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Ukraine’s Injured War Veterans and the Price of Independence

Disabled Veterans Appeal

"For all they’ve suffered, they are lucky—other families have fared far worse in this ongoing conflict."

By Simon Shuster

The smell of chlorine fills the air at the Kyiv Burn Center, along with the sound of nurses shuffling through the halls with their little carts of medicine. In the intensive care unit, lined up against the wall like giant aquariums, the glassed-in rooms are occupied by soldiers wounded in the war in east Ukraine, each one on his own slow road to recovery.

Vadym Dovhoruk, a 23-year-old from the 3rd regiment of the Ukrainian Special Forces, lies in a bed in one of these rooms, watching a TV with a rabbit-ear antenna. He is resting between surgeries, having lost one arm and both legs below the knee in the fighting. Beside him stands his father Yuri, a mechanic, who has made his weekly, seven-hour trip to the capital to be with his son. For all they’ve suffered, they are lucky—other families have fared far worse in this ongoing conflict.

Since it began in the spring of 2014, the war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatist forces has taken more than 9,000 lives, about a quarter of them civilians, according to a U.N. tally. Thousands of others have come back from the front with injuries that will never fully heal—chronic phantom pains from amputations, burns covering much of their bodies, extensive brain damage.

These are the victims that Joseph Sywenkyj, an American photographer of Ukrainian descent, has documented in hospitals and rehabilitation centers around the country. It has often been depressing work, and he says he does it with the Ukrainian people in mind. “It’s important for them to understand the price of their independence,” he says.

As his pictures demonstrate, that price has been far higher than Ukrainians could have expected when they overthrew their government in February 2014. The revolution, which called for Ukraine to integrate with Western Europe, cost Russia one of its hardest-won allies in the former Soviet Union—and Moscow’s response was fierce.

That spring, Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, in southern Ukraine, and stirred up a secessionist rebellion in the eastern region known as the Donbas. Ukraine fought back. Tens of thousands of soldiers and volunteers went to stop what they called a Russian invasion.

 Since early 2014, tens of thousands of Ukrainian troops have taken part in a war with Russia in Eastern Ukraine. Over 9,100 soldiers have died and over 20,000 have been injured, according to the UN. But for many Ukrainian soldiers returning home, there is a battle that can’t be fought with rifles and tanks: psychological trauma. And it isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

Over the past year, experts have recorded an increase in domestic violence and high levels of alcohol abuse and suicide among Ukrainian war veterans, the Wilson Center noted in a report published Tuesday.

Officials say around 500 Ukrainian veterans have committed suicide, with an estimated one-third of ex-servicemen suffering from PTSD. Some believe the suicide rate is actually much higher. A lack of reliable figures likely masks the extent of the crisis, Denysov says, citing muddled bureaucracy, poor communication between government ministries and a fear among servicemen to admit they need therapy.