Along a bustling street in a western Ukrainian city, Denys Abdulin takes his first independent strides since he was severely wounded and blinded while fighting invading Russian troops more than a year ago.

The 34-year-old former soldier, wearing black glasses and gripping a white mobility cane, steps onto a more crowded stretch of sidewalk. His movements become tentative and tense. He accidentally blocks the path of a woman approaching an ATM to withdraw cash.

Like many other pedestrians, she responds with a compassionate smile and gracefully moves aside. Gradually, Abdulin covers almost 3/10 of a mile, guided by a trainer walking ahead of him with a bracelet of small metal bells.

Five other Ukrainian military veterans conquered similar challenges while attending a rehabilitation camp for ex-soldiers who lost their vision in combat. Over several weeks, the men would learn to navigate the city of Rivne, to prepare their own meals and to use public transportation while traveling solo.

Daily tasks they previously performed without thinking now demand focus, strength and dedication.

“Everyone pays their price for freedom in Ukraine,” Abdulin, who spent months confined to a hospital bed and rarely takes off his dark shades, said.

The war Russia launched in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 has killed tens of thousands of fighters on both sides. Countless others, both Ukrainian military personnel and civilians who took up arms to defend their country, have been maimed or suffered other injuries that irreversibly reshaped their lives.

No statistics currently exist for how many service members have lost their sight due to severe wounds sustained in the war, according to Olesia Perepechenko, executive director of Modern Sight, the non-governmental organization that puts on the camp. But demand for the program is growing as the war nears its year and a half point.

Over the course of several weeks, the veterans, accompanied by their families, reside at a rehabilitation center outside of Rivne. Most receive their first canes here, take their first walks around urban and natural environments without assistance, and learn to operate sound-based programs for using cellphones and computers.

“Our goal isn’t to retrain them, not to change them, but simply to give them a chance to become independent and self-reliant,” Perepechenko, who is herself blind, said.

Abdulin voluntarily joined the military when Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 18 months ago. Completing the 600-meter walk marked a new phase in his recovery following the wounds he sustained when a mine detonated a few yards behind him in Sieverodontesk, a city in eastern Ukraine now occupied by Russians.

“It seemed to me that a flame flew out of my eyes,” he said of that day in May 2022. “I immediately realized that I had lost my eyes.”

“Of course, I expected everything, but becoming blind, I couldn’t even imagine,” Abdulin continued. “I thought that I could lose an arm or a leg, and I didn’t want to die at all. I never even thought that I would become blind. Therefore, at first, it was very difficult”.

In 2014, when Russia unlawfully annexed Crimea and armed conflict erupted in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Perepechenko yearned to be on the front lines helping in some way. Her request to join the army was declined, so she decided to embrace a new mission: helping soldiers who lost their sight to reclaim a sense of autonomy.

Modern Sight held its first rehabilitation camp in 2019 and organized around 10 more since then. However, only two camps have taken place during the war. Although there is a waiting list of 30 people for the next session, the non-profit’s primary hurdle is funding: each camp costs about $16,400 to put on.

Abdulin spent almost a year receiving treatment for his injuries, which included a shattered jaw from the shrapnel that also stole his vision and left him with breathing and balance problems. His wife, Olesia Abdulina, returned with their two children from Lithuania, where the three of them sought refuge after Russia’s full-scale invasion.

“His eyes were still so swollen, with bandages over them, covered in cotton pads,” Abdulina said of seeing her husband at the hospital for the first time after their months of separation.

“The main thing is that you’re alive,” she said she responded when he told her he would never see again.

During the months after that, she fed him with a spoon and rarely left his side. At the Modern Sight camp, the two of them were learning how to integrate his impairment into their family life.

While Denys attended physiotherapy or cooking classes, Abdulina and other women with husbands or boyfriends in the program go through their own training exercises. One purpose of the camp is reminding the spouses they are not “nannies” but life partners to their men, Perepechenko said.

During one such session, Abdulina is blindfolded and given a long cane. She tentatively probes the floor while another participant holds her hand. The purpose of the exercise is to help the women better understand what their partners experience and need.

“We remain the same people. We have the same capabilities,” Ivan Soroka, 27, who joined the Ukrainian army on the day Russia invaded and was attending the camp for a second time. “We need to stand up, take control and work on improving ourself.”

A projectile wounded Soroka near Bakhmut in August 2022, when the longest battle of the war so far was just beginning. Russian forces ended up taking the city in eastern Ukraine in May after more than eight months of intense combat.

“I lost my sight immediately, thrown by the blast wave. I felt that I was dying,” Soroka said. “I lay there for about two minutes. Then I realized that no, someone isn’t letting me go there.” As he recalls those moments, he implies it was his fiancee, Vlada, now sitting beside him, who kept him alive.

The couple met when Soroka was participating in the defense of the Kyiv region in the spring of last year. Their love blossomed swiftly against the backdrop of war. Prior to Soroka’s summer deployment to the Donetsk region, he proposed to Vlada. She agreed to marry him.

But soon after, the two were spending days and nights in a hospital instead of preparing for a wedding. The happy occasion that was postponed because of Soroka’s injury is now planned for early September; after months of rehabilitation, he feels both physically and psychologically strong.

“I’ve realized that unless I rise on my own and start doing something, nothing will change,” he said.

The men and their partners spend camp breaks and evenings in a gazebo on the rehabilitation center’s grounds. An atmosphere of tranquility prevails, occasionally interrupted by hearty laughter and jokes from their time as soldiers.

By the time they leave the center, the men will know they have the tools to get around a city and gained something equally vital – a sense of community forged through shared experiences and a common trauma.

One evening, when the day’s activities were completed, the camp participants gathered in a courtyard to celebrate Oleksandr Zhylchenko’s birthday. He lost his sight late last year, though did not share details about the circumstances.

“I’m drawing you into a circle, into your family’s circle. There are about 50 of us here,” Perepechenko said, handing Zhylchenko a heart-shaped balloon in the yellow and blue of Ukraine’s national flag. “This is our collective heart.”

The trainers and trainees stood in a circle and, one by one, shared their birthday wishes for the man of the moment. Careless days. A bright future. Patience, confidence, faithfulness. A peaceful sky. The final wish was for “victory for all of us and for Ukraine.”

Moved, Zhylchenko held the balloon a moment longer, silently conjuring his own wish. Then, he released it, without seeing it swiftly ascend into the sky.

Hanna Arhirova

Associated Press

RIVNE, Ukraine

Jae C. Hong (AP)