A group of Ukrainian soldiers moves swiftly through a front-line training ground, overcoming obstacles and firing at distant targets. They are fine-tuning their battle skills here as Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russian forces rages just few miles to the south.
One fighter, Danilo, who is only being identified by his first name for security reasons, stands out. He is fast and accurate, but his movements are different.
Another glance reveals the reason for his slight limp – he has a prosthetic limb where his lower right leg used to be.
Danilo lost his lower right leg early in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. He and his unit were on a mission when they came under fire and he stepped on a landmine.
His maiming, and similar injuries to many others, both soldiers and civilians, are just one of the many consequences of Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine.
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Moscow’s forces have littered an estimated 170,000 square kilometers (65,637 square miles) of the Ukrainian countryside with landmines – an area the size of Florida – a large portion of them along the southern front, in a bid to halt Kyiv’s counteroffensive. International think tank GLOBSEC found Ukraine to be the most mined country in the world in a report published in April.
As Ukrainian troops grind forward, these hidden explosives are one of the major perils they must navigate, with potentially drastic consequences.
“When we had contact (with the Russian forces), I had to move away from the trail,” Danilo said. “I blew up on the mine… We kept firing, my guys finished the job and evacuated me.”
“There was no leg. And the other leg was broken,” he said, recalling those adrenaline-fueled moments. “I was afraid they would cut off the second leg too. It’s a miracle they didn’t.”
Eight grueling months of rehabilitation followed.
“It was a very, very long recovery. I lost a lot of blood, it was a heavy amputation, heavy bone fracture,” he recalled.
The first part of his recuperation recovery took place was done in Ukraine, but two months later, Danilo and his wife moved to Mexico, where with the help of the Ukrainian diaspora he was able to get a prosthetic limb fitted, as well as psychological support.
“It was hard as my other leg was also injured. I couldn’t step on it for eight months,” he explained. “There were some difficulties at first, but the competent doctors put me back on my feet.”
Injuries ‘worse now’
Vlad, also only identified by his first name, is a Ukrainian combat medic whose unit is always on standby. When a call comes, his group heads straight to the front line to extract the wounded.
Vlad says his job is no less dangerous because of his status as a medic.
“There’s a lot of shelling directed at us,” he said. “Despite us having red crosses on our vehicles the Russians ignore the Geneva Convention. It makes sense – if you kill the medics, many soldiers won’t receive first aid.”
The risks do not discourage Vlad from making his way to the front. Time, he says, is essential in treating injuries such as Danilo’s if the patient is to make a good recovery.
“It depends on how fast medical aid was provided and we provide it fast,” Vlad said.
“Most of the areas are mined. And to advance further we use engineering vehicles and sappers. Most of the those injured by mines in the last few months are sappers,” he added.
“The injuries are worse now than they were six months ago. We have much more work now.”
Kyiv has not publicly acknowledged it is taking more casualties in recent months.
‘Victory or death’
Following his recuperation in Mexico, Danilo is back in the battle, supporting Ukrainian forces as they advance in the south. He joined Ukraine’s counteroffensive shortly after arriving back in the country at the end of July.
“I got back into service two days after returning to Zaporizhzhia. For a month I was an instructor. Then I asked for a transfer to the front,” he said.
“Now I’m the main sergeant in a fire support unit. I’m in charge of mortar, grenade launcher and anti-tank squads,” he explained. “The platoon commander and I choose the right positions, targets, plan the operations.”
His injuries do not slow him down, he swears. “If I wasn’t efficient, I wouldn’t be here, they would send me to an HQ to do paperwork.”
Though quick to return to the front line, Danilo says he hates war and combat. “I don’t like to see my brothers wounded or killed,” he added.
But despite that, and the trauma he’s experienced, he says there’s no way he could have just stayed at home and watched.
“In a country under attack, every man has to stand up from the couch and defend his home,” he said. “I have to do it and I’m good at it. We need people with my experience.
“We don’t have a choice… The counteroffensive can’t fail,” Danilo continued. “We are defending our home. It’s victory or death for us.”