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‘We've gotten very good at killing one another’ Ukraine’s mine-laden forests and fields through the eyes of sappers

Source: Meduza

In April, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs declared Ukraine one of the most mine-contaminated countries in the world. According to an estimate from the country’s State Emergency Service, mines and other explosives may contaminate up to half of the country’s territory. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry has predicted that fully demining the territory that’s been mined as of August will take between five and 10 years. In the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions, where the mines are most dense, demining teams have defused over 100,000 explosives since the Russian army’s retreat in April. At Meduza’s request, Ukrainian photographer Pavel Dorogoy traveled to the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions, where demining operations are currently underway, and described what he saw. In addition, Ukrainian journalist Vasily Kalyna spoke to sappers in the regions about what it’s like to spend so much time just one wrong move away from death.

Note: The captions for the photos in this story were written by their photographer, Pavel Dorogoy. The quotes from the sappers that are interspersed with the photos were recorded by journalist Vasily Kalyna.
A pond in the Sumy region. Sappers had to survey the entire pond floor, which was full of explosives after shelling in the region.
A mine-laden section of forest in the Chernihiv region
A road leading to Chernihiv. The posts marked with red are there to warn people about mines.


Commander of a Ukrainian State Emergency Service mine clearance unit

Volosin, a village in the Kyiv region

Civilians are eager to get back into the forest zone and go about their business. Some people want to hunt mushrooms or collect berries; others need to walk their cattle. Foresters always have some kind of work to do here. But the area’s not safe. A lot of civilians have been blown up, and a lot of vehicles have been damaged after running over explosives. 

A forest near Bucha. A barely noticeable grenade pin sits among the leaves. Me and Roma (the leader of the Kyiv sapper team) were chatting and walking about 15 meters (50 feet) from the road when he spotted the pin on a branch. “That means there must be a grenade somewhere nearby,” he told me. For 30 seconds, we stood still as he looked around. Finally, he spotted a pair of pants hanging on the same tree (see below). Roma used a knife to carefully lift one of the pant legs, revealing a live grenade underneath — a booby trap. The feeling that death was so close to us and had been planted so deceitfully… We were literally standing 30 centimeters (12 inches) from it. I realized I could very easily have grazed it. If I had touched it, Roma and I would have been blown up right there. Before that, I didn’t feel particularly unsafe. But after our encounter with this tripwire bomb, I started paying close attention to where I stepped, looking out for items that looked either unusual or too ordinary.
The unfastened safety pin just visible under these pants was inserted into the grenade instead of a grenade pin because it’s even more sensitive. Attached to the safety pin is a wire, and the wire is attached to the pants. You touch the pants, and the grenade explodes.
Roma defuses the grenade. The first thing he did was close the safety pin so it wouldn’t slip out and detonate the bomb. Then he wrapped a plastic ribbon around the grenade, fastening it to the branch, and pulled the fuse out and unscrewed it.


Senior sapper in the Ukrainian State Emergency Service’s Pyrotechnic Service

Kyiv region, Bucha district If you don’t know anything about munitions and how they’re planted and removed, it’s fairly ordinary work. Sure, it’s scary sometimes, of course. Usually that’s when you expect there to be booby traps but you don’t know whether they’re there or not. But you should always have some fear, because if don't, you might harm yourself and the people around you, the people who work with you.

A slash in the bark of a birch sheet from artillery shelling. These “wounds” will take years to heal. Ukraine’s sappers have a formula: one day of combat requires one month of demining operations. To this day, they still find undetonated shells from the Second World War. The current war will make these areas uninhabitable for years.
A forest near Bucha that was damaged by shelling. I was struck by the contrast between nature and human activity. We’ve gotten very good at killing one another. The sappers collect explosives they find behind the white ribbons. Roma [one of the sappers] told me that three sappers were killed when a collection like this one exploded.
Near Bucha. These pine trees were damaged by shelling from a Grad multiple rocket launcher.


When we inspected the territories that had been occupied by Russia, we even found messages they had written on the walls of people’s homes: ‘Thanks for the lodging’ and ‘Sorry for the mess.’ But at the same time, we found grenades and booby traps. [Sappers] even found grenades in toilets, under children’s mattresses, and in cribs.

Not far from the village of Yahidne in the Chernihiv region, where Russian troops were stationed, there’s a door to nowhere. I asked Roma [one of the sappers] if his work scares him. He said yes, it’s scary. And the scariest places of all are the houses. His most dangerous job was demining homes in Irpin — you never knew where death was lurking; it was everywhere. Roma found a grenade in a cup, in a washing machine, and in a cabinet under a doll. One of his colleagues was killed when he entered a room where a sniper had been posted and set off a grenade in a plastic bottle that was hidden under a piece of plaster.
My first impulse is to walk up to this sunflower — but I can’t. The white ribbon marks the beginning of the danger zone: these fields still have to be completely demined. The sappers have to go through them row by row and meter by meter, but they can’t right now; everything is overgrown with tall grass. The team is waiting for fall, when the greenery will thin.


In just a few years, I’ll be able to retire. Right up until I leave, I’m going to continue demining and training others. I don’t think all of our work is in vain. Sure, we did a tremendous amount of work for the Donbas, and now the entire territory is covered in mines and shells again. But that doesn’t discount the fact that we’ve saved lives: then and now, we’ve saved our own guys and civilians.

A pond near the city of Trostianets in Ukraine’s Sumy region. Mine clearance divers have done their best to demine the water, but people are still on edge. In every part of the country touched by the war, it will probably be a long time before any of us feel safe.

Photos and text by Pavlo Dorohoi

Interviews by Vasily Kalyna

Photo editing and production by Katya Balaban

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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