Even with his face covered entirely by a bandage, eight-year-old Roman Oleksiv’s eyes sparkle and his mouth turns up at the corners when his dad talks about things they like to do together.
Yaroslav Oleksiv and his son returned to their home in Lviv, Ukraine, in August, after spending more than a year in Germany where Roman underwent treatment. He had suffered severe burns to 80 per cent of his body after a pair of Russian missiles struck the centre of Vinnytsia in July, 2022.
Twenty-nine people, including three children, were killed in the attack, according to the Vinnytsia regional military administration. Roman and his mother were in one of the buildings that had been struck; she did not survive.
Ukraine has been under constant missile attacks since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. In a hospital in Lviv, Mr. Oleksiv draped his arm around his son, as the two described to The Globe and Mail what they’ve been through, from Roman’s rehabilitation to learning how to get by in life without his mother by his side.
On the day of the Vinnytsia strikes, Roman and his mother were on vacation, visiting his grandparents’ home in a village outside the city. In the morning, they went to a clinic for a doctor’s appointment for Roman. He said the two of them were watching TV, waiting to be seen, when he heard rockets. The blast threw him against the wall, and when he woke up all he could see was black smoke and fire. He remembers his skin on fire as he crawled to the exit.
Mr. Oleksiv said he was working in Lviv when he heard about the attack on the news and called his wife. When he couldn’t reach her, he hoped that it was because they were in a shelter, without service. He called his wife’s mom, who said they would have been at the clinic at the time of the attack. After calling every hospital looking for them, they found Roman.
Doctors initially feared Roman wouldn’t make it. Mr. Oleksiv and his relatives spent days by his son’s side while waiting for answers. Meanwhile, after calling every hospital and morgue, they learned of Roman’s mom’s fate.
Eventually, they found an option for Roman: a hospital in Dresden that could treat his burns. He spent three weeks in an induced coma: six days in Ukraine and two weeks in Germany.
After he woke up, it took him a while to speak. When he finally did, he shared with his dad that he said goodbye to his mom.
“Roman saw the hair of his mother, or maybe the hair of a woman that looks like hair of his mother and he came close to her and he put his hand on her head and said goodbye to her,” Mr. Oleksiv said.
It was a long year of rehabilitation in Germany. Roman had 31 surgeries, including 27 skin grafts. He had an operation on his arm, eardrum and fingers, and shrapnel was removed from his head.
Between surgeries, his dad helped him with homework, worried that he would spend too much time lying in bed watching television. They spent a few months at a rehabilitation centre, where he learned how to walk on his own and move his body, and then returned to the hospital in Dresden.
There, a German teacher taught Roman private language lessons so he could attend school, and before long he was going to classes with children. School was not consistent, his dad said, pointing out that his son was still undergoing surgeries and missing classes for weeks at a time. Roman attended German class during the day, but kept up with Ukrainian school online.
They tried to have fun, too: “We started to play tennis in Germany. Before the Ukrainian school and after it, we tried to play tennis every day,” Mr. Oleksiv said.
Now back in Lviv, they still maintain a busy schedule balancing school, Roman’s physiotherapy and activities. He loves to dance waltz and foxtrot.
“During dancing, I can hear it in my bones and how they’re moving,” Roman said with a laugh. “With tennis, I’m running and hitting the ball. I know it’s helping me recover from the tragedy, and I feel happy when I dance and play tennis.”
Mr. Oleksiv, a musician who plays the accordion and button accordion, said Roman plays the latter, which is also good therapy for his hand.
In the evenings, his dad removes his bandages, applies cream to his scars and wraps him back up.
“Now, I’m not just a father but also a mother,” Mr. Oleksiv said. “It’s difficult and impossible to replace his mother, but I try to do my best.”
Life continues, he said, adding he wants to make Roman’s life as similar as possible to what it would be if the attack hadn’t happened. But Roman has a long road of rehab ahead of him, as he will likely undergo surgeries well into his teenage years.
“I’m so proud of him, my son became an adult and sometimes he even seems like an adult, not an ordinary child.”
Mr. Oleksiv said they returned to Lviv because Roman wanted to come home.
“I’m not scared of Russian attacks and rockets,” Roman said, “because I know my dad is here and he will rescue me and take me to shelter.”
Reports from Kateryna Hatsenko