A loving dad and his injured son pay war’s costs in Ukraine

A loving dad and his injured son pay war’s costs in Ukraine

CHERNIHIV, Ukraine (AP) — In a Ukrainian hospital ward for wounded soldiers, where daylight barely seeps in, a father talks to his wounded son for hours. Serhii Shumei, 64, never scolded Vitaly for choosing to go to war. Even now, despite his son’s brain damage from an exploding artillery shell, Serhii feels pride, not regret.

“I’ve been constantly with him in the last five months, next to him, next to him, next to him,” says Serhii, a retired ex-soldier himself. “I’m not going anywhere. … except for a smoke.”

Vitalii, a 34-year-old long-range anti-aircraft missile commander, was wounded in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has become synonymous with horrific losses in the ongoing fighting for both Ukraine and Russia. How deadly is unknown – because neither side is saying. From the stream of wounded soldiers pouring out of the front line into hospitals like the one where Vitalii lies, it’s clear the costs are heavy.

Both sides have poured troops and resources into capturing or defending Donbas strongholds, fighting months of heavy and drawn-out fighting in what has turned into a bloody stalemate. After setbacks elsewhere in Ukraine to President Vladimir Putin’s nearly 11-month occupation, Russia is looking for some kind of localized success in the Donbas, even if it means just taking control of a ruined city or two. Ukraine wants to make Russia’s advances as costly as possible.

The Donbas cities of Bakhmut and Soledar have turned into hellscapes as a result. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described them as “completely destroyed”, strewn with corpses and craters and “almost no life left”.

“This is what madness looks like,” says Zelenskyy.

Vitalii was wounded on August 25 in another part of the Donbas frontline, in Adviivka, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Bakhmut. The shell that hit his hole set off other explosives. The blast tore a crater in Vitaly’s skull that is as deep and wide as half a cantaloupe. His brain injuries were so severe that doctors doubted he would ever show signs of consciousness again.

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Now, Vitalii sometimes seems aware of his surroundings. He closes his eyes. He can swallow. But he is mostly stationary.

Serhii refuses to give him up.

“We are seeing progress, getting back on our feet. This is my opinion,” he says.

He spends hours at Vitaly’s bedside, sharing news from the battlefields, reciting from books and reading messages of support.

They are sent by grateful Ukrainians, who urge Vitaly to “Keep your life! We really need you!” and say “You are strong! You will make it!”

Serhii says that tears flow down Vitali’s cheeks when he reads to him. Other signs of improvement appeared in late December, when Vitalii began to wiggle his toes, Serhii says. Vitalii has also started to frown, which Serhii interprets as his son being interested in what he is reading.

And finally, says Serhii, another discovery: audible responses from Vitalii.

“I started asking him, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And he answered “Daddy”.

Another of Vitalii’s frequent visitors is Iryna Timofeyeva, a volunteer whose idea was to collect messages of support.

“The love of the family, the attention of other people, very often helps the positive dynamics of the patient,” she says. “For the injured person it is very important that he is not alone. That is how he understands that you have to fight.”

Vitalii is now alone in his ward, as other patients have been transferred for rehabilitation elsewhere. But the beds around him are unlikely to remain empty for long, given the ferocity of the fighting in Donbas. Vitalii Hospital in Chernihiv, north of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, is among those where soldiers receive long-term follow-up care after their wounds are stabilized closer to the front lines.

Serhii thinks that taking care of his son is his contribution to the war effort.

“I will put him back on his feet. This is my dream,” he says.

Leaning into 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

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