Small, hidden and deadly mines and other explosives left in eastern Ukraine by retreating Russian forces pose an urgent challenge for demining teams ahead of winter.
“Without us, there is no chance of repairing services like electricity before winter,” said Artem, who heads a demining unit working in recently liberated Izyum.
“We found more than 30 mines and artillery shells today, mostly shells,” the 33-year-old told AFP, wiping his forehead after removing his goggles.
His 10-strong unit is tasked with clearing areas around damaged critical infrastructure such as power cables, water and gas lines.
“Every day we start where we left off yesterday,” he said as a team of electricity workers cautiously advanced in single file behind a deminer into a field of sunflowers and onto a broken cable.
Other colleagues stacked discovered mines with detonators safely removed next to a truck for loading and disposal.
Demining teams line the rubble-strewn roadsides between Izyum, which was captured by Ukrainian forces last month after six months, and the Donetsk region border not far down the road.
Artem, who declined to give his full name, spoke openly about his team’s dangerous work, scanning roadsides and carefully wading into tall grass fields.
“It’s our job, we know how to do it, but now more than ever it’s our duty,” he said, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
– No end in sight –
“We have 35 employees in seven teams from different regions of Ukraine,” said Vasyl Maidyk, commander of demining teams in Izyum district.
“No one knows how long the process will take,” the 42-year-old told AFP at the Izyum base.
“Despite the help of international organizations, we haven’t even finished finding mines since the beginning of the first phase of the conflict in 2014,” he said.
But he added that “if we work quickly,” the Izyum district could be cleared by November so the infrastructure would be operational again by winter.
Since the liberation of Izyum in early September, his teams have searched around 100 hectares in the district and found over 5,000 mines around former Russian positions.
The loot includes anti-tank and anti-personnel mines as well as artillery shells and, he said, “butterfly” mines, which are internationally banned.
The small green explosive devices with wing-like sides, called “petals” in Ukrainian, are particularly dangerous, according to Maidyk, as they could be picked up by children.
Out on the street, with no traffic save for military vehicles heading toward the front lines, one of Sacha’s team is hammering wooden stakes along the cleared shoulders.
“It’s no more dangerous than crossing the street on a normal day,” says 44-year-old Sacha with a shrug and a cigarette in his mouth.
“Now the nearest mine is two meters away, so it’s about safe here,” he said, as a colleague stapled to the pole a red sign with a white skull and crossbones that read, “Danger – Mines!”