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Football warriors: Ukrainian amputees get back on the ball

KYIV — Goalkeeper Yevgen Nazarenko laughed as he warmed up on a football pitch in Kyiv. He had been asked to stretch his hands, but he only has one.

But the Russian “got scared”, Mr Oleg told AFP, his face beaded with sweat as he gripped his crutches.

“If he had held the rifle more firmly, he would have hit me somewhere in the middle of my chest and I would not be playing here now,” he added.

‘IT’S NOT EASY TO WITHSTAND’

“I’ve seen with my own eyes many guys who lost their limbs, how people just broke down, could not stand this terrible tragedy and started doing bad things, drugs or something else,” said the former policeman and father of two.

“It’s not easy to withstand this, believe me,” Mr Oleg said.

“I remember the first time when I came to from the morphine. I lifted up the thermal blanket and looked and my foot wasn’t there… I felt like my life was over,  but I’m still here,” he said smiling broadly.

Before losing his right foot, Mr Oleg was twice wounded but returned to the fighting each time.

He even asked a doctor to give him a fake medical certificate after his second shrapnel wound, when he should have been discharged from the front line.

“I went back to my lads, although I could have not gone there at all, to that hell,” he said.

‘LIFE DOESN’T END’

But after he lost his foot, “I realised that I was already afraid… not even of losing my life but of becoming even more disabled,” he said.

In the five-a-side game, goalkeeper Nazarenko was a whirl of energy, his T-shirt soaked with sweat, its left sleeve hanging empty.

The 31-year-old sergeant used to pilot reconnaissance drones. In May 2022 in the southern Kherson region, he was guiding mortar fire. A faulty shell exploded in the mortar tube 10m from him and he lost his arm.

He recently restarted playing football — a passion through his childhood and youth.

Catching his breath during a break in the game, he said he wanted to “show the other lads who got wounded that life doesn’t end and you don’t have to sit at home”.

Now he has learned to pilot a drone using one hand and wants to go back to serve when he gets a prosthetic arm.

‘DON’T WANT TO SIT IN A WHEELCHAIR’

Powerful and agile on his crutches, Mr Oleksandr Malchevskiy scores goal after goal with his intact left foot.

The 31-year-old had his right leg amputated below the knee after he was wounded by shelling close to Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine in May 2022.

“I have a wife. I have a nine-year-old son. I don’t want to sit in a wheelchair for 10 years and have them take care of me,” he said.

He insisted that losing a leg has “not at all” affected him mentally. 

“Because no one forced me: I volunteered in the first days (of war). I knew there was a risk.

“So it happened. Why get upset? We keep on living, that’s all,” he said.

“You adapt,” agreed Mr Volodymyr Samus, 42, who was wounded by shelling near Avdiivka, a largely destroyed eastern town that the Russians have been trying to take for months.

He was wounded at 9am local time (2pm Singapore time) and could not be treated immediately by army paramedics due to heavy shelling, eventually arriving at the hospital around 4pm.

“I had lain there a very long time under shelling and there was no way to save my leg,” he said.

He also used to play football before his injury.

With a missing leg, he said, “it’s a completely new feeling. Just like a child learning to walk, we are learning to play football again”. AFP

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