HRAKOVE, Ukraine (HPD) — Next to an abandoned Russian military camp in eastern Ukraine, the body of a man lay decomposing on the grass. He was a civilian who was killed by a tripwire antipersonnel mine planted by retreating Moscow forces.
Nearby, a group of mine clearers from the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces were working to clear the area of dozens of deadly mines and other unexploded ordnance, in an attempt to restore some semblance of safety to the cities, towns and countryside of a region that spent months under Russian occupation.
The deminers, who are part of the 113th Kharkiv Defense Brigade, pushed into the fallow land on Thursday following a muddy path through fields of dead sunflowers covered in tall weeds.
Two soldiers, each with a metal detector in hand, moved slowly down the path, scanning the ground and waiting for the devices to return a signal. When one of the detectors beeped, a soldier would kneel down to inspect the mud and grass, probing the area with a metal rod to see what might have been buried just below the surface.
The detector could have found a used shell casing, a piece of rusty metal, or a discarded aluminum can. Or an active antipersonnel mine.
Oleksii Dokuchaev, the commander of the demining brigade based in eastern Kharkiv, said that hundreds of mines had already been neutralized around the town of Hrakove where they were working, although the danger posed by these explosives throughout the country will persist for years.
“One year of war equals 10 years of demining,” Dokuchaev said. “Even now we continue to find ammunition from World War II, and in this one they have been planted left and right.”
Russian forces fled the region in haste in early September after a swift counteroffensive by the Ukrainian army recaptured hundreds of square miles (km) of territory after months of Russian occupation.
Although many settlements in the region finally have some sense of security after intense battles reduced many of them to rubble, Russian antipersonnel mines remain a pervasive threat in both urban and rural settings.
Little red signs with skulls and crossbones in white stand on the edge of Kharkiv’s roads, warning of the danger posed by mines beyond the pavement. But sometimes desperation drives residents into the minefields.
The man whose body lay near the Russian camp was likely looking for food that might have been left behind by Moscow’s soldiers, Dokuchaev said, an added danger stemming from the starvation felt by many in Ukraine’s devastated regions.
The use of these types of tripwire landmines like the one that killed the resident is prohibited by the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, to which Russia is not a signatory, which regulates the use of these devices, he said.
“There are rules for war. The Ottawa Convention says that laying mines or any other type of tripwire munitions is prohibited. But the Russians ignore it,” he stated.
Deminers had cleared the road of anti-personnel devices the day before, allowing them to search for possible anti-tank mines hidden in the ground that could destroy any vehicle that passes over them.
They hoped they could get their vehicles far enough to recover a Russian armored personnel carrier, whose engine they hoped to salvage. They would also need the local police to be able to get there in a vehicle to retrieve the body.
The deminers reached the abandoned camp, set up in a grove of trees and strewn with remnants of the months Russian soldiers spent there: rotting food rations in wooden ammunition boxes, strings of large-caliber bullets, a stack of yellowed Russian newspapers. and trenches full of garbage.
After a thorough search of the area, they recovered two Soviet-made TM-62 anti-tank mines and six pneumatic fuses, which they placed in a hollow at one end of the camp, wrapped in a bundle along with 400 grams of TNT.
Dokuchaev attached an electric detonator to the explosive charge and attached it to a long cable before taking cover with his men more than 100 meters (yards) away.
When the charge was detonated, what the soldiers laughingly referred to as a “bada-boom”, the massive explosion tore through the air, sending a cascade of autumn leaves raining down from nearby trees and sending up a tall plume of gray smoke.
Following the destruction of the mines, Dokuchaev — a former photographer who enlisted in the Territorial Defense Forces after the war broke out — said his brigade’s work is essential to keeping civilians safe as they piece together their broken lives. .
Despite the dangers, he said, he enjoys his work.
“I don’t know what I will do after our victory,” Dokuchaev acknowledged. “Life is boring without explosions.”