Text: Polina Vernyhor. Photo: Mykhailo Palinchak. Translated by: Christine Chraibi (Euromaidan Press)

The true number of Ukrainian soldiers who have lost their sight in the Russo-Ukrainian war remains unknown. However, rehabilitation programs for the blind report a growing demand from veterans. Frontliner spent a day with Denys Abdulin, gaining insight into his new reality after the soldier lost his eyesight a year and a half ago in battle.  

In the basement gym, a single light bulb casts a dim glow. One athlete stands out among the others with his dark sunglasses – Denys. He relentlessly pounds a punching bag with explosive power. 

Donbas Frontliner / Денис Абдулін

“What do you think, eh? I’m full of energy today, doing better than ever,” the brawny man says to his coach and friend after a round.  

“Yeah, you’re really hitting it out of the ballpark! Looking good!” the coach replies, closely monitoring his friend’s every move and providing water between rounds.

Denys trains at the gym three times a week when he’s not undergoing eye surgery. The training offers him a chance to return to his prewar passion for boxing and a semblance of his former civilian life from before 24 February 2022.  

Donbas Frontliner / Денис Абдулін

Before the war

Denys’s father introduced him to boxing as a child. He fell in love with the sport, winning city competitions in 5th grade and regional tournaments in 7th grade. In 2003, while studying to become an electrician, he won the national championship.

After a year of military service with the 95th Air Assault Brigade, Denys met his wife Lesia. They married and soon welcomed two sons, Davyd and Vadym. When war erupted in the Donbas in 2014, Denys volunteered for the front lines but was not called up for another three years. Representatives from the military registration office offered him training, which he accepted.  

He expected deployment after finishing training, but it never came. So he attempted to join the National Guard, passing all physical tests before the medical board rejected him from proceeding further.  

Denys did not believe full-scale war would actually happen until the last moment. Even when a military buddy called the morning of 24 February 2022, he assumed his friend had just drunk too much. But once the reality of the Russian invasion became clear, Denys sent his family to Lithuania and reported for duty. He joined the newly formed 115th Brigade.  

After training, his brigade deployed to the Sievierodonetsksector. For some time, his wife Lesia had no idea of his exact location. As she recalls: 

“At first, he didn’t say where he was because he didn’t really know himself. Then one day he said he was in Lysychansk. I looked on a map and saw Sievierodonetsk was right in the middle of hell, with Lysychansk just ahead of it. During the first month, the ambience was more or less positive – they still had water, electricity, internet access. Then all communications vanished. Every three or four days he’d have to go somewhere to contact me.”

Russian drones strike Ukrainian position 

According to command orders, Denys’s unit settled on the outskirts of Sievierodonetsk near the frontlines – Rubizhne to the west already occupied by Russian forces, and Popasna to the east, occupied as well. Supply convoys could no longer access the area.  

The brigade had just been formed, so Denys believes the brigade’s commanders lacked experience, resulting in poor decisions. Their unit was actually positioned in a young pine forest with trees barely over a metre high, leaving the soldiers clearly visible from the air. But, orders were not to be disputed. The command marked the spot on the map and this post had to be manned and defended. 

One May morning after returning from his post, Denys’s life changed forever. 

“I’d just come in, started talking to my mate when a drone appeared… but we didn’t hear it. The drone spotted us when one guy exited the building. It struck the veranda three metres away. Debris flew everywhere – all five of us went down at once,” he says.  

In a flash, he saw bright flames burst from his eyes, feeling his eyeballs explode a second later. Shrapnel pierced an unprotected area of his head, tearing through his right eye. His face was so brutally disfigured that the comrade who dragged Denys from the carnage did not recognize him.

Blood, sand and filth

Lesia did not immediately learn of her husband’s severe injury. With Denys often losing contact for days, silence was not unusual.  

“Whenever I was on the verge of collapse, I’d write to his commanders – but no one responded; they were afraid to talk to me. His friends started writing and asking if I was really Denys’s wife but no one dared explain what happened. When I finally reached Denys, he said he was hospitalized, probably blind for life. I just responded, ‘It’s okay, you’re still alive.’” she says.

Donbas Frontliner / Денис Абдулін

Lesia returned to Ukraine with their sons, gathered necessities from home, left the boys with family, and rushed directly to the Dnipro hospital. Horrified by the sight, she found her husband still in bloody, sand-filled combat fatigues, utterly filthy and with an overgrown beard. 

“No one had even changed or washed him. He was covered in blood and sand… I was desperate and began asking doctors for information, but the ENT specialist had locked himself away. For five days Denys had tampons in his eyes, nose, ears- he could hardly breathe normally. The worst part was putting drops in his eyes. I told the nurses and they said, ‘So do it yourself.’ I opened his eyelid – there was nothing there.”  

A few days later Denys transferred to a Kyiv hospital for surgery. Doctors attempted to save one eye, putting him through seven painful procedures.

Living in darkness

Eventually Denys returned home permanently blind. For some time, his sons struggled to grasp the concept of blindness, not seeing anything. When Davyd noticed his father’s missing eyes, he pried open the eyelids to check for himself. But the boys came to understand their dad’s new reality, even using it for their own childish antics.  

Donbas Frontliner / Денис Абдулін

“Sometimes when I’m alone and hear them raising a rumpus in the next room, I’ll come in to scold them. But, they know that I can’t see what they’re doing. I enter and ask ‘What are you up to?’ Complete silence. ‘Are you kidding me?’ They freeze and no one moves. I start feeling my way around, touching everything. Then I hear them running around behind me and I start groping my way around the apartment trying to locate them,” Denys smiles.

For months after losing his sight, Denys endured panic attacks. As a psychologist, his wife Lesia explains that sighted people can redirect their attention outward to different objects, reading, films etc. during intense anxiety. Lacking that escape, Denys focused inward as he felt exposed and vulnerable. Lesiataught him to shift his awareness to sounds, picturing images in his mind, realizing no direct threat existed.  

Now, all Denys can see are vivid, colourful dreams. But he works tirelessly to reclaim his life, although he understands that it will never be the same again. Training helps him regain fitness, though surgeries and procedures force pauses. The boxer hopes to someday return to competitions as he once did. 

He has also found a new passion – attending massage therapy courses on weekends. As a boy, his dad taught him some basic techniques, but he had never considered professional training before his injuries. 

Donbas Frontliner / Денис Абдулін

“At first, I didn’t think about what blind people could do. I have worked as an amateur massage therapist, and I have the patience to work on someone for a whole session. Also, I want to learn different techniques in the professional field, like sports and classical massage therapy,” he says.

Learning to navigate and cope

No state rehabilitation centres exist for blind veterans, but charitable groups run several programs. Denys signed up for one of these programs after his hospital release, and learnt to navigate with a cane. But at first, he had to relearn his surroundings through touch.  

Back home, he could recall room layouts from before losing his sight. Yet Denys still finds it difficult to fully adapt – everything must remain precisely placed, or locating items independently becomes almost impossible.   

Donbas Frontliner / Денис Абдулін

Initially after returning, Denys would carefully venture only as far as the entrance bench, tracing the exact locations of stairs, porch, doors in memory. Further trips required Lesia’s guidance. 

“I told him, ‘It would’ve been better if you’d lost both legs, but your eyesight remained intact. At least you could still see, get prosthetics, live your life. But blind, you can’t even pour tea safely, let alone boiling water. The world isn’t built for the blind’,” she remarks.  

Today, Denys learns new routes by following the street curbs – he knows roughly where to turn for the neighbourhood shop or café, where to cross the street safely. Illegally parked cars blocking his path or straying just a few paces off course necessitate calling for assistance.

Donbas Frontliner / Денис Абдулін

Denys is too embarrassed to call out for help in public, so he avoids asking strangers to guide him. Some good Samaritansnotice his cane and dark glasses and offer to walk him to his destination. But, the war veteran feels that most individuals still struggle to fully accept people like him.  

Hope for the future 

Ukrainian doctors paint bleak pictures for Denys’s prognosis. However, Denys recently learned of bio-eye technology in development abroad. 

“Research studies in different countries have reached certain stages; some testing has been done on animals, so it exists. It’s not fiction. We need state-level support to fund further efforts. I know I can raise money for surgery myself, and I don’t expect full state coverage, but Ukraine should pursue and develop this technology. Volunteers alone can’t afford the costs. These procedures are very expensive.” he states.  

Donbas Frontliner / Денис Абдулін

For now, a guide dog could greatly improve Denys’s daily life. Specially trained dogs memorize up to 40 routes, assisting navigation of crowded streets and public transport, warning of obstacles and retrieving fallen items. The Anteus Center currently trains such canine helpers in Mezhyhiria. In order to become more independent, Denys is fundraising 150,000 UAH ($4,000 USD) for his own guide dog. 

With some help, war veteran Denys Abdulin can regain mobility and purpose even without his sight. Please consider supporting Denys on his difficult road to recovery.

Denys Vadymovych Abdulin

IBAN / account number: UA623226690000026203017622981

Individual tax number (IPN): 3235604338

Oshchadbank JSC (Kyiv branch)

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