MAKARIV, Ukraine (AP) — The truck driver had his radio on and his daughter’s stuffed animal for company as he lumbered his lumbering vehicle down one of Ukraine’s myriad dirt roads, which are vital thoroughfares in the country’s vast agricultural heartland .
Then the right rear wheel hit a Soviet-era TM-62 anti-tank mine. The explosion threw Vadym Shvydchenko and his daughter’s toys cleanly out of the cabin. The truck and its livelihood burst into flames.
Amazingly, the 40-year-old escaped with only minor leg and head injuries. Others weren’t so lucky. of Russia war in Ukraine spreads a deadly junk of mines, bombs and other explosives. They kill civilians, disrupt planting, make it difficult to rebuild homes and villages, and will rob lives and limbs long after the fighting has ended.
Explosion victims are often farmers and other farm workers who have little choice in a country but to use mined roads and plow mined fields used for grain and other crops who feed the world.
Shvydchenko said he will avoid dirt roads for the foreseeable future, although they are sometimes the only route to fields and rural settlements. Mushroom picking in the forest has also lost its attraction for him.
“I’m afraid something like this can happen again,” he said.
Ukraine is now one of the most heavily mined countries in Europe. The east of the country, fought over by Russian-backed separatists since 2014, was already contaminated by mines even before the February 24 invasion multiplied the scale and complexity of the dangers both there and elsewhere.
Ukraine’s State Ambulance Service said last week that 300,000 square kilometers (115,000 square miles) – the size of Arizona or Italy – need to be cleared. The ongoing fighting will only expand the area.
The deadly remnants of the war “will pose a hidden threat for years to come,” said Mairi Cunningham, who leads clearance efforts in Ukraine for The Halo Trust, a demining NGO that received $4 million from the US government in May received for their work in the country.
There is no full government tally of mine deaths since the invasion, but authorities have reported cases of civilians killed and wounded every week. Cunningham said her group has counted 52 civilian deaths and 65 injuries since February and “that’s probably underreported.” The majority came from anti-tank mines in agricultural areas, she said.
A mobile app called Demining Ukraine, which officials launched last month, allows people to send photos, videos and the geolocation of explosive objects they encounter for subsequent removal. The app received more than 2,000 tips in the first week.
The route where Shvydchenko died is still in use, although it is now marked with bright red warning signs with a white skull and crossbones. It meanders through cornfields on the outskirts of Makariv – a once pretty town west of Kyiv that bears the scars of battle Russia’s failed attack on the capital in the first weeks of the war.
Even when the Russian soldiers are gone, dangers lurk amidst the surrounding poppy meadows, fields and forests. Minesweepers found another explosive charge – unexploded – just a few meters (feet) from Shvydchenko’s blown up truck. On another stretch outside the nearby village of Andriivka, three people were killed in March by a mine that ripped open their minivan and spat out its load of food jars and tin cans, which are now rusting in the dirt.
In a nearby field in May, a tractor driver was injured by an anti-tank mine, which threw the debris onto another mine, which also detonated. Halo Trust officials are now methodically searching the site – where Russian troops dug foxholes – for other devices.
Cunningham said the chaotic way the battle for Kyiv unfolded made the task of finding mines more difficult. Russian troops advanced on the capital but were repulsed by Ukrainian defenders.
“Often Russians would hold an area, put some anti-vehicle mines nearby — a few in and around their position — and then leave,” she said. “It’s scattered.”
Mines are still being laid on the battlefields, now concentrated on Russia to the east and south has focused his offensive since its soldiers withdrew bloodily from the Kyiv area and the north.
A Ukrainian unit that buried TM-62 mines in spade-carved holes on a forest road in the eastern Donbass region this week told The Associated Press the aim was to prevent Russian troops from advancing on their trenches .
Russian booby traps sometimes didn’t have a clear military rhyme or reason, Ukrainian officials say. In cities around Kyiv, explosives experts found devices in unpredictable locations.
When Tetiana Kutsenko, 71, got back her home near Makariv, which Russian troops had occupied, she found bloodstains and an apparent bullet hole on the bathroom floor and tripwires in her backyard.
The thin copper wires had been processed into detonators.
“I’m afraid to go into the forest now,” she said. “Now I look down every time I take a step.”
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