Ukrainian minesweepers eliminate deadly threats to civilians

Next to an abandoned Russian military camp in eastern Ukraine, the body of a man lay decomposing in the grass – a civilian who had fallen victim to a wire-triggered landmine by Russian forces retired.

Nearby, a group of Ukrainian minesweepers with the country’s Territorial Defense Forces worked to clear the area of ​​dozens of other deadly mines and unexploded ordnance – a push to restore some semblance of security to towns, villages and campaigns in a region that has spent months under Russian occupation.

The deminers, part of the 113th Kharkiv Defense Brigade of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, penetrated deep into fallow farmland on Thursday along a muddy road between fields of dead sunflowers overgrown with tall grass.

Two soldiers, each with a metal detector in their hands, walked slowly down the road, scanning the ground and waiting for the devices to give a signal. When a detector emitted a high-pitched tone, a soldier knelt down to inspect the mud and grass, probing it with a metal rod to see what might be buried just below the surface.

The knock on the detector could indicate a worn shell casing, a rusty piece of iron, or a discarded aluminum can. Or, it could be an active landmine.

Oleksii Dokuchaev, the commander of the minesweeping brigade based in the eastern region of Kharkiv, said that hundreds of mines have already been discharged in the area around the village of Hrakove where they were working, but the danger of mines at across Ukraine will persist for years. come.

“A year of war equals 10 years of demining,” Dokuchaev said. “Even now we still find munitions from World War II, and in that war they are planted left and right.”

Russian forces hastily fled the Kharkiv region in early September after a swift counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army recaptured hundreds of square kilometers of territory after months of Russian occupation.

While many settlements in the region have finally achieved some measure of safety after fierce battles reduced many to rubble, Russian landmines remain a pervasive threat in both urban and rural environments.

Small red signs bearing a white skull and crossbones line many roads in the Kharkiv region, warning of the danger of mines right next to the sidewalk. Yet sometimes desperation pushes local residents into minefields.

The local man whose body lay near the abandoned Russian camp was likely foraging for food left behind by invading soldiers, Dokuchaev said, an added danger posed by the hunger felt by many people in devastated parts of Ukraine.

Use of the type of tripwire landmines that killed him is banned under the 1997 Ottawa Treaty – to which Russia is not a signatory – which regulates the use of anti-personnel landmines, a- he declared.

“There are rules of war. The Ottawa Convention stipulates that it is prohibited to place mines or any other ammunition with tripwires. But the Russians don’t know that,” he said.

The deminers had cleared the road of landmines the day before, enabling them to search for anti-tank mines hidden under the ground that could destroy any vehicle driving over it.

They hoped to bring vehicles deep enough into the area to recover an abandoned Russian armored personnel carrier, the engine of which they planned to recover. A vehicle will also have to be brought by the local police to recover the body.

The minesweepers reached the abandoned camp, set up in a grove of trees and littered with the remains of the months the Russian soldiers had spent there: rotting food rations in wooden ammunition boxes, strings of high-caliber bullets, a pile of yellowed Russian newspapers and trenches filled with filth.

After a thorough analysis of the area, the military recovered two Soviet-made TM-62 anti-tank mines and six air-armed fuses and placed them in a depression at the edge of the camp, stuck in a bundle with 400 grams of TNT. .

Dokuchaev placed an electric detonator in the explosive charge and connected it to a long length of wire before taking cover with his men at a distance of over 100 meters (yards).

When the charge exploded – what the military laughingly called “bada-boom” – the immense blast tore through the air, causing a cascade of autumn leaves to fall from the surrounding trees and emit a large plume gray smoke.

After the mines were destroyed, Dokuchaev – a former photographer who enlisted in the Territorial Defense Forces after the outbreak of war – said the work his brigade is doing is essential to keeping civilians safe as they go. pick up the pieces of their broken lives.

Despite the dangers, he says, he loves his job.

“I don’t know what I will do after we win,” Dokuchaev said. “Life is boring without explosions.”

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Christi C. Elwood