‘It’s about clearing the land, making it safe, liberating it’: Ukraine’s deminers face decades-long task

Ireland helps train Ukrainian sappers and sends demining equipment to Kyiv

It is nearly 18 months since Chkalovske was liberated by Ukrainian troops, but de-occupation did not bring a return to anything resembling pre-war life.

As a watery sun over eastern Ukraine softened the last remnants of winter snow one recent morning, the village air-raid siren wailed and people discussed the rockets they had just seen streaking overhead towards the front line 60km away.

Behind the village administration, heaps of splintered wood lay where two Russian S-300 missiles landed last August, and occasional booms in the distance showed where emergency-service sappers were at work, while ranks of marker posts and reams of red-and-white tape warned people away from farmland that the Russians turned into a minefield.

In a cluster of trees separating the centre of the village from its football pitch, figures clad in pale blue body armour and full-face visors move slowly with eyes lowered, scanning the ground intently and alert to the yips and shrieks from the metal detectors in their hands.


“Chkalovske was occupied from March to September 2022,” says Lada Riepushkina, a leader of a demining team for the Halo Trust in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region.

“When the Russians were withdrawing they mined the area from a distance, firing rockets that scattered PFM mines and other ordnance,” she adds, referring to small, green “butterfly” mines that are hard to spot and can be mistaken for toys.

“We’re working right in the middle of the village, so it’s vital to clear this area and make it safe again. Four local people have already been injured by mines and we want to ensure there is no repeat of that . . . Our teams have already found 76 explosives in two areas of the village.”

Ukraine says about 30 per cent of its territory is potentially littered with mines and other explosives – an area twice the size as the island of Ireland – after two years of full-scale war with Russia that came after eight years of conflict in the eastern Donbas area.

More than 260 civilians have been killed by stepping on landmines or other ordnance since February 2022 and more than 500 have been injured, with many incidents occurring on the vast, rich farmland that makes Ukraine one of the world’s biggest exporters of grain.

More than 3,000 sappers are now working for the state, but Ukraine estimates that it needs 10,000 to clear most mines within a decade, as part of a programme to remove explosive hazards that Kyiv and the World Bank believe will cost $38 billion (€35 billion).

Halo has been working in Ukraine since 2016 and has tripled its staff in the country over that time to 1,200 people, all but about 50 of whom are Ukrainians. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion two years ago, its teams have cleared more than 19,000 landmines and other unexploded munitions from more than three million square metres of land.

However, Halo estimates that during two years of all-out war, the opposing forces may have laid up to two million landmines around the shifting front lines of Ukraine.

The longer Russia occupies an area, the more mines it tends to lay. Areas close to Kyiv, where the invasion force was beaten back early in spring 2022, are more lightly mined than Kharkiv region, which was fully liberated in September 2022, and areas of Kherson and Mykolaiv in the southeast that were freed two months later.

When Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia region last summer, it discovered that Russia had used some 16 months of occupation to build an extensive system of fortified defences, including bunkers, tank traps and trenches, shielded by immense and extremely dense minefields, where one square metre of soil would sometimes hold five mines.

Ireland is not supplying weapons to Kyiv but has delivered demining equipment and sent Defence Forces personnel to Cyprus to train Ukrainians in bomb-disposal and demining techniques under a European Union programme.

Halo is using technology to make demining safer, quicker and more effective – deploying remote-controlled “robocut” vehicles to clear undergrowth that hides mines and tripwires; testing drones that can map minefields from overhead; and equipping staff with handheld ground-penetrating radar devices – but this legacy of war could plague Ukraine for generations.

“It will take decades to demine all the areas that are affected,” says Andriy Semenov, head of the electricity network in the district where Chkalovske is located.

Engineers for regional energy firm Kharkivoblenergo, and their colleagues around the country, have repeatedly put their lives at risk over the last two years to repair damage inflicted by Russia’s almost nightly missile and drone attacks on civilian infrastructure.

“Nearly all energy workers in Kharkiv region stayed here after Russia’s full invasion and they have fixed a huge number of lines and substations that were damaged by military action . . . And they often come under shelling while they are doing repairs,” Semenov says.

“When we go out to check the damage from shelling or an explosion, we work with sappers who make the area safe first. And then our engineers can get to work. It’s an everyday practice now that they co-operate – there are so many mines and other explosives here now that it’s impossible to do things any other way.”

With Russia pouring troops and armour into battle near Kupiansk, 60km east of Chkalovske, and the Russian border only a further 40km away, villagers do not feel like liberation banished all danger.

“I don’t think anywhere in Ukraine is completely safe now,” says retired schoolteacher Olha Fateeva, whose little house in Chkalovske had its windows blown out and front wall badly damaged when a shell landed in her yard in 2022.

“We pretend nothing happened and we don’t touch the walls because we’re worried that they’ll fall down,” adds Fateeva, who moved out with her husband after the shelling but quickly returned to the house that her parents built.

“Where is there to go? A lot of people left and then came back,” she says. “It still doesn’t feel completely calm here now. The siren goes off and we just don’t know whether something might fly this way and hit us.”

She lives across the street from the copse where the deminers are doing their painstaking work – inching forward and stopping to identify the cause of every blip from their detectors, to be certain that it is just another bottle top and not a butterfly mine.

“We need to make sure the football pitch is safe before spring. It’s where the village holds its fair and the kids play sport,” says Andriy Khomenko, a demining team supervisor who has been with Halo for eight years, first in his native Donbas region and now in Kharkiv.

“This gives me satisfaction. It’s about clearing the land, making it safe, liberating it. It’s our obligation,” he adds.

“My daughter is growing up in Ukraine. When I see what’s going on here, should I turn my back and leave? No chance. I was born here and I’m not leaving. I’ll be here until the end.”

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