Mine clearers are deployed near Kyiv

published on Friday, April 15, 2022 at 20:44

If you walk without looking at your feet, you could easily lose them: dozens of anti-tank mines the size of a large dinner plate, embedded in this muddy field bordering a small river in northern Kyiv.

Five of these are visible: dull olive green discs with ominous brown pressure plates causing the explosion. There may be many more hidden beneath the trampled undergrowth.

But the small demining team moves with amazing ease through this minefield near Brovary, a town with around 100,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Kyiv.

One of the mines is about to detonate: the sappers light a fuse that lasts two minutes, then casually retreat to a safe distance as the trickle of gray smoke thickens and thickens.

Then comes the explosion: a violent ball of light, a shock wave that feels like a punch in the chest, then a terrible bang. One less mine in this huge field.

– Retirement and security –

At the end of March, Russia withdrew from the Kyiv region and changed its “priority objective” to try to take control of eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian troops recaptured occupied cities in the first weeks of the invasion launched on February 24, but the war left its mark.

In recent weeks, AFP journalists have seen scores of duds on the streets of towns and villages north-east and north-west of the capital, abandoned or relocated during the Russian pullout.

In some places, unexploded rockets and mortar shells lay in the ground, remnants of failed attacks.

But Ukrainians also claim that Russian troops left a number of traps to cover their retreat.

Outside Brovary – a location the Ukrainian army was not told to reveal to AFP – mines are scattered in a field near a small bridge that crosses a stream leading to a cluster of elegant houses.

The withdrawal “was not a gesture of Russian goodwill,” said Brigadier General Valeri Iembakov, watching the scene in his pixelated camouflage uniform.

“They retreated very quickly, but still took the time to undermine the bridge (…) and the roads around them so that our tanks could not bypass them,” he added.

According to the general, Russian soldiers did not blow up the bridge, but their mines, now marked with red skull and crossbones signs reading “Danger, mines” in Ukrainian and Russian, remain in place.

– The art of demining –

Demining in Ukraine is not a high-tech process: it relies on rudimentary tools and nerves of steel.

Oleksandr, who declined to give his last name, says “recognition” is the first step.

This is done with a mine detector or with a long pointed rod. The mine is then gradually dug up with a shovel and then pulled out of the ground with a grab.

Anti-tank mines are not designed to be detonated through a man’s passage, but they can be booby-trapped to detonate when deminers are doing their job.

Once this verification has been carried out, the detonator will be removed and the device will be added to the arsenal of Ukraine.

“This mine can be reused in the future,” smiles Oleksandr. “It is important for us that we try to keep the ammunition from our camp for the fight against the Russians,” adds the 50-year-old deminer.

A little further on, at the edge of the field, he shows his heavy shovel, which he uses to dig up mines.

“That’s my lucky shovel,” he boasts, “My talisman.” Then he goes back to work.

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