Learning to identify and defuse explosives is something Anastasiia Minchukova never imagined she would have to do as an English teacher in Ukraine. But there she wore a face shield armed with a landmine detector and ventured into a field littered with danger warnings.
Russia’s war in Ukraine brought Minchukova, 20, and five other women to Kosovo, where they take a hands-on course in clearing landmines and other dangers that may remain hidden in their country once the fighting ends.
“There is a huge demand for people who know how to clear mines because the war will be over soon,” Minchukova said. “We believe there is still a lot of work to be done.”
The 18-day training camp will take place at a site in the western town of Peja, where a Malta-based company offers regular courses for job seekers, companies in former war zones, humanitarian organizations and government agencies.
Kosovo was the site of a devastating armed conflict in 1998-99 between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serb forces that killed around 13,000 people and had to clear thousands of unexploded mines. Praedium Consulting Malta’s range includes bombed-out and dilapidated buildings, as well as extensive vegetation.
Instructor Artur Tigani, who adapted the curriculum to the Ukrainian environment, said he was happy to share the experience of his small Balkan country with Ukrainian women. Although 23 years have passed, “it is still fresh in our minds, the difficulties we encountered when we started the clean-up in Kosovo,” Tigani said.
Tigani is a highly trained and experienced mining operator who served as an engineer in the former Yugoslav army in the 1980s. He has been deployed to his native Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Kenya, and has conducted training missions in Syria and Iraq.
During a class last week, he took his trainees through a makeshift minefield before moving into a makeshift outdoor classroom with a huge board displaying various samples of explosives and mines.
While it is impossible to estimate how strewn with mines and unexploded ordnance Ukraine is at present, the aftermath of other conflicts suggest the problem will be huge.
“In many parts of the world, explosive remnants of war continue to kill and maim thousands of civilians every year during and long after active hostilities have ended. The majority of the victims are children,” the International Committee of the Red Cross testified at a UN conference in December.
Locating (unexploded ordnance) amid rubble and picking it up from a wide variety of everyday objects, many of which are made of similar materials, is a dangerous, arduous and often extremely time-consuming task, the Red Cross said. †
Mine Action Review, a Norwegian organization that monitors clearance efforts worldwide, reported that 56 countries were contaminated with unexploded ordnance in October, with Afghanistan, Cambodia and Iraq bearing the heaviest loads, followed by Angola, Bosnia, Thailand, Turkey and Yemen.
Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24. Russian forces have bombed towns and villages across the country, leaving many to rubble.
Military analysts say it appears that Russian forces have used anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, while Ukraine has used anti-tank mines to prevent the Russians from gaining ground.
Since Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 were not allowed to leave their country and were most involved in its defense, the women wanted to help in any way they could, despite the risks of clearing mines.
“It’s dangerous everywhere in Ukraine, even if you’re in a relatively safe region,” said Minchukova, who is from central Ukraine.
Another Ukrainian student, Yuliia Katelik, 38, took her three children to safety in Poland early in the war. She returned to Ukraine and then took part in demining training to ensure it is safe for her children when they return home in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where more than 50 people were killed this month in a rocket attack on a crowded train station.
Katelik said her only wish is to reunite with her family and see “the end of this nightmare.” Knowing how to spot booby traps that could destroy their lives again is a necessary skill, she said.
“Acutely, probably as a mother I understand there is a problem and it’s quite serious, especially for the kids,” Katelik said.
Dressed in military attire, Minchukova said she doubted that normal life, as they all knew it before the war, will ever fully return.
“What am I missing? Peace,” she said. “I dream about peace, about sleeping in my bed without worrying all the time about going to bomb shelters. I miss the people I’ve lost.”
The training center in Kosovo plans to work with more groups of Ukrainian women, both in Peja and Ukraine.
“We also plan to go to Ukraine very soon and give courses there, at the theater,” said Tigani.