AFP, posted on Friday, April 15, 2022 at 8:44 PM
If you walk without looking at your feet, you could easily miss them: the size of a large dinner plate, dozens of anti-tank mines lie in this muddy field that borders a small river in northern kyiv.
Five of them are visible: dull olive-green disks topped with ominous brown pressure plates, the ones that cause the explosion. Beneath the trampled undergrowth, many more are potentially hidden.
Yet the small team of deminers moves with disconcerting ease through this minefield near Brovary, a city of about 100,000 on the outskirts of kyiv.
One of the mines is about to explode: the sappers light a fuse, which lasts for two minutes, then nonchalantly retreat to a safe distance as the gray wisp of smoke grows thicker and thicker.
Then comes the explosion: a violent ball of light, a shock wave that feels like a punch to the chest, then a terrible thud. One less mine in this immense field.
– Retirement and coverage –
In late March, Russia withdrew from the kyiv region, shifting its “priority objective” to trying to gain control of eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops recaptured the towns they occupied in the first weeks of the invasion launched on February 24, but the war left its marks.
In recent weeks, AFP journalists have seen countless unexploded ordnance in the streets of towns and villages northeast and northwest of the capital, abandoned or lost during the Russian withdrawal.
In some places, unexploded rockets and mortar shells remained planted in the ground, remnants of failed attacks.
But the Ukrainians also claim that Russian troops left a series of booby traps to cover their retreat.
Outside of Brovary, a location Ukrainian military officials told AFP not to disclose, the mines are scattered in a field near a small bridge that spans a stream that leads to a cluster of elegant houses.
The withdrawal “was not a goodwill gesture on the part of the Russians,” Brigadier General Valeri Iembakov said, surveying the scene in his pixelated camouflage uniform.
“They withdrew very quickly, but still took the time to undermine the bridge … and the roads around it so our tanks couldn’t go around it,” he added.
According to the general, the Russian soldiers were unable to blow up the bridge, but their mines, now marked with red skull signs reading “Danger, mines” in Ukrainian and Russian, were stopped.
– The art of demining –
Ukrainian demining is not a high-tech process: it relies on rudimentary tools and nerves of steel.
Oleksandr, who declined to give his last name, says “recognition” is the first step.
It is done with a mine detector or a long, pointed stick. The mine is then gradually dug out with a shovel, and then pulled out of the ground with a claw.
Anti-tank mines are not designed to be detonated by the passage of a man, but can be booby-trapped with explosives that detonate when deminers are doing their job.
Once this verification is done, the detonator is removed and the device is added to the Ukrainian arsenal.
“This mine can be reused in the future,” smiles Oleksandr. “It’s important to us, we try to save our camp ammunition to fight the Russians,” adds the 50-year-old deminer.
A little further on, at the edge of the field, he shows his heavy shovel, the one he uses to dig up the mines.
“It’s my lucky shovel,” he boasts: “My talisman.” Then he goes back to work.