Accidents caused by unexploded ordnances have been frequent in east Ukraine since 2014 when the conflict in areas along the border with Russian Federation started, and since when DRC has worked with humanitarian mine action in the Donbas region and beyond. Several years on, and in the wake of the humanitarian crisis that has developed since February, threats from explosive remnants of war increase dramatically across the country turning residential areas, roads and other infrastructure, public spaces and vast stretches of farmland into minefields. Years of dangerous and costly efforts are lost – and many more lay ahead before safe and cleared land can be handed back to people in Ukraine.
DRC’s humanitarian mine action teams move inch by inch through the terrain laid out for clearance in an area of north Ukraine not far from the border with Belarus and the Russian Federation. This time, it is one of the roads used by the Russian Federation armed forces to move convoys towards Kyiv in the early days of the offensive launched on 24 February 2022. Clearance is underway in this and other areas that are now littered with explosive remnants of war - much of it believed to be unexploded ordnances – along with military tanks and remains of vehicles left behind, posing a continued risk for the lives and livelihoods of civilians here.
‘We expect to also find anti-vehicle mines on this stretch. They can be left behind visible but more often hidden underground or covered by vegetation that makes them nearly impossible for people to detect before it is too late,’ tells Afrim Bardoniqi. He is one of DRC’s Humanitarian Mine Action Specialists deployed to the area and has worked with demining in Ukraine since 2019.
The four-kilometer dirt road in Ichnia is the stretch now being scrutinised for clearance of unexploded ordnance and is a vital connection between villages here. It currently forces residents on a necessary detour of around 45 kilometers to avoid the dangerous path. Local farmers, preparing for harvesting of the sunflower fields, are facing new risks, but can also not afford to leave precious crops behind.
‘We work here as fast as we can and operate six days a week to make progress. Depending on what is being uncovered along the road, it may take months before the road is safe and reopened - and winter is already approaching,’ says Afrim Bardoniqi.
DRC teams on their way into a minefield in Ichnia.
Mine action in east Ukraine since 2014
Prior to 24 February 2022, DRC humanitarian mine action efforts were taking place only in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, now occupied by Russian Federation forces.
DRC was present there since 2014 working with integrated large-scale mine action programmes involving among other things clearance and risk education of local communities.
‘It is terrible to see how nearly all our mine clearance work in Donbas is lost and new areas are even more heavily mined and destroyed than ever before. We have been providing civilians in the east with specific trainings and knowledge on safe behavior in contaminated areas, and this is hopefully helping people who have stayed behind or who may be returning. But in many ways, we will have to start all over and on a much more difficult task,’ says Almedina Musić, DRC Humanitarian Disarmament and Peacebuilding Sector Advisor in Ukraine.
DRC Humanitarian Disarmament and Peacebuilding Sector Advisor in Ukraine, Almedina Musić at the Mine Action Sub-Cluster meeting; at a field visit in Luhanks and in the demining base after the training of SES staff.
Vast parts of Ukraine’s territory are contaminated by explosive ordnance six months after war broke out - and with more being added by the day. While the scale of contamination is yet unknown, not least due to limited access to many areas, the UN-led Mince Action Sub-Cluster for Ukraine estimated by 31 August 2022 that mine action operators with State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU) have identified 18,115,584 m2 of contaminated land, completed actual clearance of 463,898 m2 and removed 265 explosive ordnance items.
DRC has partnered with the State Emergency Services of Ukraine to support humanitarian mine action in the country that is growing to a scale that requires intensive and meticulous mapping and planning. The collaboration includes thorough analyses of areas that can be accessed by mine clearance teams and a prioritisation of areas that may be deemed most important to clear first.
Humanitarian demining teams are right now looking at numerous factors around new levels and types of contamination, consideration related to risk, access, usage of the contaminated areas and their importance for local communities. Guidance is usually that the highest priority is given to residential neighborhoods, followed by access areas, infrastructure, agricultural land, and lastly forest areas.
Demining site in Ichnia.
New threats unveiled daily
In Ichnia, the four-kilometer stretch of road currently being cleared by DRC, is an important road in the region as well as for the local community, but not least for farmers to reach agricultural land. It is a relatively small area, but one that could easily turn into a much larger mine action challenge for Afrim Bardoniqi and his teams there.
‘We have already found over 70 items – mostly projectiles of different caliber ranging from 30 to 125 calibres. There is likely much more, and many more surprises in terms of new types of munitions that need to be safely removed and eliminated.’
All areas are different and unpredictable. They vary from involving mines and traps laid out deliberately at strategic locations such as bridges, roadsides and access points, to unexploded ordnance and other remnants of war left behind and often requiring extensive battlefield clearance.
Explosive Ordnance Risk education Teaching civilians about the risks related to living in areas where warfare is, or has been active, constitutes a significant part of DRC humanitarian mine action efforts. In Ukraine, millions of people now live in areas that are dangerous due to both the obvious and visible objects, and the hidden unexploded ordnance.
DRC risk education teams work through direct engagement with communities, schools or groups of residents who live in contaminated areas. Online risk education sessions and courses are developed and offered for free by DRC to all who have access to the internet and may be interested, and awareness campaigns are rolled out on social media, TV and radio to highlight risks, mitigation measures, along with contact details of the State Emergency Services of Ukraine, the authority to alert in case of suspicious findings. Despite the many interventions, the risk of accidents is as prevalent as ever causing frequent accidents in Ukraine.
DRC demining teams return to base in Ichnia.
Mine victim assistance
26-year-old Oleksii from Chernihiv close to the border with the Russian Federation, is one of many in Ukraine who have encountered explosive remnants of war. He was in a car that hit an anti-vehicle mine and severely injured both feet. It happened shortly after the war had started, close to his home, in the middle of the road, where the mine was dug down in the narrow grass-covered path dividing the lanes and where nobody had expected that an anti-vehicle landmine could be hiding in the soil.
‘The blast affected me the most and threw me out of the car,’ tells Oleksii. His feet are still swollen with multiple scars witnessing of pain and complicated surgery, but slowly he is learning to walk again and after five months he was able to get out of the wheelchair. Through DRC’s Victim Assistance programme, Oleksii received a cash grant to cover some of the cost of the surgery.
Assistance to victims of incidents like the one that happened to Oleksii is part of DRC activities in Ukraine, offering a range of integrated assistance such as psycho-social counseling and support, legal aid, as well as possibilities to apply for skills training, and grants to strengthen economic recovery through new livelihoods opportunities.
Harvesting time Back in Ichnia the DRC demining teams are wrapping up from yet another long day under the scorching sun. They know that time is running out when winter sets in making mine clearance impossible for several months. Nearby are farmers preparing their machines to venture out in some of the many and almost endless fields of sunflower and wheat, where crops are ready and waiting to be harvested.
‘We have heard many and worrying accounts of incidents where farmers come across unexploded ordnance and mines. It’s a dangerous time for them right now. They cannot afford to just leave their crops to rot and lose their income and entire livelihoods. So, they of course feel that they have no other choice than to take the chance and hope for the best.’