Sweeping Ukraine’s war zone for lurking bombs

Halo Trust teaches locals how to clear mines in their territory that war leaves behind

The people of Svatove know all about the unintended consequences of war.

Last October, a military depot containing about 3,500 tonnes of ammunition exploded on the edge of this town in eastern Ukraine.

The orange glow of the blaze was visible for miles around, amid a storm of white-hot shrapnel and the crack and rumble of countless detonations, as mortar shells, mines, grenades and rockets of all sizes erupted into the night sky.

It is still not clear whether accident or sabotage caused the blast, but its immediate impact was stark – four people were killed, dozens injured and thousands evacuated as shells rained on to the town and a vast area of surrounding fields.


Eight months on, men in pale-blue body armour and full-face visors move slowly through the fields beside the ruined army depot, which is now a tangle of twisted metal and smashed brick baking under a blazing sun.

They are Ukrainians working for the Halo Trust, a UK-based organisation that since 1988 has taught people in conflict zones around the world how to make their own territory safe from the deadly weapons that war leaves behind.

Two years of fighting between government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine have killed nearly 10,000 people, injured 20,000 and driven more than two million from their homes.

The conflict has also left swathes of territory peppered with unexploded ordnance, from shells that failed to ignite, to grenades attached to trip wires that are yet to be triggered, and mines lying hidden to halt the advance of enemy forces.

More than 1,000 servicemen and civilians have been killed and injured since spring 2014 by activating these unseen dangers, or by handling unexploded ordnance – with children particularly liable to become victims of curiosity.

Trickling home

As the conflict grinds on, people who fled during the fighting’s most intense months are trickling back to their homes and trying to eke out a living.

Whether that means returning to villages that suffered heavy shelling, or digging in the makeshift mines that dot this coal-rich region, or working fields that were in the line of fire, more people are now in potentially dangerous areas.

Even getting home can be hazardous if it means crossing between government- and militant-held territory, as some 20,000 people do each day: mangled wreckage still lies beside a major road where a car hit a landmine last February, killing three people.

“We’re helping to restore normal, peaceful life,” said Alexander Chinik (30), a former policeman who now leads a Halo team working at Svatove.

“It might be a long job, but I’m ready for that.”

Halo provides five weeks of instruction before recruits go out into the field, and at least one trained paramedic is part of every mine-clearance team.

In Ukraine, Halo is not allowed to use explosives, so its teams call in defence or emergencies ministry experts to destroy dangerous objects.

“We’re making our land safe for everyone,” said Andrei Poznyak (49) as he took a break from scanning the Svatove fields with his metal detector and digging carefully into the dark earth to investigate suspicious signals.

“I’m sorry that this work is necessary, but I’m grateful to have a job and a decent wage at this tough time,” he added.

Like many of the 100 or so Ukrainians now employed by Halo, Poznyak moved to government-controlled territory after separatist forces seized Donetsk two years ago, leaving behind his home, work and most of his belongings.

“We recruit from mine-affected communities where we work, so the donor money goes straight into the hardest-hit areas,” said Nick Smart, Halo’s operations manager in Ukraine.

“So we improve the local economy with our wages. That helps win the trust of local people, which in turn helps us get much better information about where the dangers are, because they know where there was fighting in their area.”

Contaminated areas

Mines and unexploded ordnance can remain a danger for decades after all-out fighting has stopped, and Halo has not yet received permission to survey some of the most contaminated areas, around the current frontline and in militant-held territory.

“I hope we can go home to Donetsk, maybe in five years,” said Denis Solovietsky (27), a Halo team leader displaced by the conflict.

“My wife was scared when I took this job, she thought I could be injured or killed – but now we work here together,” he added.

“It’s important work. We can save a lot of lives this way.”