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Ukrainian war veterans with amputated limbs find freedom in the practice of jiu-jitsu

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Nervous ahead of their first jiu-jitsu championship, the war veterans gathered in a group to share jokes and help each other tie the belts of their kimonos. Many of them had suffered severe battlefield injuries requiring amputations.

Now they were assembled to perform in the “para jiu jitsu” category at the Ukrainian national competition before hundreds of spectators on amphitheater-style benches in one of Kyiv’s sports complexes.

More than 20,000 people in Ukraine have lost limbs because of injuries since the start of Russia’s brutal war there, many of them soldiers. A handful of them have dealt with their psychological trauma by practicing a form of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

“This gives us freedom. We don’t feel like we’re lacking anything,” said Artem Kuzmich, who started practicing jiu-jitsu classes after losing a leg on the battlefield in 2019.

Kuzmich is Belorussian and voluntarily joined the Ukrainian army to fight Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine starting in 2014. Now, he mentors soldiers who have recently suffered similar injuries and find salvation in jiu-jitsu.

Much of the martial art of jiu-jitsu involves moves and holds aimed at using an opponent’s own force against them.

It’s a sport that can easily be adapted for people who have had amputations, with no prosthetics needed, Kuzmich said.

“We work with what we have and can achieve victories with what life has left us,” he said.

The tournament — on a recent weekend — commenced with the Ukrainian anthem, expressions of gratitude to the nation’s defenders, and a minute of silence in remembrance of those who perished on the battlefield.

Five out of the six athletes competing in the “para jiu-jitsu” category began their training at the TMS Hub, a safe space for veterans in Kyiv that also offers psychological rehabilitation for veterans. They opened their first jiu-jitsu practice area two months ago.

TMS Hub offers free practice of jiu-jitsu primarily to veterans of the Russian-Ukrainian war who have suffered the loss of a limb through combat. The program is aimed at providing them with a community of people with a similar experience, to help with their psychological rehabilitation.

“Being among their peers is more comfortable for them,” explained Serhii Pohosyan, co-founder of TMS Hub.

Just two months into training, five veterans at the TMS Hub gym were ready for the national competition.

One of them was 26-year-old Vasyl Oksyntiuk, who lost both of his legs when a shell hit his car near Bakhmut last December during intense battles for the city.

Before his match, he carefully removed both of his prosthetics and left them outside the competition area. He was dressed in a kimono, with short hair and a black mustache. With a determined gaze, he relied on both of his arms as he made his way to center of the mat to meet his opponent.

“You feel completely different; you forget that you’re lacking something,” Oksyntiuk said.

He volunteered to go to war in February when Russia invaded Ukraine. “In the Constitution and in the heart, it’s written to protect your loved ones, your family, and your home. When the enemies came, something had to be done about it,” he said.

Nearly a year after his injury he has learned to walk confidently on prosthetic limbs, but still looks for new ways to spend his free time.

“I had always wanted to try martial arts, but I thought I was too old for it,” Oksyntiuk said. “Then I lost my legs, saw on the internet that there was this opportunity, and decided to give it a try. I really enjoyed it.”

At his first Ukrainian Jiu-Jitsu Championship, Oksyntiuk won a silver medal in the “para jiu-jitsu” category.

Pohosyan, the TMS Hub co-founder, said the gym has specially equipped bathrooms and other facilities to ensure the comfort of disabled veterans. He said around 20 veterans attend the gym’s jiu-jitsu practices regularly, and the program wants to add more such gyms, including outside the capital. But that will depend on money because the project relies on donations, he said.

After the tournament’s medals were distributed, the former soldiers, overwhelmed with emotion, approached Pohosyan to convey their gratitude, and to say the experience was exactly what they needed.

“This is the greatest reward for us,” Pohosyan said.

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Follow AP’s coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine