For Ukraine's war wounded, physical injuries compounded by trauma of how they got them

While there is often an emphasis in conflict on the dead, the wounded end up bearing not only the burden of their injuries but the memories of what they witnessed.

UN reports nearly 3,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed or injured in conflict

Lesia Bondarenko is recovering in Lviv. She lost a finger and her left hand and wrist are tightly bandaged, the result of a narrow escape from Hostomel, a town near the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

When the Russian missile hit near Olga Sairova's home in Mariupol on March 11, she barely escaped being crushed, sheltering from the pounding in her basement.

But her husband couldn't get there in time. 

"[He] was coming, but did not make it. He needed five more seconds," Sairova told CBC News, from a hospital room in the northwestern Ukrainian city of Lviv.

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

Half-buried under the rubble, Sairova called out for help, "but it took two hours for somebody to hear me. It took people from neighbouring homes six hours to dig me out."

That's because her leg was trapped under a concrete slab. Neighbours ended up tying a rope around it 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 shattered. 

"In one second, I lost everything: my parents, husband. And after two days, I found out that my sister and her husband also died in their yard," she said, tearing up.

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

Heartbreaking stories of loss and survival from the war in Ukraine

3 months ago
Duration 3:56
Two refugees share their personal stories of fleeing the Ukraine war — Olga Sairova lost her husband and parents in a Russian missile strike, and Lesia Bondarenko narrowly survived shelling as she escaped with her nine-month-old baby.

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

She stayed in Mariupol for five more days, but then the bombing intensified again and neighbourhood homes were burning.

"One of the neighbours' cars was still intact, [so] we got in and left." 

It's been more than a month since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, and while Russia has met unexpectedly stiff resistance, its military campaign continues.

After Russia announced a drawdown of troops on Tuesday from areas around the capital, Kyiv, and Chernihiv, Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces had redoubled the shelling there on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. 

The relentless bombardment has exacted a punishing toll on Ukrainian civilians.

While there is often an emphasis in conflict on the dead, the wounded end up bearing not only the burden of their injuries but the memories of what they witnessed — and the loved ones they've lost.

A narrow escape

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

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

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

Many have ended up in Lviv. The city has seen no destruction of civilian property from bombing — the air strikes that have occurred there have been infrequent and have targeted fuel depots and industrial buildings connected to the military.

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

When the bombing started early on in the war, Bondarenko took her nine-month-old daughter, Kira, and jumped in a vehicle with others fleeing the terror. 

Near a checkpoint, their car was shelled, killing the driver and her friend. Bondarenko scooped up her baby in one arm and helped her friend's three-year-old escape the car.

Bondarenko rushed along the road, panicked and bleeding heavily. Her left hand had been pierced by shrapnel, the wound nearly severing her wrist. 

"I was very scared — you can't even imagine. I was trembling, afraid for my kids," she told CBC, while in the home of a stranger in Lviv who has taken the family in.

"You are thinking, '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 ended up picking Bondarenko and the children up and bringing them back to a home in Hostomel where they sheltered in the basement. 

A nurse who happened to be in the home bandaged Bondarenko's wrist, but told her she was losing too much blood, and that without medical aid she might die.

"I was losing consciousness, and I was 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 in coming. 

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

"When I found her, her face was very white. I  wanted to hug her, but I knew if I hugged her she would start screaming" from the pain, said Kariev.

'They are left with nothing'

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

"These wounds have huge damage — torn and crushed soft tissue," he said. "And these wounds are also infected, so it takes much longer to heal."

But he acknowledges that the psychological wounds are even harder to deal with. 

"People start to collect themselves, become calmer and more organized," said Vovchko, "but their mood is still very depressed, because they are left with nothing. Their homes are destroyed, and usually, they have no relatives and nothing else left."

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

Sairova's experience has left her angry. "What can you think about the destruction of everything that was sacred and dear?"

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

In spite of their brush with death, Kariev says, Ukrainians can prevail in the war with Russia.

"We will win for sure," said Kariev. "Because [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a terrorist. He is not fighting with soldiers; he's fighting with women and kids." 

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

The child has bits of shrapnel embedded in her foot, maybe forever — a grim talisman for a war baby.


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.