In an overgrown minefield, Yulia Boiko kneels down and starts gardening. Years of war have caused weeds to grow high in the abandoned croplands of eastern Ukraine. Clad in flak jacket and face mask, she uses shears to snip back sun-scorched scrub, removing vegetation one careful inch at a time to avoid hidden tripwires.
A small patch of earth is eventually exposed. Boiko stands up, then scans the ground with her metal detector to ensure it is clear. She repeats the painstaking process — one pace farther into a 600-acre field where wheat and sunflowers once grew.
The United Nations reports that this Donbas region is becoming one of the most mined areas in the world. Anti-vehicle mines in particular kill more people here than anywhere else in the world, researchers say — surpassing the numbers of victims in Syria, Yemen or battlefields across Africa.
“Nobody knows how big the problem is,” said Henry Leach, the head of the Danish Demining Group’s program in Ukraine. “We just know it’s big.”
Land mines, booby traps and unexploded ordnance are sown across tens of thousands of acres — much of it off-limits because the fighting is still going on and because of obstructions raised by officials.
The Halo Trust, a humanitarian mine-clearance organisation, estimates that land mines have caused 1,796 casualties in eastern Ukraine — among them 238 civilians killed and another 491 injured — since the start of the war in 2014. The rate of casualties from mines and unexploded ordnance has increased over the years — a trend likely to continue as displaced families return to areas where fighting has subsided, now riddled with explosive remnants.
In addition to the bloodshed, entire communities suffer. Both sides have laid land mines, denying people use of land for crops and livestock, and endangering those who gather firewood. Local economies stagnate, damaged infrastructure goes unrepaired, ceasefire monitors are hampered.
That’s why Boiko — a 29-year-old mother of one from Mariupol — and her mine-clearance colleagues are deployed near the village of Myrna Dolyna (“Peaceful Valley”). Following clashes in 2014 and 2015, the presence of these deadly devices has paralysed the small agricultural community, close to the front line in government-held Luhansk region.
Deaths of three Ukrainian soldiers from a land-mine blast here last year put the area on the radar of the Danish Demining Group. Its manpower is drawn from the local population — supervisors say that risks are manageable and that training takes just a few weeks. In the Donbas twilight zone, this job is attractive. Pay is decent; the task, empowering. This site is expected to be cleared within a year.
“It’s a mix of gardening and archaeology,” Leach said. “We employ civilians, not specialists, so it’s less expensive and benefits local communities.”
Under a hot autumn sun, 10 men and women are scouring for a smorgasbord of Soviet-era weapons. Directional fragmentation mines look like “a dinner plate packed with explosives,” Leach said. “They’re particularly nasty.”
Powerful TM-62 antitank mines threaten farmers working the land. OZM-72 “bounding fragmentation” mines jump into the air when tripped, exploding at waist height to spray hundreds of steel shards into their victims.
“Black widow” mines contain up to a half-pound of TNT, while the toylike shape of “green parrots” caused a large number of child casualties during the Soviet-Afghan war. Elsewhere, the Ukrainian military has accused Russian-backed forces of laying mines attached to fishing lines, with hooks that snag soldiers’ clothes, setting off the explosives.
In the field near Myrna Dolyna, deminers have cleared several lanes into the minefield, each one spaced at a safe distance in case of unexpected blasts. The manager is Colin Watson, a Scotsman with experience in Afghanistan, Mozambique, Somalia and elsewhere.
“I’ve always worked in warmer climes, so it’ll be interesting to see how Ukraine’s bitter winter affects the job,” he said, “though these minefields always have more similarities than differences.”
Sticks tipped with red paint mark the division between secured areas and those yet to be cleared. One goal is to find “mine lines” — explosives fanning into an invisible, defensive barrier.
So prevalent are Donbas land mines that some farmers nickname them “potatoes”. Overlooking rebel-held Horlivka, Vadym Kaplya owns “Dynasty” farm (which his mother named after the soap opera). The front line cleaves his land in half. Plots of wheat are scorched by shelling, while wrecked tractors lie mangled by indiscriminate antitank mines.
“We tell ourselves, ‘There’s a potato, don’t go there’,” Kaplya told the Ukrainian online television channel Hromadske.
Most minefields are around the front line, where military commanders typically restrict demining. “There’s almost a blanket ban on survey and clearance in those areas,” said Patrick Thompson, operations manager for the Halo Trust in Ukraine. “If we want access, we have to apply to the [Defence Ministry].... Most commonly, we never get a response.”
And banned from separatist-held territory, international mine-clearance organisations have no idea of the scale of the problem there.
Eastern Ukraine is “rapidly becoming one of the most mined areas in the world,” the UN deputy chief of humanitarian affairs, Ursula Mueller, said recently, “which, if not addressed, will stall reconstruction and development for many years to come.”
International mine-clearance groups say they have retrieved more than 600 land mines, cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance — and identified at least 145 hazardous sites across government-held areas.
Ukraine’s military and state emergency service deploy sappers, too. Following one recent operation, the army said it had retrieved 1,806 explosive items from 154 acres of land — more than 11 per acre.
But critics say the state’s efforts are shambolic: Equipment is outdated, and purportedly demined areas are not cleared, marked or recorded properly. Further, there is no central database, forcing mine-action groups into a costly, inefficient and laborious process of gathering information from various sources — hospitals, law enforcement, local people, social media.
A report on the impact of anti-vehicle mines (AVMs) — published this year by a coalition of humanitarian organizations — found that Ukraine has had the most AVM-related incidents and highest number of casualties in the world over the past two years. With its flat, open topography, history of armoured advances and ready access to factory-made AVMs, eastern Ukraine is a prime location for such devices.
There is evidence of both sides tapping into a flourishing black market in mines.
The 101 AVM casualties recorded here in 2016 accounted for almost a quarter of the global total. The worst AVM accident that year occurred in Ukraine’s Donetsk region when a minibus hit a mine, resulting in 15 civilian casualties.
In April, an American paramedic working as a ceasefire observer was killed when his armoured SUV triggered a land mine in separatist-controlled territory.
The widespread threat of unexploded ordnance in populated areas also presents a severe threat. On November 5, a 9-year-old boy was killed and two of his friends injured after they found a live shell in the playground of a Donetsk school.
Despite the trauma, survivors often show great resilience. Irina Shunyevich, a physiotherapist at a rehabilitation centre near Kiev, said: “People who have been wounded by war usually have a stronger desire to get better. Recent injuries mean they remember how it was before.”
Last month, shortly before Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov and US diplomat Kurt Volker held talks on the conflict, heavy shelling and rocket fire erupted around Donetsk — standard fare to raise the stakes ahead of international one-on-ones. But not every artillery round detonates. Deminers such as Boiko will be kept busy for years.
Here in the Myrna Dolyna minefield, a whistle is blown — break time for the clearance crew. They head behind a pile of sandbags for tea and a smoke. Ten minutes later, another whistle. They get back to work.