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article imageWounded in east Ukraine struggle for artificial limbs

By Yulia Silina (AFP)     Dec 7, 2016 in World

Yulia Mikhailova considers herself lucky after surviving a shell strike on a trolley last year that killed 15 people in war-scarred east Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel-held territory.

But the 25-year-old lost a leg and an arm and can now only get about with a wheelchair or the help of friends due to a lack of modern prosthetics that allow a person independent use of their artificial limbs in the rebel bastion of Donetsk.

"After the attack, I saw parts of my body lying around and I lost a lot of blood," Mikhailova told AFP.

"I was lucky -- at least the intensive care unit had medicine delivered through foreign humanitarian aid."

The United Nations estimates that nearly 10,000 people have been killed and more than 22,000 wounded after 31 months of fighting between pro-Western government forces and Moscow-inspired rebel militias in the European Union's backyard.

The wounded are often left helpless: the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk does not manufacture artificial limbs and has to import them instead from Germany via Russia.

- No day without pain -

After a year Mikhailova finally got an artificial leg, but the lack of pain killers and proper medical guidance mean she rarely uses it and has to rely on a wheelchair or her family's help.

Igor Rudenko shows an artificial limb made at his workshop in Donetsk
Igor Rudenko shows an artificial limb made at his workshop in Donetsk

"In order to walk on your own, you need a better prosthetic to replace the standard one that is first issued. But the rebels simply do not have them," she said.

A generous sponsor later provided Mikhailova with a replacement arm as well a wheelchair.

The arm prosthetic serves a largely cosmetic purpose because it lacks the electronic sensors needed for movement.

"During the operation, the nerve in my arm got pinched, and now I do not go a day without pain," she said.

"And when I start wearing an artificial leg, that hurts as well. It is simply too much, when two of your limbs hurt at the same time."

The rebels in east Ukraine say they officially issued just 58 artificial limbs in 2015.

People from Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine queue to leave territory controlled by pr...
People from Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine queue to leave territory controlled by pro-Russia separatists in 2015
Andrey Borodulin, AFP/File

The doctors are in despair at the suffering they see in one of Europe's bloodiest conflicts since the 1990s wars in the Balkans.

"Because of the fighting, we had to close our hospital for 18 months," doctor Irina Shupletsova told AFP.

The 50-year-old director of a district medical centre said the waiting list of those seeking help has grown to a staggering 100,000 people.

The figure includes people who suffer from illnesses not linked to the war.

- Soviet-era care -

Both the sick and the injured fighters are furious at the lack of medical attention.

A man examines his destroyed house in Golmovsky village  Donetsk region  in August 2015
A man examines his destroyed house in Golmovsky village, Donetsk region, in August 2015
Aleksey Filippov, AFP

Alexander Pashkov joined one of the militia forces after leaving his native Russian city of Voronezh.

Russia denies formally backing the insurgents and claims only that "volunteers" and off-duty soldiers have entered rebel ranks of their own free will.

Pashkov is 27 and no longer has any "idea what I am doing here... after losing a leg and getting captured".

Pashkov was swapped in a prisoner exchange and now lives in Donetsk.

He also constantly complains about the basic leg prosthetic he received from the insurgency leaders.

"This one is alright for walking. But I need an electronic prosthetic so that I can climb stairs. And that one costs two million rubles ($31,000 / 29,000 euros.)

"The Soviet-style healthcare system that we have here has outlived itself."

- Prosthetics made from bicycles -

Desperate times call for innovative measures and that is just what some of the disabled have been forced to resort to.

Donetsk has developed specialists who can make artificial limbs from bicycles parts that they attach to a victim's body in their home.

Engineer Igor Rudenko uses a wheel shock-absorber that he molds with aluminum parts in his workshop to form a foot.

It is a lot cheaper than a simple German prosthetic but appears to be only a makeshift solution.

His first patients have had trouble walking and other medics have frowned on his innovation.

"Right now, I am looking for an improvement," Rudenko said.

"I am constantly in touch with other people via the social networks who know how to deal with such injuries. And we meet and support each other," said the engineer.

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