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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Russia Has Turned Eastern Ukraine Into a Giant Minefield

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the forest close to Luba’s flat—about 25 kilometers to the west of Kyiv—became first a stronghold and then a graveyard for Russian armor. The invaders’ early push for the capital faltered, and by late March, Ukrainian forces had retaken the area, finding it littered with the remnants of the Russian occupation. Soldiers had dug rudimentary camps before fleeing, abandoning equipment, rubbish, and empty bottles of alcohol looted from nearby gas stations. But there was one thing the Ukrainian troops didn’t spot: a fragmentation grenade, fixed to a tripwire, left behind for an unsuspecting victim to stumble upon. 

That victim was 66-year-old Luba, when she and her husband were foraging for mushrooms. The explosion shredded her calves and feet, and cut a long gash across her stomach. When paramedics arrived, they had no safe way to quickly reach her without potentially triggering another device. Luba died on the way to hospital. 

Luba’s death, and others like hers, can feel like tragic accidents—but they are not. Russian soldiers have deliberately left behind booby traps, landmines, and unexploded ordnance while retreating in Ukraine, not to protect themselves, but to spitefully take away the freedom of civilians. Mines are effective at blocking or redirecting enemy troops only when they are monitored by those who set them, explains Mark Hiznay, associate director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch. If an enemy triggers a mine without being subjected to arms or artillery fire, they can retreat, reassess, and perhaps even clear the minefield. Leaving unattended devices behind has little strategic value. “This is to punish the population,” Hiznay says. 

It’s estimated that up to 30 percent of Ukraine—an area about twice the size of Austria—has been contaminated with landmines and unexploded ordnance. Many devices left in the field are designed specifically to harm people. Russia isn’t a signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty that prohibits antipersonnel mines, and Human Rights Watch has confirmed that seven such types are being used by Russia, including POM-2 and POM-3 mines that are indiscriminately dropped by aircraft or fired from specialized ground launchers. They are not buried but scattered, with no reliable way to remotely track or disarm them. The POM-3—never before deployed in combat prior to the 2022 invasion—has a seismic sensor that triggers the mine when disturbed by footsteps. Once tripped, the mine jettisons an explosive payload to roughly head-height that then detonates, expelling shrapnel that is lethal out to around 15 meters.

At the other end of the spectrum are mines that are placed by hand—even grenades rigged with duct tape and tripwires, like the device that killed Luba. Again, these traps have no strategic value, serving only to terrorize the civilian population—to punctuate every day-to-day decision with fear and doubt ahead of the country being slowly demined. “In places that were liberated in the springtime, like Bucha, you see that essential [mindset of]: ‘Let’s kill civilians with booby traps,’” Hiznay says. “It’s salting the earth; it’s targeting people.” 

Despite the risk, history tells us that Ukrainians will return to these contaminated places before they are safe. “People have an attachment to where they come from,” says Ruth Bottomley, a consultant and researcher with 20 years’ experience working in areas contaminated by mines, particularly Cambodia. “Whenever something traumatic happens, people want to get back to what’s normal, to what they’re used to,” she says—even if there’s still a threat.

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Living among mines then has a well-documented deleterious effect on a country’s psychological health. Research shows that just the knowledge that you are in an area contaminated with explosives can lead to psychological scarring—and in some cases to post-traumatic stress disorder—even if you are never wounded by a mine or trap or witness one being triggered. This sometimes presents in surprising and heartbreaking ways. One study, among other findings, found that the test scores of school children in mine-contaminated areas appeared to go up once those areas had been demined. The fear, the uncertainty, the lack of control—it seeps into everything.

Survivors of landmine explosions also often go on to develop severe depression, anxiety, and PTSD, while also facing discrimination when trying to find work. A landmine injury can destroy a family, leaving a parent unable to work or a spouse in need of care. Physiological and psychological rehab can help with recovery, but Ukraine currently is unlikely to have the capacity to provide what’s needed—it had set goals for providing such support following the invasion of Crimea in 2014, which also involved landmines being deployed, but was failing to meet these targets prior to this year’s invasion.

How long the direct threat of mines will last isn’t yet clear—until Russia leaves Ukraine, there will be no way of determining how many devices and traps there might be. Clearing them will then be a long road: across Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, antipersonnel mines are still killing people long after conflicts have nominally been resolved. And as long as mines are still in the ground in Ukraine, a psychological weight will hang over the civilian population. Even after they’ve been cleared, the scarring effects of conditions such as PTSD may never be resolved.

But while the war is not yet over, a small but growing number of Ukrainians are beginning to start clearing land. The HALO Trust, a global charity, is working to train people in Ukraine to safely find landmines, with this information then passed on to the Ukrainian military so that the devices can be removed. Trained civilians also educate others about the dangers that now hide in and around their communities.

“We have teachers, lawyers, hairdressers, barmaids—different people from all different backgrounds come, and we train them here,” says Olesia Fesenko, communications officer for the HALO Trust in Ukraine. “The only real requirements we have are motivation and good physical health, because we’re working outdoors, in harsh environments, with people working on their knees lots of the time.”

There are good days, explains Fesenko—like when new recruits discover their first mine and see it taken away for destruction. “Yes, they are very nervous,” she says. “But it then kind of motivates you, because you see: ‘This is the result of my work, and now it will be destroyed and not hurt anyone anymore.’” But then there are the bad. It was the HALO Trust that first reported Luba’s story, and Fesenko’s face darkens immediately as she recalls it. 

Teams from organizations like the HALO Trust will play an enormous part in repairing the damage that Russia leaves in its wake—a task that will prove a defining undertaking in modern European history. Simply repairing the structural damage that has been done to Ukrainian homes, to its infrastructure, and to its economy will be every bit as integral to how history remembers this war as the cataclysmic defeat toward which Russia appears to be lurching. But even with the necessary money, time, and commitment, the psychological torture deliberately and callously inflicted on so many Ukrainian people—be they victims like Luba, or those lucky enough to avoid direct contact with Russia’s vengeful legacy of landmines—will stretch on for decades. “That’s the psychology you’re looking at: to continue the punishment,” says Hiznay. “It’s saying: ‘You’re going to remember us.’”

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