Before the war with Russia, Anastasiia Minchukova, age 20, was an English teacher in Ukraine. Now she is learning the deadly art and science of identifying and defusing explosives. She and five other young women from her region have recently traveled to the south-western European state of Kosovo. Here, they are attending a hands-on course in clearing landmines and other dangers that may remain hidden across their country once combat ends.
This week, instead of her usual blouse and skirt, she went to work wearing a face shield, armed with a landmine detector, and venturing into a field dotted with danger warnings.
“There is a huge demand [for] people who know how to do de-mining because the war will be over soon,” Ms. Minchukova said optimistically. She continued, “We believe there is so much work to be done.”
Training takes place in the form of an 18-day camp at a range in the western town of Peja, where a Malta-based company regularly offers courses for those who will be working in former war zones, humanitarian organizations, and government agencies.
Between February 1998 and June 1999, Kosovo was the site of a devastating pairing of Albanian separatists against Serbian forces, killing about 13,000 people and leaving thousands of unexploded mines in need of clearing. If ever there was a place to hold a school on how to clear landmines, Kosovo is it.
Instructor Artur Tigani has tailored the curriculum to reflect Ukraine’s environment and says he is glad to share his small Balkan nation’s experience with the Ukrainian women. Even though twenty-three years have passed, “It’s still fresh in our memories, the difficulties we met when we started clearance in Kosovo,” Tigani said.
Tigani knows his mines. He served as an engineer in the former Yugoslav army during the 1980s, being deployed to his native Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, and Kenya. In addition, he has conducted demining training missions in Syria and Iraq.
He took his trainees through a makeshift minefield during a recent class before moving to an improvised outdoor classroom featuring a massive board with various samples of explosives and mines. He explains that it is impossible to assess how littered with mines and unexploded ordnance Ukraine is at the moment; the aftermaths of other wars suggest the problem will be huge.
If you had visions of them on their hands and knees poking the soil with a sharp stick looking for mines, this MICLIC (Mine Clearing Line Charge) would probably be more like it. It is a rocket-projected explosive line charge which provides a “close-in” demining capability. Video of stuff blowing up courtesy of YouTube and Funker530.
This system is used on the battlefield to clear lanes through a minefield so that troops and vehicles can safely advance, this would be useful in the fight in Ukraine as well, but much of the work that needs to be done is de-mining areas the Russians have pulled out of already. This means painstaking work of finding and disarming these mines mostly by hand. Given the thrift-store practices of the Ukrainian armed forces which employ captured Russian equipment against the enemy, a considerable number of these disarmed mines will probably end up in use again by the Ukrainians.
You might already be aware that men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving their country, and most are engaged in defending it. The women were eager to help out in any way they could, even if it involved a hazardous activity such as mine clearing.
“It’s dangerous all over Ukraine, even if you are in a relatively safe region,” said Minchukova, who makes her home in central Ukraine.
Author’s Note: If you’ve experienced one of those explosions and still volunteer to go and try to disarm the mines in order to hopefully save someone else, you are quite a brave person indeed. -GDM
A slightly more mature Ukrainian student, Yuliia Katelik, 38, rushed her three children to Poland early in the war. Once ensured of their safety, she returned to Ukraine and signed up for demining training. She wanted to help make sure it’s safe for her children when they return home to their 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 is to reunite with her family and see “the end of this nightmare.” She said that knowing how to spot booby-traps that could shatter their lives again is a necessary skill.
Unfortunately, she is right. And it is probably a skill that will be needed for years to come.