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“I’m risking my life to clear landmines in Ukraine – and the Russians are hunting me”

November 21, 2022
"I’m risking my life to clear landmines in Ukraine – and the Russians are hunting me"

In Ukraine, brave women – some total novices–are stepping up to the task of ridding their country of huge amounts of lethal unexploded weaponry left by retreating Russian forces. It is work that may take 30 years to complete, but the volunteers remain undaunted. Words and photographs by Mauricio Gris.

Two women wearing body armour are picking their way through a field of strimmed vegetation. Between them, they hold what looks like an enormous metal swing with the seat missing, covered in twisted black wires. One of the women has a black box slung around her neck. She isn’t taking her eyes off it. Iryna Kustokova, 38, a former aviation strategist, is watching the box’s meter to see if the needle jumps. Suddenly, the box lets out a warble. The women freeze.

This field in the Makarivs’kyi district of the Kyiv Oblast was a no-man’sland between Russian and Ukrainian forces for a month at the start of the invasion in February. Six months on, Kustokova and her partner Ryta Mazankova, 48, are, with the aid of their long loop detector, looking for unexploded ordnance – the lethal remnants of war: bombs, grenades, mines. It doesn’t make sense for there to be any mines here. There weren’t any pitched battles in this field, and it’s too far from the respective positions of each side to warrant defensive measures. Yet, according to the Ukrainian police, two farmers a week are killed by anti-tank mines left behind in their fields. The women test again and the unmistakable alarm rings out. Kustokova and Mazankova do not move as they confer and then shout back to the rest of their team, who have already covered this ground. Relief. The beeping is just from a water pipe that runs to a nearby cattle farm, which they picked up earlier. The farm needs this land back as soon as possible. The women crack on; there is a lot of land to check.

A company called Demining Solutions, alongside NGOs such as The HALO Trust, is responsible for ‘releasing’ non-critical land, such as farmers’ fields, once the fighting has moved on. It is painstaking work. It was set up originally by Volodymyr Petenko, a former major general in the Ukrainian army and advisor to the President, in 2018, to remove mines from the east of Ukraine after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. It is a private company but works closely with the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. As well as clearing non-contested land, it is tasked with importing the latest equipment and techniques for explosive ordnance disposal (EOD).

Kustokova and Mazankova are relatively new recruits to the world of mine clearance. But like the other women who now make up about a third of those engaged in the humanitarian demining effort in Ukraine, they have been catapulted into their new roles as much by circumstance as by choice. Kustokova puts this down to the unique combination of martial law at the start of the invasion – which prevented Ukrainian men from leaving the country, meaning they were unable to travel abroad for EOD training – as well as policies of international organisations that encouraged women like her to apply. Her life now is very different to how it was before the war, when she had a regular job in civil aviation. Now she spends her days mapping out areas of fighting, talking to locals, reading news reports. Kustokova’s role involves marking out an area to be cleared, getting rid of vegetation, using a metal detector to find lethal materials then remove them, and finally doublechecking the cleared ground with a second team. ‘It is about standards and procedure,’ she says, when I meet her in a bar before we go out to the fields.

Before 24 February, Kustokova, who grew up in the Dnipro region before going to university in Kyiv, was an advisor to the chairman of the State Aviation Administration. (This explains her perfect use of the phonetic alphabet to spell her name when we first meet.) On the day of Russia’s invasion, she initially continued with her planned day of Zoom calls about her initiative for an alternative aviation-fuel market in Ukraine. Soon the screeching of heavy shelling became too much. The Russians were just a few kilometres away from her home – probably in the very field I would see her clearing on the six-month anniversary of their invasion. Kustokova fled to Lviv, in the west of the country. Just as well, given that her former home was in the Bucha region, which has since become infamous as a site of Russian war crimes against civilians. She worked for the refugee council for two months, before seeing a news item on television about women being trained in EOD. She asked herself, ‘Why am I not there?’, she tells me, then got online, found the course provider, and wrote them a long email. ‘It was an honest description of my situation, and my thoughts as well as my vision of [how] I could play an active part in it.’ Eleven days later, Kustokova was hundreds of kilometres south, in Kosovo, as part of a second cohort of Ukrainians to be put through a specially designed, conflict-specific course in EOD. The majority of those in her group were women. Despite her lack of experience, after reading her impassioned letter, Mine Action and Training (MAT Kosovo), the British-led company instructing Ukrainian volunteers, was happy to take her on.

I joined MAT in Peja, eastern Kosovo, as they put a fourth group of Ukrainians through the final stage of their training. Since Kustokova passed through, the number of men and women has evened out. The course has a specific focus on Soviet munitions – some of the toughest to take on, I am told, because of their advanced fusing, which can include passive infrared or seismic triggers. This means just one person moving within 16 metres can set these bombs off. This is what the students will be dealing with when they return to Ukraine. We move up into a military area in the nearby mountains, where three women and 11 men pat, roll and stuff a Play-Doh-like white explosive into ‘shaped charges’ – devices used to initiate a blast so that it can neutralise other explosive devices without setting them off. On this range, the students are attempting to disrupt fusing systems of unexploded ordnance that is still being dug out of the ground 23 years after the war in Kosovo ended. That war lasted 15 months, in an area that is 55 times smaller than Ukraine.

MAT was set up in 1999 by former British Army Royal Engineer Ben Remfrey to deliver mine-clearance training after the war in Kosovo. When the Russians invaded Ukraine, it put together a bespoke package for the country based on the International Mine Action Standards – the globally recognised framework for humanitarian demining operations. Funding was provided by the charity Jersey Oversea Aid to cover the costs of training the Ukrainians. There are 14 Ukrainians on the course when I visit. All have impressed the staff with their humour and willingness to learn, I am told by Hekruan Dula, 43, the chief instructor. A rangy Kosovan, Dula got his start in mine clearance at the end of the war in his country. He gives off an air of relaxed competence, which is reassuring when you’re surrounded by novices handling explosives. Under Dula’s guidance, Yuliia, 40, carries her SM33 shaped charge down to a rusty shell at the end of the stony road which doubles as our explosive range.

In her linen kaftan, Yuliia cuts an unlikely figure to be on a Russian blacklist. She is a major in the National EOD Police and had to flee her home in eastern Ukraine for Kyiv after Russia annexed Crimea. Yuliia is hoping to blow the fuse out of a rusty artillery piece in a ‘low-order’ explosion, designed to neutralise the unexploded item. She is calm as she calculates the stand-off distance, setting up her charge and connecting the wires. For her, this course is about increasing her skills; she has been involved in EOD for a while but wants to meet the higher standards of international mine disposal. We all retreat to a safe distance once she has finished preparing. Her quiet reserve could be mistaken for insecurity. In fact, she is the most qualified here as most of the men have been drawn from the anti-corruption unit of the police. Her manner is, in fact, just focus on the task at hand. Yuliia got her start by winning a grant to go to university from a military industrial plant that was looking for the next generation of workers. Then in 2004 she was selected to become an explosives forensics expert within the police. Even though she knows the Russians have been trying to find her, Yuliia tells me she isn’t scared of anything except harm coming to her loved ones. She, and all the volunteers, are notably quiet on the subject of their families. When she fled to Kyiv, Yuliia says she ‘defined a vision for myself – to make a safe space for the citizens of Ukraine’. So she moved out of the lab and into the field. She presses the red button on the exploder. After a pregnant pause, a low thud confirms a successful low-order explosion.

Including Yuliia’s intake, MAT has trained a total of 21 women and 21 men from Ukraine so far. As well as the EOD element, they are taken through task management so that each person is capable of running a team. This is vital if the volunteers are to make a dent in a problem that some say will require an additional 2,500 people on top of the 300 I am told are already working in the field. MAT could probably squeeze another 10 students on to its course, but the funds aren’t there; it costs£3,000 to put a student through the training. The four-week courses are sponsored through a charity, Friends of Ukraine EOD, set up by Remfrey, which marries up private donations with volunteers.

Christina Senechyn, 28, one of the other two women here today, moves forward to take her turn blowing up a 23-year-old grenade. Ukrainian by birth, Senechyn has lived in the UK for 18 years. She watched February’s invasion from London while trying to convince her grandparents to leave Lviv and join her. Eventually she travelled back to Ukraine to persuade them in person; a chance meeting with some Western volunteers soon found her working with the foreign section of the National EOD Police. Now she has given up her job at the Apple store in Covent Garden to clear ordnance full-time. When I ask both Senechyn and Yuliia what their longer-term plans are, they are vague. They talk of not knowing what the future holds. Later I realise that this is probably because of the size of the task ahead of them. The sheer amount of unexploded ordnance being left behind in this war is tough to comprehend, but it is vividly demonstrated when, back in Ukraine, I meet up with Yuliia and other MAT graduates to clear an area around Hostomel Airport in a north-western suburb of Kyiv.

This task is going to take a while: the airport was the scene of savage fighting in March as the Russians tried to quickly decapitate the Ukrainian government by taking Kyiv. That intensity has been replicated across the country. Add to this weapon failure rates of over 60 per cent for some Russian missiles, due to poor storage, age and bad maintenance, and there is a lot of explosive left in the ground. Much that didn’t explode is also buried beneath all the other metal that gets left behind in war – magazine casings, rebar (the rods used to reinforce concrete), bits of planes, tanks or burnt-out vehicles. On 2 April Ukrainian forces recovered full control of the airport and they have been cleaning up ever since; they believe it will take another two years.

Having stopped our vehicles near the runway, I step out and almost put my foot on half a hand grenade. I’m reassured that it is not a threat – apparently the explosive has burned off. But that moment sets the tone for an eye opening 90 minutes. Not far from where we have parked, the tail of a rocket pokes out of the tarmac. Just off the airfield, blackened tree trunks poke into the sky; among the vegetation is the twisted shell of a vehicle I’m told was an ammunition truck that exploded. Armed only with trowels, within 15 minutes Yuliia and her team of10 have found 20 unexploded tank shells. By the time they are finished they have unearthed over 100. It looks as if they are weeding an allotment. The shells are heaped into an SUV for the drive to the demolition site, a remote field far from Kyiv carved with huge craters.

It’s all a long way from the controlled environment at MAT’s Kosovan training base. Later, in a pine forest six kilometres west of the airport, Senechyn is out on her first day with the International Volunteer EOD group –a unit composed of Westerners who operate under the loose control of the police, providing EOD and training to Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline. My trip to Hostomel demonstrated the scale of the unexploded ordnance problem in Ukraine. This expedition into the woodland will demonstrate the complexity of it. Unlike at the airport, where the beginnings of containment and organisation can be seen, this feels like triage rather than treatment. The forest floor is littered with the torn metal of a Russian battalion bombed into oblivion. In places the forest canopy has been blown away by explosions. Small areas are sandy where the debris and pine needles have been removed during previous efforts to clear explosives, but the surface has barely been scratched. We don’t pass through any checkpoints on our way to the forest, which is becoming a problem as teenagers have been seen risking their lives making TikTok videos amid the chaos.

Meanwhile, the police have even caught people trying to smuggle unexploded munitions back into Kyiv for sale on the black market. We pull up in a convoy; everyone dismounts and begins to pick through the wreckage. Senechyn and the team head further into the forest and help to load recovered artillery shells onto a vehicle. The de facto leader of the volunteers, Chris Garrett, a 38-year-old Brit from the Isle of Man, tells me that when they first got here three months ago, they thought this was a regimental position, but as they searched, the site just got bigger and bigger. They ‘kept finding position after position’. This poses a real danger for mine clearance and any potential TikTokkers, as the less predictable the layout of a fighting position, the less predictable the layout of the surrounding defensive minefields. One volunteer describes finding an enormous web of trip wired anti-personnel mines going in every direction. An Australian volunteer among the group was here a few weeks ago when someone triggered a mine and died. They never found the body in the chaos of the forest. As the Ukrainian frontline changes over time, the risks only increase. Memories fade and the land becomes more ingrained with unexploded ordnance.

After six months of war the frontline was approximately 600km long. If the Ukrainians are to reclaim all the land occupied by Russia, this will have to be pushed back over 127,484km. Retreating Russians often leave victim-operated booby traps and improvised explosive devices in their wake, designed to target deminers and the civilian population as they look to take back their land and homes. So even if the advance is quick and one-sided, the danger for women like Kustokova, Yuliia and Senechyn only increases. Not long after I return to the UK, two of Yuliia’s unit are killed in this way. A booby trap hidden inside a bomb detonated as they were moving it.

Neither side is declaring how much ordnance they are using, so it is difficult to draw comparisons with other wars or estimate how long the clear-up is going to take. The most conservative estimate I’ve heard is 30 years from the end of the war; others have told me that it will be ‘work for my children’. Despite the exponential increase in work and danger that each day brings for them, none of the women I meet doubts that they will finish what they have started. They believe that they will push Russia back. For them, this work is not a sprint or even a marathon, but an odyssey. Their battle will continue after the war is over. Kustokova in particular is vocal about the unfairness of pushing an invader off your land, only for them to continue to deny it to you via the lethal material left behind on the ground. ‘It is like you have an enemy in the ground,’ she says. Depressing though this is, it’s a powerful collective motivation. The women have their heads down and are focused on their daily challenges, trying to stick to what they were taught in training in Kosovo. There is a bright spot – they know help is on the way. MAT has secured funding to train many more people to deploy in Ukraine. For now, they’ll keep fighting, one field at a time.

First published in The Telegraph Magazine, 05 November 2022
©Mauricio Gris/ Telegraph Media Group Limited 2022