Learning to identify and defuse explosives is something Anastasiia Minchukova never thought she would have to do as an English teacher in Ukraine. Yet there she was, wearing a face shield, armed with a landmine detector, and venturing into a field strewn with warnings of danger.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has taken 20-year-old Minchukova and five other women to Kosovo, where they are undergoing a practical course in mine clearance and other dangers that may remain hidden in their country once the fighting is over.
“There is a huge demand for people who know how to do mine clearance because the war will soon be over,” Minchukova said. “We think there is so much work to do.”
The 18-day training camp takes place in an area of the western town of Peja, Kosovo, where a Malta-based company regularly offers courses for job seekers, companies working in former war zones, humanitarian organizations and government agencies.
“Still fresh in our memories”
Kosovo was the scene of a devastating armed conflict in 1998-99 between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serb forces that killed an estimated 13,000 people and left thousands of unexploded mines in need of clearance. Praedium Consulting Malta’s range includes bombed out and derelict buildings, as well as expanses of vegetation.
Instructor Artur Tigani, who adapted the program to reflect Ukraine’s environment, said he was happy to share the experience of his small Balkan nation with Ukrainian women. Although 23 years have passed, “it is still fresh in our memories, the difficulties we encountered when we started demining in Kosovo,” Tigani said.
Tigani is a highly trained and experienced mining operations officer who served as an engineer in the former Yugoslav army in the 1980s. He has been deployed to his native Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Kenya, and conducted training missions in Syria and Iraq.
During a lesson last week, he took his trainees through a makeshift minefield before heading to a makeshift outdoor classroom featuring a huge blackboard with various samples of explosives and mines.
A Persistent Threat
While it’s impossible to gauge just how littered Ukraine is currently with mines and unexploded ordnance, the aftermath of other conflicts suggests the problem will be enormous.
“In many parts of the world, explosive remnants of war continue to kill and maim thousands of civilians every year during and long after the end of active hostilities. The majority of victims are children,” said the International Committee on the Red Cross at a conference in December. United Nations Conference.
“Location [unexploded ordnance] among the rubble and selecting them from a wide range of everyday objects, many of which are made of similar materials, is a dangerous, expensive and often extremely time-consuming task,” the Red Cross said.
Mine Action Review, a Norwegian organization that monitors demining efforts around the world, reported that 56 countries were contaminated with unexploded ordnance in October, with Afghanistan, Cambodia and Iraq bearing the heaviest burdens, followed from Angola, Bosnia, Thailand, Turkey and Yemen.
Thousands of victims
Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24. Russian forces bombed towns and villages across the country, reducing many to rubble.
Military analysts say it appears Russian forces used anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, while Ukraine used anti-tank mines to try to prevent the Russians from gaining ground.
While Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 were banned from leaving their country and the most committed to its defense, women wanted to help in any way possible, despite the risks associated with mine clearance.
“It’s dangerous everywhere in Ukraine, even if you’re in a relatively safe area,” said Minchukova, from central Ukraine.
Hope for a better future
Another Ukrainian student, Yuliia Katelik, 38, took her three children to safety in Poland at the start of the war. She returned to Ukraine and then joined mine clearance training to ensure her children are safe as they return home to the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where a rocket attack on a crowded train station killed more than 50 people this month.
Katelik said her only wish was to be reunited with her family and see “the end of this nightmare”. Knowing how to spot traps that could shatter their lives again is a necessary skill, she said.
“Acutely, probably as a mother, I understand there’s a problem and it’s quite serious, especially for children,” she said.
Minchukova, dressed in military-style clothing, said she doubted normal life as they all knew it before the war would ever fully return.
“What am I missing? Peace,” she said. “I dream of peace, of sleeping in my bed without worrying about going to bomb shelters all the time. I miss the people I lost.”
The Kosovo Training Center plans to work with more Ukrainian women’s groups, both in Peja and in Ukraine.