An area equivalent to a third of France is polluted by the deadly traps represented by mines and other remnants of the fighting. The marking of risk areas and information campaigns are a short-term priority.

Soldiers from the demining unit inspect fields near the town of Snihurivka, in the Mykolaiv region (Ukraine), on November 12, 2022. (ANADOLU AGENCY / AFP)

This is one of the great challenges facing Ukraine: how to clear tens of thousands of square kilometers polluted by explosive devices of all kinds? By Sunday November 13, two days after the liberation of Kherson, specialized units had already defused 2,000 explosive devices on just 40 hectares, according to the Interior Ministry. A drop of water, as the task seems immense.

The threat is omnipresent. “There may be mines everywhere, hammer the authorities. We ask everyone not to rush to return to their homes,” urged the ministry. Residents should avoid going to fields, river banks, forests and roads that have not yet been secured. On Sunday, a family ran over an explosive device in Novoraysk, Kherson region. Four people, including an 11-year-old child, died in the explosion.

Kherson Governor Yaroslav Yanoushevich asked people not to participate in rallies and to avoid the city center. A curfew has also been put in place, from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. Residents, moreover, must request a prior inspection from the local authorities, which have set up a dedicated mobile application and telephone number.

Defused anti-vehicle mines are put aside during a clearing operation in the Kherson region (Ukraine), November 14, 2022. (AFP)

During these “stabilization measures”, the inhabitants will have to be patient. It takes a month to clean up an average city, said Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi. Several weeks will therefore be necessary in the regional capital.

Military deminers from all over Ukraine are dispatched to secure the area. Twenty-five units are now present in the region, as well as specialized personnel from the police and the national guard. Two-thirds of the ministry’s dedicated staff are thus concentrated in the east and south of the country. They sometimes pay a heavy price in their perilous mission. On Sunday, a deminer died during an operation carried out in an administrative building, announced President Volodymyr Zelensky, and four others were injured.

An endless list of devices and mines

NGOs are also present in areas where fighting has ceased. The Halo Trust, the main humanitarian demining organization, was already established in the country before the war. “We see all kinds of explosive devices, anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, unexploded ordnance (UXO)”, explains Mairi Cunningham, program manager in Ukraine. She is currently in Brovary, a suburb of kyiv, near “minefields installed by Russian forces”. In total, about forty of its teams are in the regions of kyiv, Sumy, Chernihiv and soon Kharkiv.

From open sources and feedback from field teams, the NGO has identified 265 accidents since the start of the war, which have resulted in 142 killed and 341 injured. “Almost half are due to the explosion of anti-vehicle mines”, explains Mairi Cunningham, “and this affects for example the occupants of cars or farmers busy in the fields.” Expert Kai Winkelman, quoted in September by the Ministry of Agriculture, estimated the surface area of ​​contaminated agricultural land at around 25,000 square kilometers, which will require the equivalent of 10 million working days and two billion euros. . Tripwire grenades also litter the forests, around kyiv for example.

“Before the war, we thought we would still have years of work to do in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Now it will take decades to clear everything.”

The NGO, which employs around 500 deminers, plans to train and hire as many people as possible, in order to increase the number of deminers to 1,200 next year. Research and development teams seek to improve the techniques, in order to adapt them to the specific constraints of the explosives and the terrain.

Demining work begins with an investigation, which is based in particular on collecting information from the local population and drawing up a map. A safe path is drawn and the deminers operate with a safe distance, square meter by square meter, each along an imaginary line assigned to them. A check is carried out to verify compliance with international demining standards, then a ceremony is organized to celebrate the end of the operation.

Nine teams also offer risk education sessions. “Displaced people are not always aware of what happened in their absence, continues Mairi Cunningham. When they return home, they are less aware”. Some residents also prefer to ignore the deadly threat: “We have accidents when picking mushrooms, a practice that is really rooted in the local culture,” she points out.

Risk education, an emergency

At this stage of the conflict, “risk education is one of the first activities to put in place”, argues Celine Cheng, specialist in explosive risk education for Handicap International. “We realized that it was a country where social networks were very popular, and people sometimes approach explosives to take pictures of them, she explains, after conducting training in the country in March and in October. We are trying to change these behaviors”.

“We seek to teach them to identify the main devices used in the conflict and what they must do”, continues Celine Cheng. Again, the work is tedious: the list of the International Center for Humanitarian Demining, based in Geneva, counted in Ukraine 12 models of antipersonnel mines, nine of anti-vehicle mines and eight of explosive submunitions. Not to mention the dozens of types of missiles, rockets, grenades, mortars and various projectiles.

A Ukrainian deminer installs signs indicating the presence of mines along a road near Izium (Ukraine), October 1, 2022. (AFP)

During its workshops, Handicap International teaches residents to identify risk criteria: abandoned areas, destroyed buildings, recent fighting… “We invite them to contact the authorities and people they trust, who have information about what is happening. is recently produced in the area.” But it is difficult to anticipate the unpredictable. In October, near kyiv, the police reported the case of two grenades hidden in beehives. Luckily, the trigger device had been covered in honey.

In most cases, there is no short-term solution. “The number of contaminated square kilometers is immense”, observes Xavier Depreytere, head of innovation projects at Handicap International. “In September, the Ukrainian authorities reported 186,000 square kilometers, or a third of France. This is not an area that NGOs will be able to clear in less than fifty or sixty years.” According to him, one of the priorities is therefore “to identify and mark dangerous areas”. Because the fresher the conflict, the more traces remain visible.

“The most important thing is to mark the dangerous areas, because we won’t be able to demine everything tomorrow.”

The idea is also to streamline operations, using drones equipped with cameras, “instead of wasting time in places where there is nothing.” In partnership with Mobility Robotics, a specialized company, the NGO supports the action of its counterparts already engaged in operations. A start-up specialist also visited Ukraine in September. After a strike against a Ukrainian missile truck, the investigation teams first saw four devices in the nearby field, from the road. But “when we flew the drone, we realized that there were twice as many,” says Xavier Depreytere.

A total of 280,000 explosive devices have been neutralized since the start of the war, according to Ukrainian emergency services, including 2,145 missiles. Military units have already covered 74,400 hectares, but they will need help. The Ukrainian authorities are working on mine-clearance assistance agreements with Japan and Cambodia, a country itself battered. Croatia, among others, will also provide aid, particularly in the Luhansk region (east of the country).