them back so the common defense line between the two locations could be created. It turned out that there was no such line then, and it could get worse. I succeeded with the assignment. We crashed them well in that forest. But the fight was very close,we managed to get to them very close at a distance of 20 meters and they missed us. I caught the bullet in my arm,” – Vlad tells us.
He says the wound healed, the bone is healing, but the arm functioning is way far from its best. He is in rehabilitation until August 18th and then he is waiting for a medical conclusion if he needs to continue treatment or he can return to the army. So far he patiently follows all the instructions, tries not to get irritated with his downtime, and to see in it the opportunity to help his unit in another way.
“Until recently, it was so physically irritating that I couldn’t even tie my laces. But now I am able.” – Vlad shares his story with joy. And he adds, “Emotionally it is very difficult not to participate in the fights. I am constantly in touch with my unit and I help them as much as I can – with advice or new equipment. I do try to maximize the combat capability of the unit. And because I am so far away from the battle place – it is very uneasy on an emotional level.”
As he continues rehabilitation, Vlad gathers money and arranges an agreement with a drone provider to produce a combat drone able to carry the explosive elements and dismount them on the enemy. “For us, it is important because we are a scouting unit and often find the aims that are not serious enough to engage the artillery, like a single vehicle. And sometimes we are not able to reach it with anything else. Such a drone would be a great help, – he explains. – I need to solve the problem while I am still here. Because later we will be at the frontline or even beyond the frontline and I am afraid it will not be that easy to reach peaceful land.”
Finally, I ask Vlad what motivates him every time after the injury to get back to the war. “I really want the war to end sooner. And to do so, there is no other choice but to go and fight. Of course, I want to come back home and see how all that’s happening now has become just a dreadful piece of memory. I have many plans for writing and I have some obligations. I want to write books for children because they are the basis of our happiness, well-being, and understanding what the state and the nation are about. But staying home now isn’t possible. As it won’t bring us the victory.”
The project is produced with the support of Lviv Media Forum and EU-funded programme House of Europe.