Teen beauty lost leg but escaped death 'by seconds' on Ukraine front

‘I was holding my knee and realised I had no lower leg’: The teenage beauty, 19, who escaped death ‘by seconds’ after her military vehicle was shelled on the Ukraine front line – but whose miraculous recovery has become a symbol of defiance for her country

The first warning an attack was imminent was the smattering of fresh craters in the road ahead.

As Rusya Danilkina and her two army colleagues drove into the Ukrainian city of Kherson, they heard the familiar whistling sound of distant shelling.

Then the ringing that had become a backdrop to Rusya’s ten months’ service on Ukraine’s front line became so deafening the 19-year-old couldn’t hear her own screams.

Within seconds, Russian shells ripped through the side of their military vehicle, tearing off Rusya’s left leg as she sat in horror and disbelief.

‘There was a terrible smell of explosives and flesh,’ she says of that fateful day. ‘Then I saw blood everywhere and parts of my body in the car. I was holding my knee and realised I had no lower leg.

Pride of a nation: Rusya Danilkina, 19, in the yellow of Ukraine after losing her lower leg

Rusya in her military uniform with her cat Pulya before being wounded

‘Before that moment, I always thought people in this much shock wouldn’t feel pain. But I felt everything — too huge a pain to be described by words. I was so scared and losing control. My body was going numb. I closed my eyes and prepared to die . . .’

As Rusya was rushed to hospital by military doctors who had been travelling to Kherson behind her vehicle, she drifted in and out of consciousness. But, seven weeks on, far from dying, Rusya has been reborn — the suicidal thoughts that initially overwhelmed her have given way to gratitude and an extraordinary optimism.

‘I had no idea I would be strong enough to survive, but losing a part of myself has taught me never to take life for granted again,’ says Rusya. ‘I’ve changed. I’m happier now, in spite of everything.’

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Recovering from her nightmare ordeal at a rehabilitation centre in Odesa, her hometown in south-western Ukraine, she says it’s all so raw that she still sometimes forgets she has lost a limb.

‘Like when I want to take off a shoe from one foot using the other, and realise I can’t do it, or when I go to touch my leg, and it’s not there,’ she says. ‘At first, I didn’t want to be alive. I couldn’t accept my life without my leg. But my psychologist is training my brain to accept this new reality.’

Rusya is documenting her road to recovery on Instagram, where she has amassed almost 40,000 followers and she has become something of a cause celebre in her native country, interviewed extensively in the national press.

Her grace and courage in the face of such horror has turned her into an emblem of hope and defiance, both for embattled Ukrainians and those of us watching their plight from afar.

‘I want to show the world the strength of the Ukrainian people,’ she says. ‘I don’t regret going to war or losing my leg. A few days before the tragedy, I felt in my heart that something bad was going to happen to me, and I think this happened for a reason.’

She adds: ‘Because of the war, we will have a lot of wounded people with injuries similar to my own. We’ll need to find a way to live like this, to keep going, and I hope my example can help.’

Speaking via an interpreter over a video call, it is hard to believe it was only seven weeks ago that Rusya’s body was ripped apart by enemy fire. Sitting on her bed, in a T-shirt and leggings, pink manicured nails resting on what remains of her left leg which has been amputated above her knee, this articulate, sporty, classical music-loving young woman shows little signs of psychological trauma.

Rusya was 18 and still living with her mother, Svetlana, who works for the Ukrainian military’s personnel department, and stepfather, Anatoliy, commander of a military platoon, in the port city of Odesa, when war broke out.

In the months after leaving school, she’d been applying unsuccessfully for university places while training as a tattooist.

‘I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life until our country came under attack and I had a strong desire to defend it,’ says Rusya. She applied to volunteer for the Ukrainian army last April, and was accepted by a military service centre in Zaporizhzhia, a city in the south-east of Ukraine that has repeatedly come under Russian fire.

Given her age and lack of experience, she says: ‘I was only allowed to do paperwork — office-based tasks such as sorting soldiers’ passports. My parents didn’t think the nature of my work would be a big risk, so accepted my decision.’

Recovering… but Rusya still feels ‘pain’ in her missing leg

After arriving in the city some 500 miles from home, however, Rusya began to feel frustrated she wasn’t more actively involved with the war effort, especially after visiting her commanders on the front line to ask administrative questions.

‘I felt my calling was to be there, too, and begged my commander to let me join,’ she says. ‘He said I was too young.’

When Rusya persisted, however, he allowed her to train as a volunteer radio operator, monitoring enemy movement, aviation and attacks.

She quickly learned to use a gun, impressed her superiors with her ability to keep calm under pressure during military exercises, and after a month had landed a role largely occupied by male volunteers at least a decade her senior.

She and the only three other women at the military camp, also working as radio operators, shared a basement room.

‘We each had a folding bed and a small cabinet made of shelves to store our belongings,’ says Rusya. Her only home comfort was a cherished baseball cap, although she acquired a stray cat on the streets of Zaporizhzhia, whom she named Pulya, Russian for bullet. ‘I think we helped each other,’ she says.

Her work shifts were spent in the trenches, often overnight.

‘I was in a hole in the ground, under threat of shelling and missiles of mass destruction,’ says Rusya. ‘I was in danger and scared all the time but I got used to this feeling.’

Having never seen a dead body before, she was suddenly surrounded by fatalities, her tenacity and speed critical.

‘If you heard any kind of noise you had to report it, fast. You had to know through the radio where the enemy was shelling, and how many of our own soldiers had been wounded and killed. We had to move them to safety ourselves.’

With a total of five days’ leave over nine months, she didn’t see her mother for the duration. ‘We had to change our location constantly, to avoid being killed by missile strikes. I sometimes longed to rest, but with every month I felt more responsibility towards my country, and I never thought about leaving.’

On the morning of February 10, she and two fellow volunteers were relocating to Kherson, south Ukraine, 200 miles away — an area increasingly under fire from Russian forces.

Rusya says as they approached the city ‘there were enemy vehicles everywhere’. She recalls: ‘We saw new holes in the ground. It was clear there had just been an attack.’ It was around midday when they were hit by shelling, and Rusya, who’d brought Pulya with her, had just put her phone down to her older brother, Vlad. ‘At first I didn’t understand what was going on. After the shelling came through the car and hit me I screamed to my colleague, “What has happened?” because I didn’t want to look. I can’t describe the pain. I could tell by his face he didn’t want to answer me. Then the shelling started again.’

With her phone still in her hand, in shock and thinking she was about to die, she recorded a video of the explosion, sending it to her devastated brother.

By a stroke of luck, military doctors had been driving to Kherson behind their vehicle. After the second round of shelling subsided they carried Rusya to the back of their van and put a tourniquet on her leg.

By the time they’d rushed her to Kherson’s Chornobayivka Hospital, she had lost so much blood that, she recalls, ‘my doctor told me I was lucky — a few seconds later I would not be alive’.

She was put under general anaesthetic as surgeons performed surgery to stop her blood loss, then transported her to the city’s bigger Mykolaiv hospital, where she fully regained consciousness for the first time.

‘That night I couldn’t sleep at all. I couldn’t stop crying, both because I was in pain and mentally, because I knew I’d lost my leg.’ As Rusya underwent four further surgeries to reconstruct the remainder of her leg and sew up her wound, her mother rushed to her bedside, sleeping next to her daughter.

Vlad, 27, a sailor, his wife Angelina and their five-month-old daughter Olivia also visited. ‘My brother refused to believe I had no leg at first,’ says Rusya. ‘But when he realised it was true, he promised me I would walk again.’

A destroyed Russian tank is seen at a compound of an international airport after Russia’s retreat from Kherson, in Chornobaivka in November last year

A local walks past a building damaged after shelling in Kherson, on March 14 this year

Four days after Rusya lost her leg, Angelina wrote a post about what happened on her sister-in-law’s Instagram account, calling Rusya the family’s ‘guardian angel’ and revealing that her first words, on regaining consciousness were: ‘What, I can no longer serve?’

The post swiftly went viral, leading to thousands of messages from well-wishers around the world.

‘The kind words motivated me and helped take my mind off the pain,’ says Rusya, whose cherished cat had been saved from the shelling and was being looked after by colleagues, who later transported it across Ukraine to be with her again. The emotional anguish of adapting to life without her leg was as hard to endure as the physical pain.

A fashion-conscious woman who had practised marital arts competitively as a child, Rusya’s strength had always been as important to her as her beauty.

‘My body meant a lot to me, as did exercise. But now I didn’t even want to go to the bathroom alone, because that meant I had to be alone with my body, and I had to see the way I looked.

‘I felt disgusted with myself. I couldn’t accept what had happened. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop crying.’

After a week, she was transported to hospital in Odesa. ‘My family stayed with me and were crying. They felt everything, too. They were trying to support me, but they were also broken inside.’

It was their despair that ultimately proved a turning point for Rusya after days of ‘unbearable torture’. She explains: ‘Seeing them suffer, watching me suffer made me realise I had to find a way to fight. I’d survived. Now I had to keep living. I dreamed of one day being able to run around with my niece. I wanted to recover for them.’ She remained in hospital for a month as her stitches healed and she learned how to do everything, from getting out of bed to dressing, with one leg and crutches.

For several weeks, she relived the trauma of losing her leg afresh the moment she woke every morning. She suffered, and still suffers, from ‘phantom leg pain’ — a condition in which pain is felt in a limb which is no longer there, believed to be caused by mixed nervous system messages between the spinal cord and the brain.

‘When I’m lying down, I can still feel my leg — I don’t know why,’ says Rusya.

A fortnight ago she moved from hospital to a rehabilitation centre in Odessa, where she is expected to remain, having daily physiotherapy, for another couple of months.

‘I have to recover muscle in my leg before I can have a prosthetic leg fitted. Doctors don’t know yet when that will be,’ says Rusya, who, having finally been accepted to university while on the front line, has started a degree in logistics at Odesa’s National Maritime University online. When she is capable, she’ll attend in person.

No longer reliant on painkillers, she is robust enough to walk to her local shop with crutches, although is still learning to deal with the reactions of strangers.

‘People look at my leg first, then when I catch their eye they try to look away. It doesn’t make me angry, but I understand I’m different now and that makes me feel awkward.’

In a population already ravaged by violence, Rusya, of course, is particularly vulnerable. ‘Being at war makes losing my leg worse. It means feeling under constant pressure.’

Yet she has learned not only to survive, but to thrive. ‘A couple of days ago, I had my first dream in which I was walking with only one leg, so I must be getting used to it,’ says Rusya. ‘I’ll never forget the horror and pain I went through, but losing a part of myself taught me not to take life for granted.’

She hopes that by the time she is walking on a prosthetic limb, Ukraine will have won the war. ‘And as I learn to walk again, I hope I can still be of service, by setting an example of self-acceptance.’


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