I was listening to Ukrainecast, the BBC’s regular podcast about the Russian assault on Ukraine, interviewing a man who is working on humanitarian demining. The Russian army has laid mines several layers deep across the southeastern area of Ukraine they have been occupying, a guest said.
And then I read a story in Der Spiegel that took me right back to a university hall in Sarajevo in 1996, where I was part of a group of long-term observers being briefed about mine safety by a British soldier. This was the paragraph:
“Sitting on benches and camping chairs beneath the thick canopy of an oak tree, Zeus’s comrades speak of the hell they have gone through over the last three months. Of the anti-tank mines that detonate when a vehicle drives over them, or PARM mines that rip through the sides of tanks, where there is less armor, from just a few meters away. Then there are the buried anti-personnel mines, the trip-wired booby traps and the bounding mines, which spring a few feet into the air before exploding. And small “butterfly mines,” which can be dispersed by the thousands from the air.”
It was hearing about those ‘jumping’ or bounding mines, which are designed so that they leap up and hit you in your abdomen, that turned my stomach at the Sarajevo briefing. And then the deliberation of laying mines in such a way that if someone sets one off, and others rush to the rescue, they will set off a series of surrounding mines. Sickening to think of the deliberation involved in choosing to use our best impulses against us.
I learned a lot more about mines as I walked around Trebinje, where I was based in southern Bosnia, and travelled around my assigned region with my driver and interpreter.
One day, high up in the mountains, looking for a polling station, I realized that I had no idea if the road we were on was safe (the UN had prepared a map of roads that had been checked and demined but hadn’t got to secondary roads). If this road had been mined, I would be responsible for blowing up two other people as well as myself if we encountered any mines.
So, once back in town, I went to visit the International Police Training Force base and asked how I would know if a road had been mined. Look around bridges, they told me – they are a favourite area for mining. See if the gravel has been disturbed. Never open a door of a building that looks abandoned. Always walk on the paved road. Look at where local people walk, and walk there. And watch out for mines that had been dug up and relaid somewhere else.
All of these things are probably second nature for soldiers, I know, but I was a civilian. The most dangerous thing I’d ever done was trying skydiving – and running elections. So I took this all to heart – and once I got back to Canada, I avoided shortcuts for a year. I only walked on paved sidewalks and roads. (I talked about this once at the university, and a soldier who’d been listening told me, “When I heard you say that, I was instantly back there.”)
I was also responsible for the safety of a group of short term election observers who would spend a few days observing the elections at various polling stations in southern Bosnia (that was why I was travelling around – because I would not send an observer to a place I hadn’t been myself). And while mine safety awareness had become second nature to me, I knew it wouldn’t be for them.
So I asked Ray, a genial American policeman who’d helped me with mine safety information, to talk to them during our training session. Some of the observers were quite pale as a result. But everyone stayed safe.
Ukraine is now one of the most heavily mined countries in Europe. The Ukrainian army is working on mine detection using a combination of highly modern technology and older methods. There are three certification centers where sappers are trained, and companies and enterprises can be certified. There are 14 certified mine action operators and about 330 mobile groups perform work around Ukraine. A special database is maintained and updated weekly with information on areas where demining has been done.
The Ukrainian government plans to return more than 470,000 hectares of the most valuable agricultural land to productive use within four years. And within 10 years, it plans to survey, clear and return to use most of the potentially contaminated areas.
Halo Trust is the largest international mine action organization working on humanitarian mine clearance, surveying land using methodology it has tried and tested in over 30 countries during its 35-year history. Since February 2022, it has cleared 150 hectares of land and found 10,000 mines and other ordnance. More than 120,000 hectares have been surveyed to date, but much more remains to be surveyed.
In February 2022, HALO immediately began a risk education campaign, and at least 15 million Ukrainians have seen its social media campaign warning people of the dangers of mines. HALO has developed its largest ever conflict mapping database, scraping data from multiple open sources, in order to help identify areas that pose the greatest threat.
“The HALO Trust is training the largest group of deminers in its history to clear the biggest battlefield in Europe, so that farmers can plant their crops and restore vital grain supplies,” says CEO James Cowen. “Even as the fighting continues, we have mobilised a demining operation run by Ukrainians for Ukrainians, symbolising the spirit of partnership required for the country’s long-term recovery. There are now 800 men and women around the country, clearing anti-tank mines daily from valuable farmland. They come from all walks of life and their courage and determination is remarkable.”
HALO says it is supplementing its pre-war logistics capacity with additional armoured excavators, tillers, rotary mine combs and remote-controlled clearance vehicles, knowing that the largest risk to civilians is when local people return home.
A story on the Halo Trust website, When home becomes the frontline, gives a sense of what the indiscriminate Russian mining means to people in small communities. “In front of my yard there were around 50-60 mines,” says Viktor, who has lived his whole life in Hrakove village. “The end of the street was mined too. It was scary to even walk around. Tripwires were in my neighbour’s yard.”
But many farmers who want to resume growing and raising food and restore local jobs have developed solutions of their own, trying to reduce the danger as much as they can. One farmer who also lives in Hrakove, has developed a remote controlled way to demine his fields that went viral on YouTube, and one farmer in Mykolayiv has worked to clear mines from his land.
Ukraine also is getting support from Azerbaijan, which has a major mine contamination problem as well, and which has had to develop innovative approaches because it is a far more costly process to remove mines than it is to manufacture them. It is training internally displaced people to clear their own land, and is using micro-lending initiatives to help restore their livelihoods. It has gotten support from APOPO, which is using both dogs and giant African pouched rats to sniff out explosives.
Ukrainian farmer works to replace land mines with food crops. Radio Free Europe, Apr.13, 2023
A Sea of Explosives 1,000 Kilometers Long Spiegel International, Sep.15, 2023
Clear landmines to rebuild Ukraine and feed the world. Halo Trust, Jun.20, 2023
Ukraine war: Training to clear the world’s most heavily mined country. BBC, Sep. 25, 2023
Cover image: Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China – Land Mines, CC0, Wikimedia Commons.