The smell of chlorine fills the air at the Kyiv Burn Center, along with the sound of nurses shuffling through the halls with their little carts of medicine. In the intensive care unit, lined up against the wall like giant aquariums, the glassed-in rooms are occupied by soldiers wounded in the war in east Ukraine, each one on his own slow road to recovery.
Vadym Dovhoruk, a 23-year-old from the 3rd regiment of the Ukrainian Special Forces, lies in a bed in one of these rooms, watching a TV with a rabbit-ear antenna. He is resting between surgeries, having lost one arm and both legs below the knee in the fighting. Beside him stands his father Yuri, a mechanic, who has made his weekly, seven-hour trip to the capital to be with his son. For all they've suffered, they are lucky-other families have fared far worse in this ongoing conflict.
Since it began in the spring of 2014, the war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatist forces has taken more than 9,000 lives, about a quarter of them civilians, according to a U.N. tally. Thousands of others have come back from the front with injuries that will never fully heal-chronic phantom pains from amputations, burns covering much of their bodies, extensive brain damage.
These are the victims that Joseph Sywenkyj, an American photographer of Ukrainian descent, has documented in hospitals and rehabilitation centers around the country. It has often been depressing work, and he says he does it with the Ukrainian people in mind. "It's important for them to understand the price of their independence," he says.
As his pictures demonstrate, that price has been far higher than Ukrainians could have expected when they overthrew their government in February 2014. The revolution, which called for Ukraine to integrate with Western Europe, cost Russia one of its hardest-won allies in the former Soviet Union-and Moscow's response was fierce.
That spring, Russia occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, in southern Ukraine, and stirred up a secessionist rebellion in the eastern region known as the Donbas. Ukraine fought back. Tens of thousands of soldiers and volunteers went to stop what they called a Russian invasion. Fighters and military hardware poured across the border to aid the pro-Russian rebel militias. Tanks, machine guns and multiple-rocket launchers were the weapons of choice on both sides.
Of all the belligerents, Moscow has emerged as the closest thing to a winner in this war. The easternmost regions of Ukraine, their towns gutted and infrastructure destroyed, are now separatist enclaves controlled by Russia's local proxies. Ukraine no longer controls large sections of its border with Russia. So the conflict has frozen into a kind of stalemate, which Russia can fire up at its leisure, with fresh supplies of weapons and troops, whenever it wants to pressure or destabilize its neighbor.
In recent months, though, Ukraine's new government has done Russia's work for it. Corruption in Ukraine is still rampant. Political infighting has hobbled reforms. And with all that has been sacrificed in the name of the revolution and the war, many have started to wonder whether it was worth it.
Dovhoruk is not among the doubters. Like all of the soldiers Sywenkyj photographed for this series, he believes Ukraine would be a lot worse off if it had not put a fight. Russia, for one thing, might have occupied and annexed entire regions in the east, the same way it did in the south with Crimea.
But his father finds less solace in such hypotheticals. Even though he supported the uprising two years ago, he's disappointed with how it turned out. "The people have changed a bit," he says, "but the country is the same." Except it has lost vast pieces of its territory, cut off like the limbs of too many soldiers who fought in this war.
Viacheslav Buinovsky, 41, walks toward a close friend as he takes some of his first steps using a prosthetic leg at Ortotech Service, a prosthetics workshop in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 10, 2015. Buinovsky worked as a mechanic in Sumy Oblast prior to the Euromaidan revolution, in which he took an active role. He joined the Aidar Battalion, a volunteer unit, after the revolution and was severely wounded near Luhansk in September 2014. His right hand and right leg were amputated. "I would like to return to fight, but I do not have the ability," he said. "What I can do to contribute from here, I will do. Everyone who was there would like to return back... but not everyone can."
Taras Moklyak, 23, a grenade launcher operator from Ivano-Frankivsk, is comforted by Natalia, a close friend, at the Kyiv Military Hospital shortly before traveling to Germany for further medical treatment, Kyiv, March 19, 2015. Moklyak was mobilized in May 2014; later that December he was wounded in the village of Starodubne. He suffers from severe abdominal and pelvic injuries. "If I was not a patriot," he said, "I would not have joined the army."
Roman Kubishkin, a 41-year-old construction worker, is fastened and raised into a vertical position to simulate his feeling of space and balance at a rehabilitation center in Brovary, Ukraine, July 28, 2015. This helps stimulate his brain to begin communicating with his body. He breathes through a tube in his neck and is fed through another tube that carries food directly into his stomach. Kubishkin had joined the right-wing coalition Right Sector and was based in Pisky, a village near the remains of Donetsk International Airport, when shells fired by separatist forces nearly killed him on Jan. 22, 2015. His fellow soldiers thought he was dead due to a severe head trauma, in which Kubishkin lost much of the right side of his brain. "Sixteen clinics refused to take Roman because he was in such difficult condition. Nodus was the only one," said his mother, Iryna, referring to the modern neurological and neurosurgical rehabilitation center in Brovary, outside Kyiv. His monthly care costs about $3,000 to $3,300, which is largely funded by donations and volunteers.
Vadym Dovhoruk, 23, a Ukrainian Special Forces soldier, lays in the intensive care ward at the city burn center in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 25, 2015. He was near Debaltseve when his unit was shelled on the second day of the armistice commonly referred to as Minsk II. Dovhoruk was wounded in the attack and also suffered severe frostbite after spending three days in a forest, before being detained by Russian-supported separatist forces. He is now a triple amputee. "We were ambushed," he said at the time. "I was informed yesterday about all the guys. Two others and I went missing. One of them was buried yesterday. Another is in morgue in a Dnipropetrovsk, but his parents have not yet recovered his remains. They recognized him but are still waiting for the DNA test results. He was our commander."
Dovhoruk celebrates his 24th birthday with friends and volunteers in a park near the city burn center where he is undergoing treatment in Kyiv, June 21, 2015. As of February 2016, he is walking on prosthetic legs and training his arm to be fitted for a prosthetic. Dovhoruk is enrolled at a university and studying to become a psychologist; his intention is to work with combat veterans.
Ivan Kushnerov, 25, rests on a couch in an apartment where he is staying temporarily in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 4, 2015. Kushnerov, who lives in Zaporizhia, was severely wounded in Severodonetsk in November 2014 while serving in the 39th Territorial Defense Battalion of the Ukrainian army. His left hand and three fingers on his right hand were amputated, and he has problems with his vision and legs. He worked in advertising before the war and is currently studying part-time to become a journalist. "I feel the pain. Sometimes it is phantom pain. I often have a headache, and my scars ache. This pain is always with me. But, if you feel pain, it means you are alive," he said. "I am now distracted by a lot of things. I require medical treatment, but I want to tighten my fists and go there [to war] because I am very worried about my guys. However, I realize that I will be only a burden for them now."
Volodymyr Honcharovsky, 31, a married father of four children, works with a physical therapist at a training center in Truskavets, Ukraine, Oct. 6, 2014. He was severely wounded on Feb. 20, 2014, when he was shot three times-twice in the back, once in the right arm-while attempting to reach wounded demonstrators who had been shot by security forces during the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv. Honcharovsky has feeling in his legs and can take small steps for short distances, but his legs have atrophied. Often, it is extremely difficult for him to walk due to extreme pain caused by nerve damage. "I pray and place my hope in the Lord that he will help me to stand on my legs," he said.
Honcharovsky kisses his wife, Oksana Khivchuk, in their home in Teofipol, Ukraine, Nov. 17, 2014. "Life for us is very difficult at the moment," said Khivchuk. "We hoped that he would slowly begin to walk again, but as you see, there have been no changes."
Honcharovsky is prepared for an X-ray at a hospital where he is undergoing physical therapy, Truskavets, Ukraine, Sept. 6, 2014. He underwent multiple operations in Ukraine and Germany but still has significant medical issues, including extreme pain throughout his body due to nerve damage. "I went to the Maidan on Feb. 1, 2014. I could not sit and watch the disorder [from afar], the beating of children, students as well as their parents at the hands of the Berkut [riot police]," he said. "I could not wait and watch. My heart was being torn apart by what was happening in the country."
Honcharovsky is assisted down a set of stairs after his son's christening at a church in Teofipol, Ukraine, Nov. 16, 2014. Proper infrastructure for the physically disabled barely exists in some Ukrainian cities, towns and villages.
Honcharovsky administers a dose of nalbuphine, a powerful painkiller, as his infant son, Nazar, sleeps in their home in Teofipol, Ukraine, Feb. 6, 2015. A daily dose consists of one or two injections. At times, he administers up to six injections in a day. "I taught myself how to give injections so I don't wake up my son, wife or mother in the middle of the night," he said.
Svitlana Kapusta, 29, wipes the brow of her husband, Sgt. Sergey Masan, a Ukrainian paratrooper from the southern region of Mykolaiv, as he recovers in a hospital in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, Sept. 29, 2014. Masan sustained burns to 70% of his body and lost several fingers in a grad rocket attack in the village of Dyakovo, in Luhansk Oblast near the Russian border, in July 2014. He spent approximately three months in the warzone and asserted that his brigade was frequently fired upon with grad rockets launched from Russia into Ukraine. "Our life has changed completely," Kapusta said.
Artem Zapototsky, 34, undergoes physical therapy in a pool in Truskavets, Ukraine, Sept. 6, 2014. The married father of two was severely wounded during the Euromaidan revolution on Feb. 20, 2014, when he was shot in the back as he stood unarmed on the footbridge that crosses above Instytutska Street. The bullet damaged his spine before embedding near his left shoulder blade, where it remains today. Zapototsky is a lawyer from Lutsk, in the country's northwest; he aspires to regain the use of his legs and trains for approximately six hours a day while continuing his legal work. "I am just very thankful that I already have children," he said. "I cannot imagine myself not walking again."
By Simon Schuster, TIME
Joseph Sywenkyj is an American photographer based in Ukraine. He is represented by Redux.
Andrew Katz, who edited this photo essay, is an International Multimedia Editor for TIME.
Simon Shuster is a TIME correspondent based in Berlin.