Now Reading
“You Hug Your Machine Gun and Stay There… That’s War”: Patients of the Superhumans Center Share and Remain Silent About the War in a Report by a Journalist from Portugal

“You Hug Your Machine Gun and Stay There… That’s War”: Patients of the Superhumans Center Share and Remain Silent About the War in a Report by a Journalist from Portugal

André Luís Alves

Two years of the war in Ukraine by the testimonies of those who fought it on the front line. Impressive accounts of Ukrainian soldiers who survived but lost limbs or were seriously injured in other ways. They are now recovering at the Superhumans rehabilitation center in Lviv region, co-founded by American millionaire and philanthropist Howard Buffett, who donated 15 million dollars. A square in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, was named after him.

The website of the Superhumans prosthetic rehabilitation center in Lviv region reads: “We give Ukrainians a superhero life they deserve.” The nonprofit center, opened on April 14, 2023, has already provided hundreds of prostheses to military personnel and civilians. All users have to apply online. There is currently a waiting list of around 500 people, most of them for facial reconstruction surgery. Sixty people pass here every day, between rehabilitation, prosthesis construction and the swimming pool.

It all starts with the part of the limb that has been amputated, the stump. Sometimes the leg that was initially amputated has to be amputated again, explains Andriy Ischyk, the center’s public relations manager. Then it’s on to the construction of the socket, where the limb will fit. The center uses two methods for construction, one from a plaster cast, and the other from the leg itself, using 3D printing, which makes the process quicker, around 30 minutes.

As Andriy shows us the center, Zaborona meets several wounded soldiers. Among them is Volodymyr, under 30 years old, from Kharkiv region. Tomorrow, he’s expecting to see his two-year-old son for the second time since he was born. “They’re coming to see me. They live in Germany,” he says with a smile.

“It was a lepestok (butterfly) mine last October in Klishchiivka,” he recalls. Plastic anti-personnel mine, 12 cm, liquid explosive of 37 grams, active for 10 years. Introduced by the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, where it injured thousands of children because it looks like a toy. “I was supposed to work with drones, but the position was unavailable, so I was transferred to infantry near Bakhmut.”

He began rehabilitation a week ago and is taking his first steps with the prosthesis. Before arriving here, he was in five different hospitals. At this center, he feels he’s being treated at the best level possible.

“The final socket is made here in this room. We use carbon because it’s a strong material, light but rigid,” explains Andryi, holding a piece of carbon tape in his hand.

Scarcity and local production

There are only five upper limb prosthetists in Ukraine. It’s not a problem for the lower limbs. “We have about five or six therapists for the lower limbs and two for the upper limbs. One more is under training here,” adds Andriy. The center has a warehouse with several spares, customizable prosthesis, and provides full assistance to all patients. This, according to him, contrasts with the experience of patients who have received prostheses abroad. “Care and rehabilitation are easily compromised by the distance,” he states.

Hryhorii Hryhorenko has been producing plaster casts in the shape of stumps for the last eight years. When Andriy introduces him as the center’s sculptor, Hryhorii laughs. “Before the full-scale invasion, it was mostly civilians, and amputations were caused by diseases like diabetes. Now I have much more work, and it is mostly military personnel.” Andriy says that the official number for wounded civilians with amputations in Ukraine is 500 people, but we both agree that it sounds unrealistic. As for soldiers, it ranges from 20 to 50 thousand by the summer of 2023, which is already comparable to the numbers of the First World War.

On the second floor, 35-year-old Serhii from Kyiv with two leg prostheses is walking with support of parallel bars. A doctor is adjusting his prosthesis because one of the stumps has become shorter.

“I would rather not remember it in detail. It was easier before. It was all very stupid and ordinary: an attack in Kostyantynivka, near Bakhmut, in July 2023. We were in a five-storey building, sleeping on the first floor. At around 1am, two rockets destroyed the building. I spent eight to ten hours under the rubble, waiting for help,” he explains. Serhii says they were going to be there only for four days to establish their position. “We were attacked on the third day. I was with three other colleagues who got out of the building unharmed because they were sleeping in the corners of the rooms. I was in the middle, and everything fell on me,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.

Serhii is trying to go on with his life as normal as possible. He has a three-year-old son.

We enter a workshop with unfinished prosthetic works and several prostheses of legs. “We collaborate with companies like Ottobock for the prosthesis. So far we’ve only produced the carbon socket, although we have plans to develop and manufacture the prostheses here in three years time. Perhaps we will hear about it in a year’s time. We have a partnership with the Lviv Polytechnic University,” explains Andryi.

Local production will result in a greater number of prostheses available. For example, the cost of one prosthesis in Germany is enough to produce three in Ukraine, adds the manager, because other expenses are increasing. They used to rely on a mechanical knee, which costs three to five thousand dollars, but now they use a more sophisticated, electronic one, which costs 18 times more. It’s more expensive than a small apartment in most Ukrainian cities.

Volodymyr is doing sensitisation exercises with a therapist. “You can photograph me, but I don’t want to say anything about this war,” he says in English. Volodymyr’s hands and face are deformed, dark from the fragments of the explosion that almost blinded him. He doesn’t need to say anything about the war, as we’re left speechless by his presence. The therapist touches his hands softly while he presses clothes pegs to strengthen his fingers.

Next to him is Dmytro Voloshchenko. He lost his right leg to the hip bone. Other therapist massages his scar while he closes his eyes for a moment. We move away not to derange the routine of the treatment.

The center is funded exclusively by donations. Anyone can donate through their website, and the service is completely free. First Lady Olena Zelenska and Health Minister Victor Lyashko are part of the supervisory committee, and there is an agreement with the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, but the government does not contribute financially. “We hope that the Superhumans center will set an example of how the system should work in the future,” concludes Andriy Ischyk.

The fundraising operation began before opening

Howard Buffet’s foundation started the funding with 15 million dollars for the construction of the buildings and 1 million dollars for the purchase of prosthesis. But now there are several partners, such as SoftServe, one of Ukraine’s largest IT companies, which has donated one million dollars for the development of arms, and the Ukrainian shopping website Rozetka, which is also funding the rehabilitation.

A facial reconstruction surgery clinic is being built next door. This is something the center doesn’t yet offer, and most of the patients in the center’s waiting list are awaiting a facial surgery.

From heroes to superhumans

20-year-old Ruslana Danilkina from Odesa recounts the first few months of her experience as a patient. She was wounded a year ago in Kherson region. “After the amputation, I couldn’t imagine my future life at all. I could only see for three or four days at most. The improvement came in waves. Sometimes I didn’t even want to get dressed or have coffee with my parents. The key moment was two months after I lost my leg, when it was getting close to the day I would get the prosthesis. The first few months I wore it were complicated because it hurt, was uncomfortable and itchy. It took a while before I understood I could live like this.”

“What can’t you do with your leg?” I ask. “For example, regular squats. I started trying alternative exercises. It was then that I realized I could do almost everything, but in a different way. You have to learn.”

Andriy interrupts her. “But you took part in a marathon!” Ruslana explains that it was not a marathon. She actually only ran 50 meters, and then walked five kilometers. “Before I got hurt, I did a lot of sports,” she says. “The time at the hospital was tough, I just had to survive.”

“My mum is still on the front line,” she replies when asked what she thinks about the war.

In the pool on the ground floor, we encounter Oleksii. He wants to train hard not to answer questions. He even jumped into the water, as if his left leg was not missing. It seemed he was coming to talk, but he just goes back to swimming again, only to stop in the hydro massage part.

Finally, in the gym, we find Ihor, 29 years old. He’s from the Sumy region. Before the war, he was a personal trainer.

“It was a drone with a loitering munition. I had four tourniquets with me. I had to apply three: to my leg, arm, and hand. After four hours, I couldn’t feel my leg, it was completely black. I was sure it was lost. I saved my arm, because I had the tourniquet on my shoulder for almost 14 hours, and after an hour it was totally numb. I waited alone on the floor for 13 hours until I was evacuated. It took them about an hour and a half just to get me into the ambulance,” he tells.

Injured on September 11 last year, he still hasn’t started using the prosthesis. “Today was the first day. They made the socket where the prosthesis will fit.” For the time being, he has no plans to return to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but if the war continues for a long time, he may try to do so after recovery.

Ihor was part of the 132nd Separate Reconnaissance Battalion fighting in Verbove, near Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia region. “It’s a labyrinth of trenches. That’s why I waited alone for so long,” he says.

Many in his unit died. Ihor was the only one seriously injured.

“That place is hell. No matter what anyone says, right now it’s the worst place, Avdiivka or Bakhmut are not comparable. There are mines, wires on the ground, and ammunition scattered around. Staying overnight, even in the summer, is terrible. You can’t get warm. You can’t have anything turned on. They can easily identify you and are very meticulous in their drone attacks. You’re in a foxhole. Nothing warms you up, you’re shivering, you hug your machine gun and stay there… That’s war. We’re all going if we have to, we’re all going… And what’s left? We don’t want to live in fear,” Ihor vents.

Did you like the article?

Support Zaborona on Patreon so we can produce even more interesting stories