A Ukrainian commander, blinded after Russia invaded, devotes himself to helping others who are losing their sight

(LVIV, Ukraine) – Colonel Oleh Avtomeenko was injured while conducting a combat mission in the Donetsk region, during the first days of Russia’s large-scale invasion in late February 2022, and lost his eyesight.

And now, after twenty years in the Ukrainian army, he must say goodbye and learn how to move forward in complete darkness. But he refused to surrender.

“If you are a soldier, you understand why that happened to you – because you associated your work, your profession with a certain risk to your life and health – it was your conscious choice,” says Avtomeenko (46).

The former deputy commander of a mechanized brigade said he feels sorry for civilians who have nothing to do with the army but who also lost their eyesight during the Russian war against Ukraine.

“For the first six months I was completely devastated, it couldn’t be worse, I thought that life is over, my military career is over, all my plans for the future are ruined and I have lost everything,” Avtomeenko said.

The next six months were a period of acceptance for him as he realized what had happened to him and nothing could be done to change that.

No wonder Avtomeenko became one of the five first students of ‘Touch Point’, a project initiated by the Ukrainian Ministry of Education, the NGO Public Health Alliance and the Lviv Educational and Rehabilitation Center ‘Levenya’.

During the two weeks of the first phase in March, four veterans and a civilian woman learned how to navigate space without vision, including cooking and working with computers and smartphones. Avtomeenko traveled to Lviv to participate.

“The state has failed to build a solid, flexible and organized system to help people who sacrificed their health during this war,” explains Vira Remazhevska, co-organizer of the courses and founder of the first educational institution in Ukraine. and rehabilitation center “Levenya.”

The chairman of the non-governmental group Association of Special and Inclusive Education Workers emphasizes that unfortunately, from the very beginning of the war, when Russian troops entered Crimea in 2014, this problem has become mainly a concern for NGOs.

“One of our goals was not only to help certain people, but also to try to shape and formulate such social services in the country,” Remazhevska said.

Long before the project started, Remazhevska and her team helped the veterans, first over the phone, providing them with psychological support. They taught them how to deal with basic needs, such as how to brush their teeth by applying the toothpaste directly to the teeth instead of the toothbrush.

Last March, in the premises of the local Professional School of Hotel, Tourist and Restaurant Service in Lviv, the participants of the project learned not only how to use a laptop, mobile phone and other digital gadgets, but also how to cook and how to had to walk with the help of the white cane.

“It should become an extension of their hand and a true replacement of their vision – both inside and outside,” Remazhevska said.

According to her, “a spatial orientation instructor who teaches a person to walk is responsible for his life, because he must teach him safety first and foremost.”

After the first phase of the project, Remazhevska noticed that people who have lost their vision due to an injury often suffer from severe concussions.

According to her, the rehabilitators also face enormous psychological problems, not only from the veterans but also from the members of their families: “This is a tragedy of a whole family, a tragedy of relationships, when a person who was the support the backbone of the family, suddenly becomes a helpless person.”

“I am a living proof that you can live despite being blind – I think this is the best example we can give to encourage people to further development,” says Volodymyr Pyrig, 35, journalist and trainer for the blind at the programme.

Pyrig, who has been blind since birth, has been working for years as a translator of many programs for blind people in Ukrainian, in particular – a program that allows blind people to work freely with a computer.

During the 10 days, Pyrig worked with three veterans.

“In the beginning, the boys just needed more communication with other blind people – they asked me a lot of questions that weren’t directly related to the training,” Pyrig said.

“On the one hand, they already knew how to clean the apartment and do other things around the house, but on the other hand, they were not yet ready to go shopping or cook. I shared some basic knowledge with them so they could use it and multiply it.”

According to Pyrig, Avtomeenko managed to be very fast in terms of orientation, learned to work independently and now works on the computer with relative confidence. Every now and then he contacts Pyrig with some additional questions.

Another veteran, Anton Bohach, a volunteer and former truck driver from Kropyvnytskyi, learned how to use a smartphone, but said he was not yet ready to use the computer. He explained that he does not feel a good impulse to work in this direction.

“Maybe it has to do with some psychological implications, as he only lost his sight in September last year – roughly speaking, not enough time has passed since then,” Pyrig said. Thanks to his observations, those who lost their sight earlier in life often acted more confidently, relaxed and open, he said.

The third veteran, Denys Abdulin, also a volunteer and former boxer from Bila Tserkva, already knows what he wants to do. as he said he plans to become a professional masseur.

According to Pyrig, Ukrainian society is more responsive to the needs of blind people, but there is still some discrimination – especially in employment.

“In most cases there is a prejudice that if you are blind it automatically means that you are not going to make it, that you are not able to do a certain job,” he said. “There is no chance to even attempt the internship – to take your chance to prove that you can actually do it.”

The training made a difference for Avtomeenko, who said: “It was great – after the first two or three days I understood that with this (blindness) you can live and live coolly, without setting limits for yourself.”

Avtomeenko’s normal day starts with exercise, showering, shaving, coffee and feeding the cats. And normally he spends the rest of his time on his laptop, working on his channel on Telegram.

“At first I planned to work on the blog about living with blindness, frequently asked questions and problems to solve, how to live in the city and how to use social institutions for people with physical disabilities” , said Avtomeenko.

He then added some military analysis and other news from Ukraine, but after he has fully mastered the laptop, he plans to dedicate his work to other blind people: “To tell them more about technologies, gadgets and applications that can simplify or comfort their lives.”

He shares his videos through his video blog, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube and lets people know what the life of a blind person is like: “I usually work on the laptop, listen to some content on YouTube and learn English or Polish languages ​​through the audio lessons because I need to develop myself – there’s no point in being stuck in the moment.”

Avtomeenko says his own motto is his personal message to other veterans who have lost their sight or limbs: “Don’t stop. I know this is hard. I’ve been there myself. Nothing is impossible – if someone else has made it, you can make it too and if no one has made it – you can be the first to do it.”

By the end of these two weeks of rehabilitation, Avtomeenko said, he became self-sufficient, more autonomous, learned to walk and many other things.

He recalls some veterans saying it would be better if they had lost their leg instead of having their eyes damaged: “There is no point in comparing someone else’s story to your own or trying to understand how it’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – everyone lives their unique story, you just have to overcome it and accept it for what it is.”

Remazhevska said that not all young men who have lost their sight are willing to participate, as there are several factors: previously acquired negative experiences with rehabilitation in medical institutions, loss of self-confidence and loss of trust in the state.

“Some just do nothing, stay home and don’t make an effort, and some are just too tired to investigate the truth,” she said.

But Remazhevska emphasized that even two weeks can make a difference for some seriously injured veterans and civilians because they can gain a lot from it. Quoting Lyudmyla, a woman from Vyshgorod and the only civilian participant in the course, she said: “I spent eighteen months in darkness, in the dark pit, and these two weeks became the brightest period of my life.”

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