IVAN still remembers his first thought that day after the bullets ripped through both legs.

“At first there wasn’t any pain and I kept thinking this can’t be happening again,” he recalls of that afternoon at the start of the war last year as he lay crumpled on the ground near the town of Slovyansk in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

The firefight between his Ukrainian army unit and Russian soldiers opposing them had been fierce he says. This from a man still only 27 years-old but no ­stranger to combat having fought on Ukraine’s frontlines against Moscow backed forces years before Russia’s all-out invasion in February 2022.

It was back in 2019 when Ivan – who prefers to be known simply by his first name – was first wounded. It was that memory which leapt to the forefront of his mind again on that cold ­February ­afternoon as his comrades struggled to ­apply a tourniquet to Ivan’s legs to staunch the blood flow before dragging him off the battlefield under fire.

The National: Recovering veteran ‘Ivan’ at at rehabilitation centre -Irpin Recovering veteran ‘Ivan’ at at rehabilitation centre -Irpin (Image: David Pratt)

His wounds were bad, the bullets ­having passed right through, leaving gaping exit holes and shattering the bone in his right leg, leaving massive damage to the knee.

It was only when the firing and shelling sufficiently subsided that he and another badly injured comrade could be ­evacuated by armoured vehicle to Slovyansk.

What followed would be another long and excruciatingly painful journey. One that would take Ivan from a field ­hospital triage station all the way over many months to a rehabilitation centre in the city of Irpin run by Next Step Ukraine, a largely voluntary, charitable foundation, that helps soldiers recover from their war wounds.

Today, Ivan still works out and helps at the centre where twice he has found ­himself battling the road to recovery from his injuries.

“It takes time and hard work for the mobility to return,” he explains, adding that many of his fellow wounded soldiers have had to go abroad for treatment given the limited places in specialist centres like the one in Irpin.

Right now, some of the bloodiest ­battles of this war to date are being fiercely ­contested in that eastern part of Ukraine, not far from where Ivan was wounded ­almost a year ago.

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“This is what madness looks like,” was how Ukrainian president ­Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently described the ­obliterated landscape of frozen bomb ­craters, bunkers, slit trenches and shattered streets and houses around the town of Soledar and larger city of Bakhmut.

It’s hardly surprising that the ongoing battles here, especially in Soledar with its labyrinthine miles of disused salt mine tunnels have drawn comparisons with the horrors of the last two world wars.

Across these and other frontlines, ­killing the enemy and battling the ­hardships of Ukraine’s frigid winter cold are the order of the day as Russian forces, many of them mercenaries from the ­Wagner group, are said to advance ­stepping over the corpses of those – some of them convicts – who made up previous assault waves only to be mown down by Ukrainian fire.

Not that the Ukrainians are having it all their own way, far from it, with reports of their forces under massive pressure but doggedly refusing to give ground even as the Russians throw everything that they have at Soledar and Bakhmut.

Back in Irpin at the rehabilitation ­centre, battlefield veterans such as Ivan and those helping them recover like ­physiotherapist Marta Rezsntseva, are all too aware that some of those men and women being wounded right now on the frontlines of the Donbas and elsewhere will themselves end up at the Irpin centre in the weeks and months to come.

Tall and with a serious demeanour that rapidly gives way when working with ­patients, 32-year-old Rezsntseva first ­became engaged with a military medical unit back in 2015.

Moments before we talk, I watch as she completes a physiotherapy session with another patient, this time it’s a young woman in her early 20s and who like Ivan has suffered severe damage to her legs.


The National: Leonila with her ten-year-old son Naraz in Borodyanka Leonila with her ten-year-old son Naraz in Borodyanka (Image: David Pratt)

“Most of those we treat have ­shrapnel or bullet damage, injuries to muscles, bones, nerves or cerebral wounds,” Rezsntseva says, adding that the ­majority of patients discover the existence of the centre by themselves though some are ­referred from military hospitals.

Psychological trauma is not part of their work Rezsntseva tells me, requiring as it does its own specialist treatment.

“Though not always the case, ­physical rehabilitation is often a ­comparatively shorter process than that needed ­psychologically and we do not have the provision for the length and types of very precise psychological and mental health care needed,” Rezsntseva explains.

I put it to her that witnessing the worst of what war does to human beings and being exposed to their stories must make it difficult for herself to cope with such emotional pressure?

“I know that I’m doing my job and ­giving something back to those who have already given so much in itself helps me cope,” she answers, a rare smile breaking out across her face.

But as Rezsntseva and other ­Ukrainians are quick to point out, it’s not only those in the country’s armed forces who have borne the brunt of this war.

Ever since Russia’s invasion, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have died and millions been displaced or made refugees as the Kremlin cynically and ­deliberately unleashes all-out war on Ukraine’s ­civilian population.

Keen to see for myself what impact this has had over the past year on some of those places and communities I’ve ­previously visited since the Russian ­invasion, I decided to make a return visit to a few of them.

It was back last summer when I first ­visited the village of Moschun. Tucked away in the forest and sitting adjacent to the Irpin river just over 20 miles north of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Moschun, ­before the Russian invasion, was the ­epitome of rural suburbia.

But all that changed forever as Russian forces bore down on Kyiv from all sides in an effort to take the capital. Moschun was one of the places that stood in the way of the Russian advance Kyiv.

For most of the 1000 or so pre-war ­residents of the village the priority was getting to safety as the Russians sought to obliterate Moschun with a relentless ­bombardment of rockets and shells.

Those that remained, engaged in ­whatever way they could to halt the ­Russians, often paying with their lives. Some military analysts have described their actions as a 21st-century version of partisans behind Nazi lines during the Second World War.

With more than 80% of its buildings destroyed, Moschun today still has the feel of a ghost town, even if some 700 or so of its ­residents have returned.


Among them is 69-year-old Valentina Pompenko. It was mid-morning when I came across her tramping through the freshly fallen snow on her way home from the local village hall from which long ­dangerous looking icicles dangled from the guttering in the sub-zero ­temperatures.

Home for Valentina is her semi-repaired house that she and her daughter had lived in for decades before the war. But with ­insufficient space until the repairs are complete, her daughter is now living in one of the 60 prefabricated homes that other returning residents to Moschun now have to inhabit.

“Come see for yourself what it’s like,” Valentina urged, leading the way across what had been her garden now covered in snow and flanked by the ruins of her neighbours’ home that was destroyed in the Russian onslaught last year.

“My neighbour, burned to death there,” Valentina told me, pointing at some charred rubble no more than 50 yards away.

The National: Man shelters in for warmth in resilience centre BorodyankaMan shelters in for warmth in resilience centre Borodyanka (Image: David Pratt)

ACROSS Moschun on either side of the rutted tracks that pass for streets here, lie many other gutted buildings. On what walls remain some still have spray painted messages announcing that women and children live there, desperate appeals to the Russians in the hope their homes would be spared – few were.

Inside Valentina’s tiny, prefabricated home that is little more than a metal portacabin with a wood-lined interior, two cats and a golden puppy scrabble at our feet as she tells me of the hardships of winter living in such a cramped space.

“It’s always damp and of course like everywhere right now, the electricity is only occasionally on,” she says, pulling back some bedclothes that look saturated.

The water supply comes from a well outside, she explains, but it’s often frozen right now.

Where once Valentina used to ­collect herbs in the forests that ­surround ­Moschun which she once sold to make a meagre living, today that is ­impossible ­because of the mines and other ­unexploded ordnance that litters this ­otherwise quiet rural backwater.

How does she pass the time, I ask her?

“I read and write poetry,” she replies, before reciting with the help of my translator one of her own short works about the war and forests surrounding Moschun.

Like most Ukrainians I meet faced with hardships resulting from the war, few complain, and Valentina is no exception.

In the neighbouring city of ­Borodyanka however there is some local disquiet. Here more than a dozen apartment blocks were reduced to rubble and ash along the town’s main street at the end of ­February last year when Russian tanks rolled in from the Belarusian border, 200 miles north.

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Back in August when I last visited, ­local residents were campaigning to have some rebuilt. While one block opposite the city’s main square has since been ­repaired others have been demolished and some stand exactly as they were after Russian shells and bombs ripped through them. Some residents were especially ­angered that local authorities spoke of building a museum to the war on the site of one block instead of new housing.

“Bucha, Irpin, things seem to be ­improving there, but not here in ­Borodyanka,” complained Leonila, a 28- year-old mother, who was out walking in the city square with her 10-year-old son Naraz.

Asked what the reason might be for that, like other local people in ­Borodyanka she blamed the “incompetency” of the city authorities.

Whether such criticism is ­accurate or justified, there is no doubt that the ­Ukrainian authorities are under ­tremendous pressure across almost all ­cities, towns and villages.

In the capital Kyiv, here and there are ­remarkable signs of rapid repairs to ­damage done. High rise blocks I saw gutted last March in the district of Vinograder for example have already been completed as have others, but all this is done amidst the ongoing war and an intensification of Russian airstrikes on the capital itself IN the last hour even as I write this, Russian missiles have again hit the city, the first since January 31 which struck Kyiv city centre destroying among other things the Alfavito Hotel and homes in a neighbourhood where one woman was killed.

Yet Kyiv and its citizens remain ­resilient. Only the other day barely 400 yards from the site of December’s New Year’s Eve ­airstrike, skiers and ­snowboarders could be seen on the urban slope at ­Protasiv Yar.

Despite power blackouts, a giant snow-making machine run from a generator was adding to the fall of natural snow on the slope and the pulley lift was hauling winter sports enthusiasts of all ages up the slope in temperatures of -7°C.

Such activities might on the face of it seem like an indulgence, when on the other side of the country soldiers are ­suffering from hypothermia and frostbite in the trenches of Soledar, Bakhmut and elsewhere. But one year on in this war, Ukrainians understand the value of a ­collective morale and psychological boost and know it usefulness should never be underestimated.

Across Kyiv and elsewhere there are resilience centres where people can stay warm and recharge mobile phones. Neighbourhood donors and volunteers meanwhile stack lifts with food and drink supplies for anyone trapped during power cuts.

In a city like Kyiv, where many ­citizens live in high rise blocks and through age or health issues find themselves ­unable to climb sometimes up to 20 storeys and emergency services are under ­pressure, such small details can be a life saver. Few things it seems are too small or ­insignificant to go unattended while ­priorities are almost always clear.

Defiance and a determination to ­continue the fight to expel the Russian ­invaders of their country is as strong now or ever stronger that when I was last here in the summer.

Back at the Irpin rehabilitation centre, Ivan now recovering from his wounds, tells me he has a military medical ­commission check up in a few weeks’ time. What then I ask him?

“All being well I can return to my unit, I know my injuries will prevent me from going on the frontline again, but I want to be back as close to my comrades as ­possible,” he tells me before pausing momentarily and adding a final thought. “This war is far from over yet.”