TIME Ukraine

Ukraine’s Injured War Veterans and the Price of Independence

The painful reality of rehabilitation after nearly two years of conflict

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. Fighters and military hardware poured across the border to aid the pro-Russian rebel militias. Tanks, machine guns and multiple-rocket launchers were the weapons of choice on both sides.

Of all the belligerents, Moscow has emerged as the closest thing to a winner in this war. The easternmost regions of Ukraine, their towns gutted and infrastructure destroyed, are now separatist enclaves controlled by Russia’s local proxies. Ukraine no longer controls large sections of its border with Russia. So the conflict has frozen into a kind of stalemate, which Russia can fire up at its leisure, with fresh supplies of weapons and troops, whenever it wants to pressure or destabilize its neighbor.

In recent months, though, Ukraine’s new government has done Russia’s work for it. Corruption in Ukraine is still rampant. Political infighting has hobbled reforms. And with all that has been sacrificed in the name of the revolution and the war, many have started to wonder whether it was worth it.

Dovhoruk is not among the doubters. Like all of the soldiers Sywenkyj photographed for this series, he believes Ukraine would be a lot worse off if it had not put a fight. Russia, for one thing, might have occupied and annexed entire regions in the east, the same way it did in the south with Crimea.

But his father finds less solace in such hypotheticals. Even though he supported the uprising two years ago, he’s disappointed with how it turned out. “The people have changed a bit,” he says, “but the country is the same.” Except it has lost vast pieces of its territory, cut off like the limbs of too many soldiers who fought in this war.

Joseph Sywenkyj is an American photographer based in Ukraine. He is represented by Redux.

Andrew Katz, who edited this photo essay, is an International Multimedia Editor for TIME.

Simon Shuster is a TIME correspondent based in Berlin.

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