Humanitarian mine action in Ukraine – much more than removing explosives

Humanitarian Mine Action is not only about technical demining and removal of explosive remnants of war. It is also about helping victims in the process of recovering and restoring their livelihoods. Over 14 million people across Ukraine are currently estimated to need mine action services*.

Foto-credit: Volodymyr Cheppel, DRC Ukraine, Chernihiv Oblast, February 2023.

Ivan**, 67, is sitting on his bed, holding a walking cane. In front of him is an old television showing the latest news about the conflict in Ukraine.  Five fishing rods hung on the wall, are witnessing Ivan’s yearlong passion for spending hours by the river. A bicycle leans against another wall, and a wheelchair stands in the middle of the room. It’s a testimonial to what used to be Ivan's life – and what is now the reality.

Being an orphan and much on his own, Ivan had a tough childhood. Later, he was one of the first responders to the Chornobyl disaster on 26 April 1986, when the reactors at the nuclear plant malfunctioned. A year ago, he faced yet another challenge — a landmine explosion.

"I had a compound fracture of the arm and another fracture of the leg. Titanium was placed in my hip. I also had a concussion. It took surgery after surgery, but I made it," says Ivan.

"The most important thing is that he can move now," adds his daughter Tetiana**, 40.

The accident happened on 7 March 2022, not far from their house in a village near Chernihiv city in northern Ukraine. Ivan was collecting firewood with other villagers and on their way back, the van hit an anti-vehicle mine.

"There were three people in the front seats, and they got away with bruises — despite flying out through the front window of the van. Another man and I were in the cabin, and we were just above the place where the detonation happened. It turned out that there were other mines nearby, so we were lucky we did not touch them,” Ivan tells. "The van was squashed like a cheap can," Tetiana adds and says that 46 landmines were found around their community.

Ivan received first aid from a local nurse. He and Mykola*, another seriously injured man (read his story here), were taken to the hospital. Ivan’s arm, leg, and hip joint were injured. The surgeries and treatments were covered by state funds. However, he had to buy the titanium tube — a joint replacement that costs about €400. As Ivan and his daughter and grandchildren, 16 and 11 years old, had been living only on his pension in the past months with about €200 per month, they could not afford to buy the needed implant.

Astonishing recovery
"We do not have relatives here and our neighbours are also seriously affected by the conflict - and so, we could not borrow money anywhere. I was desperate until Mykola told me about the possibility to receive a grant from DRC,” Tetiana says. The grant was quickly processed by DRC and covered the cost of the implant. "Without the titanium tube, my father would not have been able to move. He would just lie in a bed unable to even roll over".

Ivan spent two months in the hospital and finally returned home on 9 May 2023. All this time, Tetiana and her children visited him several times a week. They had to walk 20 kilometres to the hospital and the same distance to get back, sometimes even under shelling. Ivan needed three months of rehabilitation afterwards to learn how to walk and move with the new implant in his body.

Today, Ivan can again ride his bicycle. He no longer needs to be looked after and can go fishing on his own, bringing him peace of mind, and bringing the family basses, crucian fish, or as recently a nine-kilo catfish.

Unfortunately, the landmine threat has not gone away. Tetiana says she recently spotted another mine while collecting mushrooms near her home. Knowing already what this may mean, she immediately informed the police.

"Another mine incident happened with a farmer in a neighbouring village. There, too, a family was injured collecting mushrooms in a contaminated area. We were informed that it is a dangerous area, but many people in Ukraine are forced to act unsafely to make ends meet," she says.

Foto-credit: Volodymyr Cheppel, DRC Ukraine, Chernihiv Oblast, February 2023 .

Entire villages and settlements in ruins
Ivan is showing around in his house — the plaster on the walls is gone, windows are broken, and the doors are damaged. But what is most startling is the strong smell of smoke from something burned.

"In February 2022, it was a nightmare here," says Tetiana. "When we heard that the conflict started, we thought it was a joke. But then we heard and saw explosions nearby. We hurried to the cellar and had been living there for weeks getting out mainly just to cook food. Sometimes we ate nothing because of the intense shelling."

The day after the accident when the vehicle Ivan was in, hit a landmine, planes started bombing the settlements around Chernihiv. Some aerial bombs were so big that they left behind craters that have now turned into lakes.

"On 8 March 2022, planes flew over and dropped bombs. We sat in the basement, hugging each other, bracing ourselves for the worst saying goodbye to life. Explosions happened close — one of the bombs fell onto the house nearby and flattened it completely. In our house, the windows and the front door opened backwards. The ceilings fell, the shrapnel hit the boiler, and 360 litres of water gushed into the cellar. That is why we moved to a neighbour’s cellar and lived there for three weeks."

When they got back home after the intense fighting simmered down — everything was gone. The oven, the kitchen supplies, and even the religious icons were stolen. Tetiana will never forget the feeling of emptiness and despair.

Previously, Tetiana worked in a local shop but for months after the landmine accident, she had to look after her father. Now, she stays at home waiting for a commission from the local administration that is supposed to draw up an act of damage to the house. This will possibly allow them to access some level of compensation. Having few possibilities to save money from Ivan’s pension, they managed to buy an old second-hand stove and a boiler to get through the winter.

"We are alive, which is the most important. I do the renovation on my own and plan to go to work again soon. We may eat less and buy materials for renovations. But I want a normal house. I cannot live in these ruins," says Tetiana.

DRC also has a Shelter programme in this region, and the case of Ivan and Tetiana has already been accepted for consideration. There is a high possibility that they will also be supported with a grant for renovation in addition to the DRC Victim Assistance Grant.

Support provided to Ivan is possible thanks to funding from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. DRC’s Victim Assistance across Ukraine are funded as well through means donated by private foundations and individuals primarily in Denmark.

*Mine Action Sub-Cluster, February 2023.

**Names were changed for confidentiality purposes.

22.03.2024DRC Dansk Flygtningehjælp


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