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Meet 'Unbreakable Rusya,' the woman helping war amputees in Ukraine

Ruslana Danilkina's life changed when a bomb made her an amputee. Now, she uses her own experience to help others.
Meet 'Unbreakable Rusya,' the woman helping war amputees in Ukraine
Posted at 8:56 PM, Feb 20, 2024

She’s a ray of light in a dark time — young, vibrant, and optimistic, there to lift the spirits of amputees who are everywhere now — limbs lost to mines, bullets, and bombs. 

Ruslana Danilkina brings her expertise to a rehabilitation center in Lviv, in western Ukraine, called Superhumans. It's one of many such facilities in the country, and she is one of the humans that make it super. 

“I'll show you how to work with your foot. Is it normal that you only go out halfway? You need to give more energy to the front,” said Danilkina.

Two years ago, Danilkina never imagined she’d be at Superhumans, or the series of events that would bring her here. 

“I was ordinary. I was a girl. Eighteen years old. I was working as a waitress and studying to become a tattoo artist, and the full-scale invasion began,” said Danilkina.

She volunteered to fight against Russia, but the army assigned her a role away from the fighting, clerical work at a headquarters in southern Ukraine. So she begged her comrades to take her to visit the front lines. 

“After my first trip to the front, I realized that I wanted to stay there,” said Danilkina.

But why did she want to be on the front lines? Her answer was simple.

“I saw my hometown being attacked. I heard the explosions,” said Danilkina.

As a radio operator on the front, she recorded her movements and moments. It was a dangerous duty, and she would witness the awful destruction wrought by Russian attacks. 

She turned 19 on the battlefield and last February, one of those bombs changed her life forever. 

SEE MORE: Meet the brave woman leading search dogs in war-torn Ukraine

“I was driving, smiling,” said Danilkina. “There was very heavy shelling that day. Kherson was directly under fire, and then there was an explosion. The fragments from a cluster munition pierced the car. I opened my eyes and realized that my leg was gone.”

Afraid she was dying, she shot a video so her family would know what happened to her. 

“If not for the medics, I probably would not have been saved,” Danilkina recalls. “And the shelling continued. You are being hit by shells, and you can't even run away to save yourself. There was no sense in crying. I just screamed from the pain and kept trying to save myself.”

Once in the hospital, she realized her life was going to be very different.

“I immediately realized that I would not walk. When I woke up from the anesthesia, I reached for my leg and realized that it was gone,” Danilkina said.

The physical and emotional pain fractured Danilkina’s effervescent spirit. 

“I just wanted to dissolve into space and disappear,” Danilkina said.

Then, after five operations through Superhumans, she got her first prosthetic leg, and as part of her recovery, her brother urged her to document her journey on social media, however difficult. 

“There were days when I didn't want to do anything at all, to post, and so on,” Danilkina said. “He would even scold me and say, 'Come on, Ruslana, you have to. You need to. You must!'”

SEE MORE: 'Demon' is a 19-year-old Ukrainian mortarwoman seeking revenge

Then she happened upon a theme: beauty, challenging societal norms on how it is defined. In her posts, a young woman shows off her prosthetic leg instead of hiding it. 

“It may sound very strange, but after I started my new life after being wounded, I really fell in love with myself,” Danilkina said.

But this didn’t happen overnight.

“It took a lot of effort, time, and tears,” she said.

Even some tears of joy as she gained the strength to travel to Paris, a childhood dream. 

She's aiming to convey a straightforward message.

“You can love yourself no matter who you are,” she said. “It is normal to be a person without a limb.”

All too normal in Ukraine. 

A year after losing her leg, Danilkina prides herself on being a model of athleticism to those new to the amputee community.

The woman now known as “Unbreakable Rusya” helps those just beginning their journey of recovery navigate the world’s obstacles using a prosthetic limb.

“This guy has a high amputation, and I am teaching him to walk. But now he is practicing,” Danilkina said.

She makes having a prosthetic leg look like it's not that big of a deal.

“If it looks easy and simple, then I am very happy,” she said. “But, of course, it is very painful; it is very difficult.”

Scripps News had already met up with Danilkina last September in Kyiv, just six months after losing her leg, and she says she has been training ever since as she prepares to run in the capital’s annual marathon.

“I know that I probably won't be able to run all 5 kilometers, but it is a challenge,” said Danilkina.

This year, a prosthetic gives you a head start. But everyone in this group is running their own race at their own pace, just as far as their bodies allow.

Shortly after the rest of the marathoners begin the race, they pass her. Were they faster? Maybe. But stronger? Never.


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