Ukraine Now Has More Landmines Than Any Other Nation — What Can Be Done?
Ukraine became the country with the most landmines in the world. Kyiv has limited resources, so NGOs are trying to help by training soldiers to identify and destroy the potentially deadly devices even while protecting themselves from new assaults from Russian forces.
VASYLENKOVE — Walking along a rough dirt road in this eastern Ukrainian town, Trevor Kirton slowly makes his way, metal detector in hand. "Watch where you step," warns the volunteer de-miner, a veteran of the British army.
A hundred meters further on lie the pulverized remains of a Ukrainian truck, destroyed after driving over a Russian anti-tank mine. The occupants of the vehicle died on impact. All that remain are a shredded camouflage jacket and some scattered personal belongings on the side of the road. As Kirton crouches to examine a piece of shrapnel, an explosion is heard in the distance, raising a thick column of black smoke.
In Vasylenkove, mines are not the only danger for civilians and military personnel. This small village in the Kharkiv region, liberated during the Ukrainian counteroffensive in September, remained in the hands of Russian forces and their proxies from the self-proclaimed "People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk" for more than six months.
During the months of occupation, the Russians built a vast, albeit rudimentary, network of trenches and fortifications around Vasylenkove. To stem the advance of the Ukrainian army, they buried a large number of mines and traps there. "We find them every day, both anti-personnel mines and the remains of grenades and rockets," explains Kirton, a volunteer with the organization Sons of Liberty International (Soli).
According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 174,000 square kilometers of land are contaminated by mines and unexploded bombs, making Ukraine the most mined country in the world, ahead of Syria and Afghanistan.
Planted mines, unexploded bombs
Founded in 2015 by former journalist Matthew VanDyke, who became famous after fighting and being captured during the Libyan civil war, the organization's original goal was to support and provide training to populations fighting against dictatorial governments and terrorist groups.
State de-mining services are overwhelmed.
Present in Ukraine from the early days of the Russian invasion, Soli's instructors have trained hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers in close combat, tactical medicine, and precision shooting. But in Vasylenkove, one of their most pressing missions is the identification, defusing, and destruction of mines and unexploded bombs: "State de-mining services are overwhelmed; they receive a lot of calls and don't have the means to answer all of them," explains VanDyke.
In the village of Senkove, on the banks of the Oskil River, residents have been waiting for more than seven months for the State Emergency Services, or DSNS, to remove the Russian rockets planted across roads or that have pierced the walls of their homes. "This one fell in mid-September," says Lyouba, a resident of the village, pointing to the "Hurricane" missile shot down in front of her house.
April 4, 2023: removal of a dropped bomb in Orikhiv, southeastern Ukraine.
Where the Ukrainian state struggles to meet growing demining needs, organizations such as Soli have taken over. Their resources are also limited: "We would like to develop this activity and expand our team, but our financial situation is difficult," confirms Matthew VanDyke.
As an NGO, Soli relies solely on donations for its financing, and the organization's technicians, four in total, are all volunteers. In a month's work, they managed to clear more than 10 hectares of land around Vasylenkove and remove over 60 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, several hand grenades, and the structure of two Russian submunition rockets from the ground.
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