‘No margin for error’: Unsafe Work for Ukraine’s deminers

SPARTAK VILLAGE: Pro-Russian rebel sapper Konstantin, 42 years old, stands next to unexploded rocket. — AFP
SPARTAK VILLAGE: Pro-Russian rebel sapper Konstantin, 42 years old, stands next to unexploded rocket. — AFP

DONETSK: Pro-Russian rebel Konstantin carefully carried an unexploded shell to a hole in the earth under a tree. Laying a charge of TNT, he then blew it up in cloud of black smoke. After some 18 months the fighting in east Ukraine has all but ground to a halt as a ceasefire has largely taken hold over the past six weeks, but for Konstantin dangerous work still lies ahead. Going by the name of “Kot” (Tomcat), the 40-year-old works as a deminer on the separatist side, trying to defuse the landmines, ordnance and booby traps that are scattered in the countryside.

“You make a mistake and you’re dead,” Konstantin told AFP as he went about his risky work on the conflict-ravaged outskirts of the largest rebel stronghold of Donetsk. “You have to stay concentrated and not let anything distract you.” Landmines and booby traps have been planted throughout the war zone, around the front line, near trenches in forests and fields and at roadblocks.

Certain death

“The worst one is the OZM 72 anti-personnel mine tied to taut wires on the ground,” said Konstantin, referring to a Soviet-made weapon. “We find a lot of these. When you touch the wire, the mine springs up 90 centimeters before exploding. This means certain death.” Along with fighters and mine-clearers, farmers are the main victims of the scattered landmines and booby traps, according to both the Ukrainian authorities and the rebels.

Tractors have blown up driving over anti-tank mines and farmers ploughing their fields have stumbled upon landmines concealed in the soil. “The hardest thing for me is when a shell falls into a house,” said Konstantin, who did not wish to give his last name. “Anyone can blow up a shell to destroy it. But finding a way to neutralize it on the spot without it blowing up is more complicated.” Locals occasionally discover rocket fragments from the Soviet-era Grad or Uragan multiple rocket-launchers, calling the deminers onto the scene only to find that the rockets are innocuous. But not all devices prove to be harmless.

Around 10 children have been killed in eastern Ukraine in the past few weeks when shells uncovered in deserted houses or fields blew up in their hands, Ukraine and the rebels have said. The UN children’s agency UNICEF said in March that at least 42 children had been killed and 109 injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance in eastern Ukraine since the war began.
Ukrainian authorities, rebel leaders and the International Committee of the Red Cross have published brochures and broadcast commercials to warn the population of the deadly dangers of mines and shells. A loudspeaker announcement at Donetsk’s central market urges the population to report any suspicious devices.

Ukraine, along with 160 other states, ratified the 1999 Mine Ban Treaty that prohibits the production and use of anti-personnel mines. But both sides have large stockpiles of Soviet-made weaponry-with Kiev saying the rebels received their arms from Russia-and have not hesitated to use them.

“I will have work for a long time to come,” Konstantin said. The deminer takes pride in a job he says saves lives but recognizes that the high-stress environment can take its toll. “Many mine-clearers drink to relieve stress,” he said. “It’s dangerous. You can’t have unsteady hands in this profession.” A crest on his uniform-bearing the motto “No margin for error”-serves as a permanent reminder that in this line of work, blunders kill. – AFP

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