CHERNIHIV, Ukraine (AP) — In a Ukrainian hospital ward for wounded soldiers, where daylight barely penetrates, a father talks to his wounded son for hours. Serhii Shumei, 64, never berated Vitalii for choosing to go to war. Even now, despite the damage to his son’s brain from an artillery shell explosion, Serhii feels pride, not pity.
“I have been with him constantly for the past five months, by his side, by his side, by his side,” says Serhii, himself a former retired soldier. “I’m not going anywhere. …except for a smoke.
Vitalii, a 34-year-old long-range anti-aircraft missile commander, was injured in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which has become synonymous with horrific casualties in the ongoing fighting for Ukraine and Russia. It’s unclear how deadly death is – because neither side says so. From the flow of wounded soldiers leaving the front lines to hospitals like the one where Vitalii is, it is clear that the costs are high.
Both sides deployed troops and resources to capture or defend strongholds in Donbas, battling through months of fierce and attritional fighting until what largely became a bloody stalemate. After setbacks elsewhere in Ukraine for President Vladimir Putin’s nearly 11-month invasion, Russia is looking for some sort of localized success in the Donbass, even if it just means taking control of a rubble-beaten city or two. Ukraine wants to make Russia’s advances as costly as possible.
The Donbass towns of Bakhmut and Soledar were transformed into hellscapes as a result. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described them as “completely destroyed”. strewn with corpses and craters, and with “almost more life”.
“This is what madness looks like,” says Zelenskyy.
Vitalii was injured on August 25 on another section of the Donbass front line, in Adviivka, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Bakhmut. The shell that hit his canoe set off other explosives. The explosion tore a crater in Vitalii’s skull that is as deep and wide as half a melon. His brain damage was so severe that doctors doubted he would show any signs of consciousness again.
Now Vitalii sometimes seems aware of its surroundings. He blinks. He can swallow. But it is largely immobile.
Serhii refuses to give up on her.
“We are seeing progress, we are getting back on our feet. That’s my opinion,” he said.
He spends hours by Vitalii’s bedside, sharing news from the battlefields, reciting books and reading messages of support.
They are sent by grateful Ukrainians who urge Vitalii to “Hold on to life!” We really need you!” and say “You’re strong! You’ll manage!
Serhii says tears run down Vitalii’s cheeks when he reads them to her. Further signs of improvement appeared in late December, when Vitalii started wiggling his toes, Serhii says. Vitalii has also started to frown, which Serhii interprets to mean that her son is interested in what he is reading to her.
And recently, says Serhii, another breakthrough: Vitalii’s audible responses.
“I started asking him ‘Do you know who I am?’ And he said “Dad”.
Another of Vitalii’s frequent visitors is Iryna Timofeyeva, a volunteer whose original idea was to collect messages of support.
“The love of family, the attention of others, very often contributes to the positive dynamics of the patient,” she says. “It is very important for the injured that he is not alone. That’s how he understands he has to fight.
Vitalii is, for the moment, alone in his department, after other patients have been transferred elsewhere for rehabilitation. But the beds around it are unlikely to remain empty for long, given the fierce fighting in the Donbass. Vitalii Hospital in Chernihiv, north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, is among those where soldiers receive long-term follow-up care after their injuries have been stabilized closer to the front lines.
Serhii considers caring for his son to be his contribution to the war effort.
“I’m going to get him back on his feet. It’s my dream,” he said.
Inclining his son’s ear, he asks: “Ukraine will win, we will win, right?
The answer is silence.
Efrem Lukatsky in Chernihiv and John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine