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Landmine Valley

Demining of the Donbas could take over a decade. Why does every square meter take so long?

Thorns keep getting into boots, burrs stick to legs. The fragment protection visor gets in the way, constantly sliding down from the head: it’s heavy, and it doesn’t stay in place on the face when you are not used to it. Keeping fast pace, we traverse a hilly terrain, trying not to fall behind the four people carrying a stretcher and the paramedic. The team is training to evacuate a wounded deminer: the medical vehicle is waiting on a clear site, and we are walking to it on the crispy grass among different-color spikes. These spikes are strewn all over the field near the exit from Lysychansk towards Zolote, the last village before the separation line with the occupied territory. The field hadn’t seen a plow in four years; it became a steppe.

According to estimates by the joint forces command and OSCE, demining of the Donbas could take over a decade. Croatia, where war has ended in 1995, is expected to be fully cleared in 2019. Why does every square meter take so long?

Danish Demining Group (DDG) has been working on this site since August 2017. A defense line spanned this area during the fighting. Today, the frontline is 15 kilometers away from here toward the southeast.

How do they find the unexploded ordnance? What skills does one need to work as a humanitarian deminer? We are traveling to Myrna Dolyna village to spend a day with DDG and meet the people whose faces are not easily recognizable behind the protective gear.

Alarm clock. Coffee. Mine detector

“I stopped, took a careful look to make sure that that’s the one. No special feelings. The only thing I felt was a drop of sweat running down from the forehead to the nose. I told them on the portable radio: got it! Stepped away… And that was when emotions caught up with me big time!” Oleksandr Maltsev talks about how he found his first landmine. Today, he is a section leader at Danish Demining Group, having six deminers working in the field under his command; next to them are two more groups, working on other sites.

Deminers hail from various regions: Poltava, Ternopil, Kyiv, but the bulk of the team is comprised of those who live (or used to live before the war) nearby: Sloviansk, Severodonetsk, presently-occupied Pervomaisk and Luhansk.

Our story begins not in Myrna Dolyna but on the outskirts of Lysychansk, a city where the steppe runs straight into residential neighborhoods, where war and occupation rolled over less devastatingly than farther to the east, and where almost all industrial enterprises have been destroyed long before the Russian aggression. Danish Demining Group has its base in one of these neighborhoods, on the border between the steppe and the city. The base is housed in a two-story building that once was the office of a gas company, which the sappers repaired themselves.

The workday on the base starts at 8.30 am, and even earlier for senior officers who finalize the tasks for the day at their plan of the day meeting. At 9 am, deminer groups would go out in the field and work six sessions 50 minutes each, with nine-minute rest breaks and one large lunch break.

In the past, Oleksandr from Severodonetsk was a volunteer, bringing food to people in the Stanytsia Luhanska Raion. He has three children. “There was a fear at first, because I knew nothing about specifics of this job. But after we took training courses, we came to realize that it’s not that dangerous, after all, because you know how to handle these things”, Oleksandr tells his story, standing at the entrance to the base building.

While the team are packing their gear into cars, a woman holding a cup of coffee sits down on a stool in the shadow of a tree. She just got a minute of a break. Katia is a cook, and she stays on the base to make the next batch of meals. Before lunchtime, she would pack a couple of dozen of field rations into a car (the full meal pack: soup, chicken with mashed potatoes, vegetables and kompot) and send them out in the field. Katia is a local, living in nearby Lysychansk. We exchanged a couple of words under a wild apricot tree; this year’s orchard harvest in the Donbas and in Kyiv is rich. A column of five cars sets out to the east. They won’t have to travel very far.

Myrna Dolyna field

Blue, red, green, yellow, striped. The spikes stand in a row along the road. These are just samples. Out there, in the field, they stand in a strict order.

“The white ones mark our administrative zone, which means safe area”, team leader Pavlo explains [being a Western company, DDG uses mostly English-language names for positions]. “The green ones are used to mark a cleared area; they are driven every 100 meters. A yellow spike indicates the place where a piece of unexploded ordnance was found and utilized. Red spikes mark the boundary between a safe and a dangerous area, and also, they indicate turns, in which case, two shorter spikes are driven one next to the other. Also, these spikes close the paths. A blue one is a progress spike: when a sapper starts his workday in the morning, he uses a blue spike to mark the place where he started. A striped grey spike means quality control by the section leader. Then, he is followed up by the group leader, i.e. me: that’s what the black spike is for”.

What brings specialists to these places, for the separation line is long and potentially dangerous everywhere along the length? The first criterion is the so-called landmine incident: a military vehicle has already been blown up in this place before, and people were killed. Secondly, a Ukrainian defense line ran through this place in 2014, and therefore, the field is strewn with fragments and fin-stabilized munitions. And when clearing the field, five anti-tank mines have been found there.

In the event of explosion, protection against fragments should be provided by a Kevlar apron and a visor – that very transparent mask on the face, consisting of two polycarbonate layers. Every deminer puts on this personal protective gear before getting to work. No piece of gear is permitted to take off before the whistle from the group leader, which announces a break.

Unlike a regular bulletproof vest, the apron covers a somewhat larger area of the body, including groin and neck. As for the visor, when you put it on, the sappers will tell you right away that “it will be uncomfortable at first”. As it turns out, it simply doesn’t stay in place unless you hold it with your hand. Since the visor’s center of mass is on the face, the gravity force pulls it down. It’s heavy, stuffy and distracting.

After putting the protective gear on, every deminer takes their equipment. Depending on the task, DDG uses detectors of two types: German-manufactured large loop detector from Ebinger and Australian-made Minelab.

The Minelab detects a signal up to 20 centimeters deep, where the majority of landmines are laid; it’s a small and sensitive device, and therefore, the speed of work with it is, obviously, lower. Before using this detector, the area must be mowed first. Then, the area is swept for mines 2-3 centimeters above the ground, in order not to touch the detonator.

A large loop detector (LLD) allows to sweep large areas fast. It represents a frame 1×2 meters, able to catch a signal deep below the ground. “Right now”, Pavlo shows, “it stands 20 centimeters above the ground, indicating 6 to 8 units. If it detects an anti-tank mine, it would show 40, or even 60. We calibrate it for the 1-meter depth. In other words, it detects large objects 1 meter below the ground”.

That’s how LLD looks at work. Two 100-meter ropes are stretched across the area to be cleared, leaving a one meter-wide corridor between them. A deminer walks on the cleared side, holding one part of the frame over the swept strip.

“After covering this way 100 meters to one side, we move one rope one meter forward”, section leader Volodymyr Suslov says.

Although the LLD is more efficient, allowing to cover large areas fast, it cannot be used in any place. For example, when the ground is strewn with fragments, the device would keep detecting them without interruption. There could be other circumstances as well.

“A section of the Samara-Lysychansk oil pipeline runs through here. It’s a large-diameter pipe, a lot of metal, and of course, it interferes with detectors. Although it runs about two meters deep, our LLD catches it”, group manager Oleksii Shaidenkov says.

And what about booby traps? In the locations where they are suspected to be, they are manually swept for using a feeler – a cord like this:

People, and often the military, use the term “booby trap” to call explosive devices triggered by a tripwire. A tripwire could be attached to a grenade or an improvised explosive device. Can a sapper accidentally trigger a booby trap? “The feeler is sensitive, and the person feels the resistance of tripwire and stops. After that, it’s up to the section leader or the team leader to decide what to do next, how this booby trap was planted, where the tripwire’s ends are and to what they are attached”, Oleksii Shaidenkov explains.

On the photo, a deminer uses a feeler to sweep the area:

The woman who does it is called Olena Chyzh. She moved from occupied Pervomaisk to Zolote, right next to the separation line. When Olena left the occupied territory, her son was only one month old, and today, he is three and a half years. Before becoming a sapper, Olena worked in the migration service, then went on a maternity leave, and eventually changed profession.

“I wanted to give it a try. I was curious, although in fact, it’s a dangerous and frightful place to be in. I wanted to help, to start clearing it, to “make the ice crack”. This is my land, I grew up here, and almost everything here is native to me. I want my child and other children to walk around here unharmed”, Olena says, when we stand on the cleared part of the field. The DDG base is 28 kilometers away from her home in Zolote; Olena often visits it, but says she wishes for more time to be spent at home, with her child.

After the training, DDG has selected just one more woman besides Olena: Liudmyla Vandiak. Unlike Olena’s, her family lives far away from here – in Yuzhne of the Odesa Oblast. She visits her husband and the three-year-old daughter Valeria on her week off, which the team has after four weeks of work. “She knows that the mom is “away at work”, but doesn’t know yet what exactly her mom does”, Liudmyla laughs.

This woman has also fled occupied Pervomaisk, and like Olena, she found this job after maternity leave. “The training took about a month: we viewed slideshows, studied a lot of theory, were at the desk in the morning; they read us lectures, followed by practical training, and that went on all the way until the evening”, she says.

A millimeter down. A millimeter to the side

When a detector catches a signal, you can find out exactly what that thing beneath the ground is – an explosive device or a fragment – only by looking at it. That’s when they go for the so-called “excavation”.

“Take it slowly, do not hurry. No pressuring, no force should be used”, deminer Tadeusz says.

Excavation means doing it very slow, and it is only for the patient. A deminer stands, bent forward, for 50 minutes, peering into the ground and working by hands with the millimeter precision. Not only sharp moves are forbidden, but so are moves from top downward, in order not to touch the detonator; only moving from side to side is permitted: a deminer must dig under to make sure that soil on the landmine (if it is a landmine) gradually falls down and makes the casing visible.

“This work not so much tiring as monotonous”, Tadeusz believes.

On the side of the field stands a cross with faded wreaths on it. One sapper has been working near it the whole day. It’s a difficult section, where he has been working mostly by excavation, removing one layer of soil after another and picking out fragments.

Not far from this place is a crater left by an explosion that once killed an APC crew. The earth in this area is stuffed with metal. Moving a millimeter at a time, Roman unceasingly fills a bucket with smashed ordnance fragments. All that is scrap, but each piece must be dug under, treated as an explosive.

Roman hails from Sloviansk, where he was a deputy head of a production department before the war. One day, he found a vacancy on the Internet and submitted his resume. The training took about a month, and eventually, he found himself here.

“The standards here are so well thought-out that if a deminer strictly observes them, his work would be safe. But that requires focused attention”, Roman says.

In late September, the temperature here is still 29 above zero, so you want to pull the visor off your face, but that is strictly forbidden. Soon, however, it will start raining and snowing. Weather is the most probable obstacle in this kind of work: it’s hard to work when it’s too hot or too cold, and impossible when it rains. The visor gets wet and foggy, and Kevlar loses its properties.

Bad scenario

A medical vehicle must stand not more than a hundred meters away from the area where deminers work. Today, two ambulances are on duty, and so are two paramedics, Oleksandr and Yaroslav. Once in a while, the crew drives the vehicle to the hospital as if carrying a wounded deminer.

“We have a full intensive treatment set containing all the necessary equipment: oxygen, anesthetics, for severe loss of blood, two sets of stretchers”, Oleksandr says. “I constantly carry the red bag while out in the field, and the blue bag contains regular “office kit” that personnel may use any time”.

Oleksandr is a therapist, graduating from Luhansk University of Medicine. His vehicle stands on duty, ready to help the group working across the road, and the other vehicle took station in the cleared area of the adjacent field, assigned to another group. When deminers are at work, the interior is cleared of everything that may get in the way, the doors open, and the paramedic isn’t going anywhere.

We started our story with a medical drill: it was held on the next day of our stay with the team. Everything was like during other trainings in tactical medicine, but there were some differences. There was no gunfire here, the surrounding area is quiet, but at the same time, extremely dangerous. One has to move here, even in emergencies, by watching the guiding spikes.

“The most important thing is to teach deminers act independently and not to haste, because in cases like these, everybody wants to act fast, and that’s when critical mistakes are made: some step over the spikes into an uncleared area, others start to run when they shouldn’t be doing it”, Oleksii Shaidenkov says. “That’s why, these actions must be automatic”.

It is a mistake to believe that humanitarian demining means taking explosive objects out of the ground every day. In fact, it means being ready every day to find them. Months may go by without anything happening, but you still have to be alert, for you will eventually find a landmine at some moment.

Five ТМ62-М anti-tank mines have been found in this field during a year. Had they stayed in the ground, they would’ve gotten under the plow, for this is a farming field.

“We remove fragments and fin-stabilized munitions themselves. If we find a real piece of ordnance – an anti-tank or anti-personnel mine, VOG (40-mm fragmentary grenade), fragmentary or cluster munition – we call the Emergency Service or the Army, they assign a squad, we sign documents, they remove the ordnance and take it away for disposal. If this ordnance is dangerous to transport, we decided one day to blast it on the spot: three anti-tank mines have been detonated in this field”, Oleksii Shaidenkov says.

Mine danger signs are being regularly stolen in Myrna Dolyna, because they are metal. “We can’t leave anything unattended”, the leader of deminers shows surprise. “They even stole sacks with sand from us, let alone tarpaulin”.

Besides the money: why would they need that?

In the evening, the base becomes quiet. This neighborhood of Lysychansk has never been bustling after nightfall anyway. Some stay on the base all the time, others go home for the night. One of the two female deminers – Liudmyla – takes driving and English courses in free time. Some men went to a gym in the city.

Behind the windows, in this outskirt of Lysychansk where the city and the steppe strangely meet, dogs are barking in the pitch-black darkness and a third of windows remain lit in the regional children’s hospital transferred over here from occupied Luhansk. Katia the cook lives nearby. Tomorrow, she’ll come here at dawn to cook breakfast for the team of deminers and then pack lunch meals to be eaten in the field. It will be the sixth workday, Saturday. Sunday is the day off. Ditto the fifth week by count, when these seemingly quiet and phlegmatic people take a rest from the constant risk of being blown to pieces by a treacherous landmine and from nervous stress.

Deminers say that the risk is overweighed by the advantages of working at an international organization: legally, with guarantees, provided with means of work, accommodation and steady earnings.

“Another motive is that nobody knows what will happen next. I know that I have experience and practice”, Oleksandr Maltsev ponders. “I will gather people, and we’ll do it. And if we also advance over there (beyond the separation line – editor’s note), I will also know what to do and how”.

We have no information whether illegal armed formations of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics and the Russian military clear minefields on the other side. The State Service for Emergencies, Halo Trust and Danish Demining Grоup work on the Ukrainian government-controlled side of the separation line. HALO Trust is an international humanitarian organization funded by the EU, which removes debris left behind by war. It has been active in the government-controlled part of the Donbas since 2015, surveying and clearing dangerous areas and conducting anti-landmine trainings for the locals. Danish Demining Group is a division of the Danish Refugee Council, an international humanitarian organization also funded by the EU. Beginning from 2014, the European Union has provided, via more than 50 projects, 340 million euros in total to overcome the consequences of war in Eastern Ukraine, spent on demining, restoring infrastructure, psychological assistance to victims, and for other purposes. Danish Refugee Council – Danish Demining Group is a humanitarian, non-governmental, non-profit politically neutral organization. The terminology used in the article does not represent views of DRC-DDG.

Author: Tetiana Yakubovych

Photo: Sergiy Korovainyi

Development: Vladyslav Zakrevskyi

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