Land mines Slow Rebuilding Work in War-torn Ukraine; 25% of Land Has Been Deemed ‘Contaminated’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ukrainian governments officials observe a land mine remover in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, on April 9.

As Russia continues its aggression in Ukraine, the problem of civilians dying from land mines, believed to have been set by Russian forces, is growing increasingly serious.

For Ukraine to rebuild, the land mines will have to be removed from residential areas and farmland. That has led the Japanese government to offer its support for land mine removal.

Explosion during farm work

Courtesy of Dmitr Yeliseenko
Dmitr Yeliseenko takes a photo of himself in the hospital.

“It was hot,” said Dmitr Yeliseenko, 27, who lives in the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine.

During an online interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in April, he recalled a moment of terror in which there was a loud bang. He said his whole body, from his toes up to his head, was engulfed in a blast of extreme heat and then he lost consciousness.

He was struck by the land mine on March 21 last year. He was driving a tractor alone on his way to a wheat field. Shortly after 9 a.m., he drove from a major road onto a small path, and a moment later, the explosion occurred.

When he regained consciousness, the tractor’s cab was filled with the smell of burnt oil and the windows were blown out.

He crawled out of the tractor, and noticing that he still had his arms and legs, he felt a little relieved. His vision was dim and hazy, and his face was drenched in blood.

He was rushed to a hospital and had surgery done there. But they could not restore the vision in his left eye, which was pierced by a shard of broken glass.

The incident occurred in an area that Russian forces had occupied just after the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022.

Though the area was taken back by Ukrainian forces in autumn that year, it is thought that the Russian forces buried a large number of land mines during their occupation. There are also many unexploded munitions.

“As farming villages were on the front line, there are still many land mines,” said Yeliseenko. “I don’t want to see any more victims like me.”

Unexploded ordnance

About 25% of all Ukraine’s land, or 150,000 square kilometers that was once occupied by Russia mainly in the east and south, is now “contaminated,” according to Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry.

One U.N. report said that 131 civilians died and 353 were injured by land mines or unexploded ordnance between autumn 2022 and the end of 2023 mainly in such regions as Kharkiv in the northeast and Mykolaiv.

“We have not clarified which types of land mines are buried in which places,” lamented an official for the Ukrainian Deminers Association, a civil group in the country.

The official pleaded for international aid. “We are short equipment and people for removal. Without funding, the removal work could take several decades,” they said.

Japan offers aid

On April 9 in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, a Japanese-made land mine remover was cutting trees on a slope and turning the soil.

“How many times a year does it need to be serviced?” asked a high-ranking official of Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Ministry. “How much fuel does it need?”

The official put one question after another to the employees of the company that manufactures the machine.

In Ukraine, vegetation has already grown over buried land mines. To remove the mines, the plants will have to be removed first.

The land mine remover can take down trees and grasses with a powerful cutter attached to the tip of its arm. Even if a land mine explodes, bulletproof glass around the driver’s seat prevents the blast and shrapnel from harming the driver. This means those operating the machine can work safely even in areas where there are land mines.

The Japanese government has provided aid to Ukraine for removing land mines and unexploded ordnance through the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

The government has already given 50 handheld land mine detectors. To make the work more efficient, it aims to provide about such 10 heavy-duty machines to remove land mines. Ukrainian personnel would be invited to Japan by the end of June to learn how to use the machines.

Ihor Bezkaravainyi, deputy minister of Ukraine’s Economy Ministry, who watched the demonstration in Hokuto, wears an artificial limb for his left leg.

When he was in the military in 2015, he had his leg amputated after a land mine exploded. At the time, he was in a vehicle in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, where there were ongoing battles with pro-Russian armed groups.

“The land mines will impact generations yet unborn,” said Bezkaravainyi. “To prevent more harm, we have to make an effort right now.”