The Washington Post

Ukraine’s soldiers are inspiring. Their bodies are devastated.

- BY IULIIA MENDEL Iuliia Mendel is a journalist and former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Wlviv, ukraine hen we meet, 40-year-old Danylo Voronov holds out his left fist, as has become popular during the pandemic. But it’s not covid-19 that is worrying the Ukrainian soldier.

“I haven’t learned how to shake hands firmly with my left hand yet,” he explains. His jacket’s right sleeve hangs loosely after his arm was torn off during a retreat in Donbas on March 3.

He says he is lucky, as the comrade on his left in the armored personnel carrier and the nurse on his right were both killed. In the moment, he saw blood on his shoulder but did not immediatel­y realize he had lost his arm.

Voronov is just one of thousands of soldiers and volunteers wounded in the fighting across Ukraine who have arrived in the western city of Lviv for shelter and care. Under the spring sunshine outside a hospital, I see a few bandaged men in military uniforms, some in wheelchair­s. Their faces are exhausted with pain and sadness. The patient flow here is constant.

“I’m not going to get discourage­d,” Voronov tells me. “When I was taken out with the other wounded, our soldiers were breaking through the encircleme­nt of the Russians, and some died. They died to get me out. I have no right to be discourage­d; they must not die in vain.”

Voronov joined the Ukrainian army in 2016, as Ukraine was defending itself after the Russian invasion of Crimea and occupation of parts of the eastern region of Donbas, where more than 14,000 people have already died. In some ways, his personal story mirrors the broken relations between Russia and Ukraine. He used to be married to a Russian woman. The more he learned in the military, the more his ex-wife watched Russian propaganda, generously distribute­d in the regions of Ukraine close to Russia. As ideologica­l difference­s led to misunderst­anding, they divorced; Voronov has since lost contact with her.

Voronov had been in the hospital for a week when I met him, as had 22-yearold DJ, Vladyslav Orlov, from the eastern city of Kharkiv. There, he was one of the youngest to enlist in the local territoria­l defense.

“I had two arms, two legs, so I went,” Orlov says. But he had served only for a day before a Russian missile hit the regional administra­tion building where he was staying.

“At first, we were told we did not need weapons. But at 2 a.m. on March 1, we were woken up to urgently distribute­d rifles. The rifles could not help us, though, when the missiles started falling in the morning,” Orlov recounts, rememberin­g every minute. After the first explosion near the administra­tion building, he called his girlfriend, 20-year-old Sophia, who was with volunteers and civilians on a different floor. Then, the building was hit by another missile. Orlov was pulled out from under the rubble with his legs completely shattered. Since then, the couple has traveled to hospitals across Ukraine, trying to get him healed.

“Everything became different. Money is no longer important. Because even if I had a million, it wouldn’t help Vladyslav now,” Sophia explains. “Before, I used to plan everything, but now I live in the present. We are alive, we are near, and that’s the most important thing.”

“I don’t regret anything. I will recover. It is not the worst that could have happened to me,” says Orlov.

The well-known television journalist Oleksandr Makhov, 36, was among those who did not make it. When the war started, he also volunteere­d as a soldier, reporting every day on his social media account about the developmen­ts and encouragin­g people to trust the Ukrainian army. On April 5, he proposed to his girlfriend, fellow TV journalist Anastasiia Blyshchyk, with a pull ring from a grenade.

“I do not always know what happens to him. You are killing me every time asking ‘How is Sasha?’ ” she wrote on social media on May 2. The next day, he was slightly wounded. The day after, he was killed in combat.

“Please tell me this is a mistake!!!” Blyshchyk wrote on Facebook, echoing what many others are enduring today in Ukraine.

Many stories of Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers are inspiring, but their bodies and families are devastated. Their scars will continue long into the future, even as their stories become central to the history of the new Ukraine.

“A person agrees to die the moment he decides to go to war,” Roman Kostenko, an officer in Ukraine’s security service and a Ukrainian member of parliament, tells me. “There is no fear or pain in combat. This all exists before and after, but not during the war. If they survive, they are reborn, given a second life.”

On the phone, I hear his words mixed with explosions. Kostenko says goodbye very quickly, explaining that the attack is getting worse. The wounds from this war are deep, but still our brave volunteers and soldiers press on.

 ?? ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTO­CK ?? Military medics prepare a wounded Ukrainian soldier for transport at a front-line field hospital near Popasna in eastern Ukraine on May 8.
ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTO­CK Military medics prepare a wounded Ukrainian soldier for transport at a front-line field hospital near Popasna in eastern Ukraine on May 8.

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