Ukrainians injured in Russian attacks struggle with wounds and memories of lost loved ones

When the Russian missile hit near Olga Sairova’s home in Mariupol on March 11, she narrowly escaped the crash, sheltering from the pounding in her basement.

But her husband could not arrive in time.

“[He] arrived, but did not succeed. He needed five more seconds,” Sairova told CBC News from a hospital room in the city of Lviv in northwestern Ukraine.

She spoke slowly, the pain of that moment still fresh.

Half buried in the rubble, Sairova called for help, “but it took two hours for someone to hear me. It took six hours for people from nearby houses to dig me up.”

It’s because his leg was stuck under a concrete slab. The neighbors ended up tying a rope around her and using a car to pull the concrete off her.

Sairova’s leg is now in a splint, broken in three places, and she is awaiting surgery. Her doctor says she will walk again, but her heart is broken.

“In a second, I lost everything: my parents, my husband. And after two days, I discovered that my sister and her husband had also died in their yard,” she says, crying.

WATCH | Olga Sairova and Lesia Bondarenko share their stories of grief and survival:

Heartbreaking Stories of Loss and Survival from Ukraine’s War

Two refugees share their personal stories of fleeing war in Ukraine – Olga Sairova lost her husband and parents in a Russian missile strike, and Lesia Bondarenko narrowly survived bombardment as she escaped with her baby from nine months. 3:56

Sairova had to leave her relatives under the rubble, she said, because there was no way to remove their bodies.

She stayed in Mariupol for five more days, but the shelling intensified again and houses in the neighborhood burned down.

“One of the neighbors’ cars was still intact, [so] we got in and left.”

It has been more than a month since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and although Russia has encountered surprisingly strong resistance, its military campaign continues.

After Russia announced a troop withdrawal from areas around the capital, kyiv and Chernihiv on Tuesday, Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces had stepped up shelling there on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.

The incessant shelling has taken a heavy toll on Ukrainian civilians.

While conflict often emphasizes the dead, the wounded end up carrying not only the burden of their wounds, but also the memories of what they witnessed – and the loved ones they lost.

A narrow escape

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported this week that a month of fighting in Ukraine has left 1,179 dead and 1,860 civilians injured, although there are countless others missing.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said 10 million people have been displaced inside or outside the country, some with serious injuries.

A man recovers items from a burning store following a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 25. (Felipe Dana/Associated Press)

Many ended up in Lviv. The town experienced no destruction of civilian property from shelling – the airstrikes that occurred there were infrequent and targeted fuel depots and industrial buildings linked to the military.

Like Sairova, Lesia Bondarenko is recovering in Lviv. She has lost a finger and her left hand and wrist are tightly bandaged, the result of a tight escape from Hostomel, a town near the capital, kyiv, at the start of the invasion.

When the shelling began at the start of the war, Bondarenko took her nine-month-old daughter, Kira, and jumped into a vehicle with others fleeing the terror.

Near a checkpoint, their car was bombed, killing the driver and her friend. Bondarenko took her baby in one arm and helped her friend’s three-year-old escape from the car.

Bondarenko rushed along the road, panicked and bleeding profusely. His left hand had been pierced by shrapnel, the wound nearly severing his wrist.

“I was very scared – you can’t even imagine. I was shaking, I was scared for my children,” she told CBC, while staying with a stranger in Lviv who housed the family.

“You think, ‘Oh my God, is this the end?'”

Lesia Bondarenko, right, is seen with her husband, Artem Kariev, and their baby daughter, Kira. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Another driver eventually picked up Bondarenko and the children and brought them back to a house in Hostomel where they took shelter in the basement.

A nurse at the house bandaged Bondarenko’s wrist, but told her she was losing too much blood and that without medical help she was in danger of dying.

“I was losing consciousness and praying: ‘Artem… at least save our daughter,'” she said, referring to her husband, who was trapped elsewhere in Hostomel by shelling, and ambulances were slow to arrive .

In a Facebook post, Artem Kariev alerted emergency services to reach his wife and child, and he was eventually able to reach her.

“When I found her, her face was very white. I wanted to hug her, but I knew that if I hugged her, she would start screaming” in pain, Kariev said.

“They find themselves with nothing”

Dr Yuri Vovchko, a surgeon in Lviv, says war wounds from shrapnel and landmines are horrific.

“These injuries have tremendous damage – torn and crushed soft tissue,” he said. “And those wounds also get infected, so it takes a lot longer to heal.”

But he acknowledges that psychological wounds are even more difficult to manage.

“People are starting to pull themselves together, become calmer and more organized,” Vovchko said, “but their mood is still very depressed, because they have nothing left. Their houses are destroyed, and generally they don’t have anything. no more relatives and nothing else.”

Dr. Yuri Vovchko, a surgeon in Lviv, says the physical wounds of war are horrific, but the psychological wounds are even harder to deal with. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Sairova’s experience angered her. “What can you think of the destruction of all that was sacred and dear?

In addition to losing a finger, Bondarenko will need several surgeries to repair the bones and tendons in his hand. She has strong faith and believes that God saved her.

Despite their brush with death, says Kariev, the Ukrainians can prevail in the war with Russia.

“We are going to win for sure,” Kariev said. “Because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a terrorist. He does not fight with soldiers; he fights with women and children.”

Bondarenko and Kariev showed CBC a pink baby blanket that still has small shrapnel stuck in the fleece. It had been wrapped around Kira when the car was hit.

The child has shrapnel embedded in his foot, possibly forever – a sinister talisman for a war baby.