ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: Former Ukrainian rebel fighter Valery glances down at where his right leg should be as he confronts life’s new reality across the border in Russia.
“Hopefully I will get my prosthetic soon and in a month try to learn to walk again with it,” the father-of-one, 40, told AFP, refusing to give his surname as his son lives in government-held territory.
A former railway worker, Valery took up arms to battle Ukrainian troops he saw as threatening his home in a war that Kiev and the West accuse Russia of instigating. He fought until a machine-gunner blew off his leg in February clashes near his hometown of Mariupol.
“Whatever hand fate deals you, you can’t change it,” he said, shifting around on his dormitory bed. “People can get used to everything.”
Now he is recovering in a nondescript brick house in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, some 100 kilometers from the border with his homeland, that has become a makeshift rehabilitation centre for those injured on the rebel side of the Ukraine conflict.
By mid-morning, some half a dozen men — some missing arms, others legs — sit smoking on a wooden bench in the small courtyard.
A bearded, haggard man emerges from the house leading his blind son — an ex-insurgent fighter aged 30 — into the sunshine he cannot see.
No light injuries
“The number of guys here varies — sometimes there are 10, sometimes 40. Normally between 20 and 30,” said Olga Vezovskaya, a former rebel medic, who runs the center.
“There aren’t any people with light injuries here — the patients need long-term and comprehensive rehabilitation,” she said, adding that the center is the only one around helping rebels and civilians, and the waiting list is long.
Moscow is accused of arming the rebels and sending its troops into Ukraine but those running the rehabilitation center insist it has no links to the Russian state.
The wounded do not pay for their board or treatment and, up until recently, money came from a fund headed by shady former separatist commander Igor Strelkov — an ex-Russian intelligence agent who commanded the rebels until last summer.
Thanks to an unofficial agreement with a local state-run factory, the injured received discounted prosthetic limbs that can cost up to $1,600 dollarsand the public have helped cover treatment at local clinics.
But now ruptures among the various rebel factions — that some commentators see as a sign of Moscow’s shifting support — have seen funding cut and the rehabilitation centre is struggling to raise money to stay open.
“We have a lot of problems now covering our daily needs. We have lost our financing and we don’t know how we will cope,” said Vezovskaya.
“I am trying to do all I can so that our guys don’t feel abandoned.”
Let down by leadership?
While none of the former fighters say they regret their choice to sign up with the rebels, many seem angry with how things have turned out in east Ukraine.
They see the current rebel leadership — that the West says are Kremlin puppets — as corrupt and accuse them of letting down those who fought for them.
“The people in charge crawled out of cellars somewhere,” spits recovering rebel fighter Maxim angrily, giving only his military call-sign “Buba.”
“It is a betrayal of the people,” he said. “These guys, why did they go through all this? How will they look after their families now?”
The future for the men here who took up arms against an enemy they saw as threatening their loved ones is uncertain.
Ex-miner Vadim Lysovenko, 37, says he accepts that given the rebel states are unrecognized even by Russia, those injured in the fighting will struggle to get compensation or be accepted as war veterans.
But as he shifts the stump of his left leg he says that he hopes to get support from the rebel authorities.
“People who have fought to defend their homes can’t believe that they did everything in vain,” he said.
Meanwhile, others have already gone through the lengthy process of rehab and are ready to return to whatever life awaits them.
Alexander, 32, nervously toys with his prosthetic right hand as a taxi carries him across town to catch a bus back to east Ukraine.
The former mine electrician has not been back to his home region since he was injured in August.
“I’m worried,” he says quietly. “I don’t know what I will find there and how I will be received.”
“I can’t go back to work in the mine without my hand,” he said, staring out of the car window. “Maybe I can work as a janitor somewhere now, I don’t know what else.”