Ukrainian war-wounded rebuild lives through sport

The war veterans are training in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, far from the front line – Copyright AFP Geoffroy Van der Hasselt

Yurko Dyachyshyn

Their bodies maimed for life during the national struggle against Russia’s invasion, wounded Ukrainian servicemen are fighting new personal battles as they seek to rebuild their lives through sport.

The war veterans are training in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, far from the front line, ahead of the Invictus Games, an international sports competition for wounded soldiers founded by British royal Prince Harry in 2014.

“We don’t feel sorry for ourselves just because of our wounds. No. We move forward, we improve,” said Nazar Nozoviy, a 23-year-old former Ukrainian army mechanic both of whose legs have been amputated.

He now has his sights set on this year’s Invictus Games, which are due to take place between September 9 and 16 in the German city of Duesseldorf.

In a Lviv sports complex visited by AFP, the athletes trying to overcome their injuries practised their disciplines in a lively atmosphere.

“It’s really fantastic! I started weightlifting with a personal trainer, volleyball and swimming,” enthused Nozoviy.

Nozoviy said he was capable of covering half the length of an Olympic swimming pool — 25 metres (82 feet) — whereas before he could barely swim.

Vitaliy Skidan, a grenade-launcher operator who has had an artificial limb made of metal attached to what remains of his left leg, also sees the training as a “new stage”.

“My life isn’t finished. It’s just starting, with new emotions, new opportunities and new challenges,” said the 27-year-old, a former member of Ukraine’s notorious Azov battalion.

That positive mentality also motivates Vasil Stuzhenko, 40, who rediscovered himself through sport following his injury.

“Yes, you’ve been hurt, but life goes on, (you) have to live it to the full,” he said after completing a few lengths of the swimming pool, a towel hanging over his shoulder.

– ‘They’re winners’ –

For Oleksandr Bishko, a 26-year-old former Ukrainian army commander who has taken up running, competing in the Invictus Games “would be a huge success” in his career and personal life.

His comments are echoed by Sergiy Maideniuk, a deputy commander, who believes the event “gives each wounded soldier a chance to believe in himself and his abilities”.

“Whatever the outcome, they’re winners: they have overcome their illnesses and their internal fears,” he added.

However, some of the veterans hope to return to their former lives, among them former navy soldier Benjamin Nazarchuk.

The 21-year-old hit two mines during a counter-offensive in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine last autumn.

“My injuries are fairly recent. But when I’ve recovered, I think I will return to the war,” he told AFP.

“But for now, I’m going to represent Ukraine for a year or two.”

Ukrainian war-wounded rebuild lives through sport
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