Leading Austrian dailyDer Standard has been following Ukrainian teams braving constant danger to clear the largest minefield in the world.
LUKIANIVKA — Olga Yakimovich says she has always enjoyed working with people and wanted to pursue a career in the food industry. Her plan was to run a little café – but that was in another life, before fighting broke out around her home in the Donbas region in 2014.
Like most people here in eastern Ukraine, her life has been thrown off course, the 35-year-old explains, as she walks through the woods in the area around Kyiv, passing pretty summer houses and fruit trees. Dotted in between are signs warning about mines.
“I wanted to make a difference,” says Yakimovich. Her brown hair is plaited under her baseball cap, and she wears a radio attached to her sky-blue safety vest.
Six years ago, she decided to train as a deminer. Now she works as a supervisor for the British-American NGO Halo Trust, which clears landmines across the world. “The job is meaningful. It also pays well.”
Shortly after the organisation opened its first office in Yakimovich’s home city of Kramatorsk, her husband and sister followed in her footsteps. Her husband is now fighting on the frontline, while Yakimovich and her sister are working in liberated areas – far from the Donbas region, which they had to flee with their children.
The fact that the fields have been left to grow wild for a year and a half makes their work finding explosives with metal detectors more difficult, explains Yakimovich. “Whenever we find an object, we have to consider that there may be mines anywhere within a 25 meter radius.”
She points to wooden pegs between the trees, marking where it isn’t safe to stray off the path: places where her team have found nearly 100 unexploded bombs and scraps of metal over the last few months – mainly the remains of cluster mines. The objects are collected together in a pit and later destroyed in controlled explosions by the army or disaster response teams. “We clear the area as well as we can,” she says. Halo Trust has not yet been granted official permission to neutralise the objects itself.
Mines along the frontline
According to Human Rights Watch, both sides in this war are laying land mines. Since Feb. 24, 2022, the Russian army has also used at least 13 different types of antipersonnel mines. The Ukrainian army says that, along with their inferior air power, the mines laid along the thousand-kilometre frontline are one of the main reasons why their counteroffensive has proven slow.
Mines have to be cleared from all recaptured areas – a challenge for decades to come.
When areas are recaptured, mines and unexploded bombs have to be cleared – and that will pose a challenge for decades to come. Today, nine years after fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, there are mines spread across more than 30% of the country.
The neighbourhood of Lukianivka, near where Yakimovich is currently working, was occupied at the start of the invasion, then liberated by the Ukrainian army around a month later. The fighting lasted a relatively short time, says Yakimovich. Because the frontline is now far away, clearing is progressing quickly.
According to the Halo Trust, since the start of the Russian invasion, there have been around 550 incidents with mines, in which at least 855 civilians – mainly farmers – have been injured or killed. They can’t start clearing mines in places where the fighting is still ongoing, explains Yakimovich. While the Halo Trust is working with the local authorities in certain areas, elsewhere it is civilians doing the work.
There are mines spread across more than 30% of Ukraine.
From woodsman to de-miner
On a hot summer’s day, Petro Pilipaka, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals, is transporting a fragment of a cluster rocket in his tractor, as if it were no more dangerous than a tree trunk.
In the centre of the village of Zirkuni in the Kharkiv region, most of which was liberated by the Ukrainian army last year, he unloads his cargo and sets it down beside rusting cars bearing the letter Z, the Russian pro-war symbol. There are still armoured cars here with messages written on them in Russian – sometimes with spelling errors, such as “to Birlin."
Everyone in the area knows him, says the 51-year-old, who worked as a woodsman before the war and the Russian occupation. “Sometimes people call me up and ask if I can come round to pick up pieces of missiles," he says.
At first, the soldiers called him crazy, but now they let him get on with it. Pilipaka cleared the meadows and fields himself. “I couldn’t wait a year and a half to plant my potatoes,” he says. “It was simply taking too long.”
Despite his time under Russian occupation, he hasn’t lost his sense of humour. It was the only way he could bear it all.
Pilipaka lives near Zirkuni, in a village that is still called Ruski Tyshky online, even after its liberation. His street is named after the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. He hopes that the names of streets and villages will soon be changed, but it is more important that the area is made safe as soon as possible, so that people can come back. Before the war and the Russian occupation, there were around 2,000 people living in the village. Only a few have remained. Pilipaka says he knows almost all of them by name.
He opens his garden gate and points to six more fragments of cluster rockets that he has placed in the ground next to the flagstone path like ornaments. “How do you like my flowers?” he asks, joking that we shouldn’t water them. Despite his time under Russian occupation, he hasn’t lost his sense of humour. It was the only way he could bear it all: his neighbours being killed, his family fleeing, his two sons fighting on the frontline, the destruction wrought across his country.
In the community centre in Zirkuni, Ivan Yakovchik, commander of the region’s demining squad, shows on a map which areas are now safe. Zirkuni is the first village in the formerly occupied region around Kharkiv that has been demined. “Now we have started to clear the woods and neighbouring areas, where the Russian positions were.”
He says that the demining squad has neutralised more than 1,500 objects in that area alone – again mainly cluster munitions. Two men from his team lost their lives and another was injured, says the 39-year-old.
Yakovchik stops his car by a wooded hill. This is the national guard’s base, where soldiers recently returned from fighting on the frontlines in the east and south are now spending a few weeks regaining their strength.
Nearby, mines and unexploded bombs that have been collected are destroyed in controlled explosions every day, Yakovchik explains, as the radio counts down the seconds. The explosion, a few hundred metres away, leaves behind a deep crater in the earth, one of many in the region.
The working conditions, salary and openness make international organisations like Halo Trust attractive places to work.
The neutrality debate
Mine clearing is one area where neutral countries could help: although they are not providing Ukraine with weapons, they could still contribute. In May, Austria announced financial aid in the form of 2 million euros to be donated to the International Trust Fund (ITF), a well-respected demining organisation based in Ljubljana. Austria’s Foreign Ministry told The Standard that the payments will be made gradually over time.
Switzerland has also announced it will provide financial aid and heavy machinery. But these two countries’ slow response and the debate around neutrality when it comes to humanitarian mine clearing have been met with incomprehension in Ukraine.
They do not have enough people to clear land mines.
Organisations on the ground, disaster response teams and the army are facing a steep challenge, not only because their country now has the highest density of landmines in the world and is still under attack from the air. Many of the men are fighting at the front, so they do not have enough people to clear land mines, says Yakovchik. “I would like to have at least 5% of my team be women,” he says, “but at the moment it is probably 1%.”
At the Halo Trust, around 30% of their 800 employees are women, and this number looks set to rise before the end of the year. Their adverts are explicitly aimed at women: the working conditions, salary and openness make international organisations attractive places to work – more attractive than the army and disaster response teams. “We know that we are only at the beginning,” says Olga Yakimovich. Most of the women here say that their main motivation for doing the work is to ensure their children are safe.
People have not been forgotten
A pensioner smiles at us from her garden. Just having the team there, to talk to them and to listen, is incredibly important for these people, says Yakimovich. After the stress of war and occupation it is an important sign that people have not been forgotten.
Above all, people simply want to survive and look to the future. Yakimovich and her sisters also want to survive and go back home. “I hope that our children can still enjoy some of their childhood,” she says. She wants her eight-year-old son to live in a different reality when he is grown up, not like the one he has known since he was very young.
*This article was translated with permission from its author.