A woman receiving treatment at the Unbroken National Rehabilitation Center in Lviv, Ukraine, with her family. (Credit: Courtesy of Unbroken.)

ROME – In his latest gesture of solidarity with war victims in Ukraine, Pope Francis met Wednesday with the mayor of the western city of Lviv along with a delegation from what is quickly becoming the country’s largest hospital for people wounded and maimed in the conflict.

Andrii Sadovy was present at the pope’s Wednesday general audience alongside Oleg Samchuk, director of the project “Unbroken,” which is a national rehabilitation center located in Lviv providing care to war victims and producing prostheses for people who have lost limbs in bomb and missile attacks.

The center also provides psychological and psychosocial rehabilitation to both civilians and soldiers and is overseen by the First Medical Association of Lviv and the Lviv City Council, with the support of Ukraine’s Ministry of Health.

Speaking to journalists Dec. 7 after a brief meeting with Pope Francis, Sadovyi said the group presented the pontiff with a cross made from metal fragments taken from the injuries of children wounded in the war in Ukraine.

One of the largest chunks of metal, he said, was taken from a young girl from the village of Bakhmut, which is currently the site of intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops, and who is now receiving treatment at the Unbroken rehab center.

“Lviv, the city, has been hit with more than 15 million Ukrainian migrants who have either stayed or who have left the country,” Sadovyi said, saying they have so far treated some 15,000 wounded Ukrainians in Lviv, most of whom are women and children.

Just 21 years ago Lviv hosted St. John Paul II during a visit to Ukraine, “and now we are welcoming migrants from all over” the country, he said, saying there are plans in the works to expand the rehab center’s facilities with the goal that Lviv “will become a great hub of rehabilitation.”

Waging for nearly 10 months, the Ukraine war erupted after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, which sparked the largest conflict Europe has seen since the Second World War, and which has caused the mass displacement of millions who fled their homes and are either living in other cities or who have traveled abroad.

Oleg Samchuk, director of the Unbroken center, told journalists that there are roughly 3,000 beds in the facility, and at the moment “all of them are full.”

While most of the patients are women and children, soldiers are treated, Samchuk said, saying, “We welcome anyone we consider a victim of the war.”

Hospitals and other medical facilities from around the country send their most serious cases to the Lviv center, he said, saying most have received basic care and are stable when they arrive, but remain in serious condition and require attentive care.

Most are sent on “evacuation trains” from the frontlines, with cars and carriages ready to accept them when they arrive. Sometimes whole families have been wounded and come seeking treatment.

The facility is quickly becoming the main reception center for wounded, with hundreds, including roughly 200 children, arriving every day.

“There hasn’t been a war like this for a long time. There is not a lot of experience at a global level for caring for such a large quantity of people who have been wounded in war,” Samchuk said, saying their dream is that the center will eventually become “a global hub where all doctors who want to work with people wounded in war can work with us, can come to us, and elaborate new methodologies of care with us.”

“Our center right now cares for Ukrainian citizens, but in the future it must be global. We hope that there is never again war, but if it happens, it will also be a service to the wounded in other countries,” he said.

Sadovyi said there are currently some 4,000 doctors who work at the Unbroken facility, with also has shelter spaces where people can hide during air raids. Some 20 buildings are being revamped and adapted for medical services, and there are also special wings for women.

There are also plans to build another, separate facility that is even larger than the one currently in use, with separate hospitals for adults and for children, so as to increase the number of people able to receive care.

In terms of prosthetics, the center produces a small number but is seeking to increase its output, including bionic prostheses, because “a child who grows to 18 years old needs different types of prosthetics,” Sadovyi.

The facility, according to Sadovyi, receives support from throughout Europe, and requires an additional 7 million euros ($7.3 million) in order to complete the expansion work on the second building and hire more doctors and nurses.

Right now, the plan is to have over 43,055 sq ft. available for the complete facility.

Sadovyi asked for financial support and donations to fund the expansion, saying, “this would be a big help for us because we have many wounded, many more than you imagine.”

Speaking of their meeting with the pope, Sadovyi said they presented him with the cross and explained the work that Unbroken does.

“The pope gave a blessing to the project. We hope that the whole church will be with us,” he said, saying they asked Francis to be “the ambassador” of Unbroken.

I am convinced that the pope understands our situation. He is with us, he will help us, and is present with us in various projects, including this one,” he said, voicing his hope that the pope, every time he sees the cross that they gave him, “will remember the wounded children in Ukraine.”

He condemned the presence of “Russian propaganda” in Europe, saying this is one reason they wanted to meet with the pope, in addition to the ministerial meetings they had.

“We really wanted to have a direct meeting with the Holy Father so that the Holy Father hears from us the truth of what is happening in Ukraine. His words have strong power. I always want the pope to be with us, on this side of goodness. Together, we will win,” he said.

Despite the ongoing bombs and the daily sirens, life in Lviv continues to go forward as normally as possible, Sadovyi said, but complained that the most recent spat of missiles targeted Lviv’s energy station, meaning the city is struggling to provide electricity to inhabitants amid dropping winter temperatures.

With key energy infrastructure damaged at the onset of winter, the city is investing in electric generators that can be used during power outages and periodic blackouts.

Unfortunately, Russia was always and will always be a source of aggression, and we must in some way isolate Russia to not allow it to always be so aggressive, at least for the next 50 years,” Sadovyi said, saying, “It’s difficult to imagine the violence with which they kill our women and our children.”

He voiced gratitude for the solidarity of the international community, saying Ukrainians are fighting “a war for freedom, to be free and to live in a free country.”

“We have paid a lot for our independence, and above all you must understand us well. Today we are fighting to be free, not only us, but all of Europe,” he said, noting that while the Ukrainian army is small, they are determined and “will fight until the end.”

“Each of you has the choice, to choose freedom or money, but if one chooses money, sooner or later they’ll lose their freedom. We have chosen freedom,” he said, saying, “Freedom is part of our identity, and we will fight until the last citizen.”

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