As Russian forces retreated from the eastern Ukrainian city of Izium on September 12, Lyudmila Ivanenka rushed outside to watch the troops withdraw. A moment of celebration for the 69-year-old Ukrainian after living under the yoke of the enemy for several weeks. But the joy was short-lived: on the way home, she stepped on an anti-personnel mine. She loses her right foot in addition to serious injuries to both arms.
Testimonies like his, relayed by American media The Washington Post, have been going on since the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, on February 24, 2022, when hundreds of duds were scattered across the territory, constantly threatening the population.
“Even before the start of the Russian offensive in February, Ukraine was one of the countries most affected by the scourge of landmines,” recalls Hector Guerra, director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). “For good reason, the war in Ukraine did not start in 2022, but in Donbass in 2014. And a lot of mines have been stationed there for eight years.”
The largest minefield in the world
Today, according to estimates by the Ukrainian authorities and several NGOs, including ICBL and Humans Rights Watch (HRW), between 250,000 and 300,000 km² of Ukrainian territory, ie two-thirds of the country, is mined. “A number that is difficult to pinpoint precisely,” concedes Hector Guerra while the conflict is still ongoing and information from certain areas remains fragmented, “but would make Ukraine the biggest minefield in the world.”
The Ottawa Treaty, created in 1997 and signed by more than 160 countries – including France and Ukraine – obliges states “under no circumstances” to “use, produce, buy or stockpile” mines. But Russia, China and the United States have always refused to ratify it. According to the ICBL, Moscow has 26.5 million mines – the largest available mine stock in the world. “Ukraine, for its part, is also not fully complying with its obligations because it has not destroyed all its stocks as stipulated in the treaty,” criticizes Hector Guerra.
Since the beginning of the conflict, Russian forces have used seven types of anti-personnel mines, all Soviet-made, according to an investigation conducted by HWR in June 2022. They detonate and can be deadly within a radius of about 16 meters.
In early January, the NGO also accused the Ukrainian armed forces of using anti-personnel mines on their own territory to liberate the city of Izium. “Russian forces have repeatedly used anti-personnel mines and committed atrocities across the country, but that does not justify Ukraine’s use of these banned weapons,” she said.
A constant threat
The warnings are increasing on site to call on the population to remain vigilant. The streets are dotted with makeshift signs featuring a skull and crossbones on a red background, indicating areas to avoid.
Because civilians are the first victims of these devices. According to the Landmine Monitor 2022 report, of the 5,544 people affected by these explosive devices worldwide in 2021, 4,200 were civilians. “And half of them were children,” says Hector Guerra. “Mines don’t differentiate between a civilian and a soldier. Their use is totally contrary to the international rules of war, which require belligerents to do everything possible to spare civilians,” the ICBL director denounced.
For its part, the Ukrainian government launched a comprehensive awareness-raising campaign on social networks in mid-January. In one video, a walker is walking through the forest and notices a mine on the ground. Instead of approaching, he moves away and dials the demining number: 101. “Don’t approach! Don’t touch! Don’t panic!”, the legend summarizes.
“Not to mention that other explosives are added to these mines, notably cluster bombs – containers filled with explosive mini-bombs – but also any defective devices that do not directly detonate on contact with the ground. “, explains Anne Héry, Advocacy Director at Handicap International. And to insist: “They can all explode at any time and pose a serious and constant threat to the population.”
Overall, Ukraine reportedly had 277 civilian casualties affected by mines or other explosive devices between January and September 2022, five times more than the previous year, according to the Landmine Monitor. “A number that is probably again underestimated there, counting the victims remains impossible in certain places, especially those occupied by the Russians,” warns Hector Guerra.
“Teaching the population how to behave is just as important as identifying contaminated areas and conducting demining operations,” said Tymur Pistriuha, chairman of the Association of Ukrainian Deminers. Since 2018, this NGO has been working to map dangerous areas in the country, raising awareness of the risks but also clearing the territory.
For some time now, the around 40-strong team has concentrated its operations in eastern Ukraine, in the areas recently liberated after several weeks of Russian occupation. The days are punctuated by meetings with the victims and their families and by the sound of metal detectors to list the mines to be defused in and around the cities.
However, the task comes up against many logistical hurdles. “It’s titanic, everything has to be combed through because mines are everywhere: in fields, on roads, in buildings, even in cemeteries,” explains Tymur Pistriuha. “We lack qualified personnel and equipment, including metal detectors,” he laments.
“At the moment we managed to clear 22 hectares of agricultural land around Boutcha. And we’ve only just received approval from the authorities to reopen access for farmers,” he says.
As a precaution, the government prohibits access to many areas, especially forest and agricultural areas. But in the cities, where life tries to resume its course, the threat remains constant. “Indeed, the intensive use of mines in urban areas is one of the peculiarities of this conflict. And that makes demining all the more complex,” explains Anne Héry from Handicap International, who has been working in Ukraine since 2014. “Russian forces have left cities in ruins, with buildings pinched from floor to ceiling. The risk is really three-dimensional, so securing places is particularly dangerous. On farmland, for example, things are easier because there is almost always explosives on the ground.”
“Mines are like cancer”
“As long as these mines exist, the population will not be able to return to normal life,” said Tymur Pistriuha of Ukraine’s Deminers. “These explosives prolong war and terror even after the enemy is gone. It’s like a cancerous growth: they spread their evil everywhere.”
In addition to endangering human life, mines and other explosive devices also have serious consequences for the economy, access to health and education and even the environment.
“Two-thirds of Ukrainian territory is agricultural land. Part of it is being abandoned today because the security risk is too great,” denounces Tymur Pistriuha. “It is a catastrophe for the farmers who can no longer work, but also for some villages who only live from their harvest.”
In mid-December, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated that the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov were also contaminated by floating mines that had killed “hundreds of thousands of living creatures”. He denounced an “ecocide” and a serious attack on biodiversity.
“Beyond that, there’s all the psychological impact,” continues Tymur Pistriuha. “One of my friends, for example, categorically refuses to go to the forest near her house because she is afraid of mines. But the Russians have never been where they live and access is free,” he says.
“People live with the constant fear of stepping on a mine. As a result, she changes her habits and restricts her freedom of movement,” says Anne Héry. “Some will no longer dare send their children to school or go to health care facilities for fear of going down certain paths… It’s a kind of perpetual fear.”
A deminer searches for the presence of anti-personnel mines on a road in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, shortly after the departure of Russian troops September 20, 2022. © Sergey Bobok, AFP
International aid is organized
The specialists interviewed by France 24 agree that it will take several decades to clear the entire territory of mines. “That will take a lot of time and cause exorbitant costs,” emphasizes Anne Héry.
In the face of the scourge, therefore, the international community is beginning to organize. In August, the US State Department announced that the United States would provide $89 million in aid to help Ukraine destroy anti-personnel mines used by Russian soldiers in populated areas were laid in the north of the country. On December 30, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced a donation of a further “1,000 metal detectors” and “100 bomb disposal kits” to help clear minefields. For their part, Belgium and Cambodia have offered to train Ukrainian deminers to speed up work on the ground.
“Some mines will remain operational for decades. Proof of this is that we still regularly defuse them from the wars in Vietnam or Cambodia,” which ended in 1975, notes Anne Héry. “The international community must mobilize to free up long-term resources.”
“We have to go further. The war in Ukraine has once again made it clear that we must act to prevent the use of these mines in conflicts,” continued Hector Guerra. “Today it is impossible to know when the war in Ukraine will end. What we do know is that the mines will prolong the conflict for decades to come.”