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A Ukrainian soldier in France speaks about writing and recovery

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Ahead of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Ukrainian soldier and author Oleksandr “Teren” Budko spoke to FRANCE 24 about his path to recovery after losing both legs, his approach to writing and his patriotism.

On a recent evening at the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in France, Oleksandr “Teren” Budko stood with his interpreter before a large audience of Ukrainians and other nationalities. Blond and with a boyish face, the 27-year-old Ukrainian soldier was on the French leg of his European book tour for “Story of a Stubborn Man”. The autobiography interspersed with memories from the front lines recounts his road from civilian to soldier and then to battle-scarred veteran.

Budko began writing the book in October 2022, just two months after losing both legs after a shell landed near him in a trench during the counteroffensive for the city of Kharkiv. “I found inspiration for my writing on the front lines,” he said. Even before the injury, he had been publishing short texts accompanied by pictures of him and his buddies in combat gear as they worked to repel the Russian enemy.

Athletically built and wearing a quilted blue shirt and shorts that showed his prosthetics, Budko was as comfortable as a stand-up comedian in front of a crowd. “There is no truth in the leg,” he said, repeating a Ukrainian proverb that suggests a person who has walked a lot cannot tell the truth because they are tired.

Appreciation for a war hero

Yet he wanted to get as close to the truth as possible while writing his book. He wanted to capture the voices of his comrades and the sights and the sounds of what he experienced in eastern Ukraine. He would try to write, but then get stuck with month-long bouts of writer’s block. A trip to Florida, where he went to get fitted with sports prosthetics so he could participate in the Invictus Games, finally changed something in him. “I was there under the sun, I swam in the sea in Miami, I ate at McDonald’s – and this gave me the perfect circumstances to write this book,” he said.

Thousands of miles away from Ukraine, he revisited his prior experience as a Ukrainian soldier. His days were filled with rehabilitation but, at night, he would write. Like plunging into the nearly clear waters off the Atlantic coast, he immersed himself in his memories of fighting the war and typed them up on a computer.

“Some of the people I wrote about in the book are dead, and that’s why it was so hard to write the text,” said Budko. Luckily, many people in the book did survive, “including my comrade Artem”, he said, nodding toward a young man in a wheelchair sitting in the front row. The audience responded with lengthy applause in appreciation of the two young men for their sacrifice – and for coming home alive.

Memories from the war

Budko agreed to an interview the next day to talk about what led him to fight in the war and his memories from that time. After a visit to Paris’s Carnavalet Museum, with its elaborate displays dedicated to the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the young man in a black hoodie settled at a kebab restaurant on the Rue des Rosiers, an eclectic street in the Marais neighbourhood of central Paris. He was accompanied by his editor and a lively group of young Ukrainians who, judging by their level of excitement, appeared to be visiting the French capital for the first time.

Sitting with his back against the wall, a bit apart from the group, Budko suddenly seemed less like a comedian and more like a wise old man. “I wrote this book for civilians and for people who had never seen war, so they could understand what happens on the front lines,” he said. 

Through his interpreter, Budko said he was in Kyiv when the war began on February 24, 2022. “I signed up as a volunteer because I wanted to defend my country from the enemy and help it gain independence,” he said.

Although he had never held a weapon before in his life, he joined the Carpathian Sich 49th Infantry Battalion, a battalion of the Ukrainian Ground Forces established in May 2022. After some training and taking part in the defence of the capital Kyiv, Budko was deployed to northeastern Ukraine near Izium.

Most people in the battalion were volunteers who accepted the consequences of their choice, remembered Budko. “Of course Bakhmut and Avdiivka exist (two besieged cities known for scenes of the most ferocious violence of the war), but the life of a soldier is not only about fighting,” he added.

Budko recalled one moment when he ate a slice of foie gras for breakfast: “For me, it was a sign I was still alive,” he said. Despite being trained as killing machines, Budko said he and his fellow volunteers continued civilian life to the best of their ability, preparing traditional meals like borscht, a red beetroot soup, and taking the time to enjoy them with each other. This also meant saving abandoned cats and dogs and evacuating elderly people from zones that had become too perilous for them to stay.

An invincible optimism

From the trenches, the soldiers watched Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speeches and followed news reports on military support from abroad. “We were interested in how the war was going to end, but of course the weapons situation was important too, because without weapons it was going to be impossible to end the war,” said Budko. “Despite the many weapons given, it was never enough.”

Writing the book also allowed Budko to relive some of the moments from “one of the best times of my life”, he said. The adventure, the camaraderie and the moments of peace, such as when he would lie down on the ground with a book, seem to have left Budko with a sense of nostalgia devoid of any bitterness. But today he preferred not to talk about the day he suffered the injury that caused him to lose both legs: “There is no trauma, but I’ve told the story too many times.”

Budko said he has always been endowed with an invincible optimism. He said what changed after the injury is that he “became braver and more open to people”.

Thinking back to his time in the service, the young man recalled the discovery of a small kobzar (a Ukrainian bard) figurine he made one day while digging trenches in the Kharkiv region. The statue was more confirmation that the lands were Ukrainian, he said, because kobzars never existed in Russia. It further convinced him of his role in preserving Ukrainian territorial integrity.

Ahead of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Budko likened the war to a “David against Goliath” struggle and voiced a warning about the existential nature of the threat: “The less support Ukraine gets, the closer the enemy gets to other European countries.”

With this in mind, his goal today is to “contribute to the Western population’s understanding of the war, and encourage them to support us so that they can help obtain a Ukrainian victory as soon as possible”.

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