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Ukrainian Red Cross warns of land mine threat 'for decades'

January 24, 2023

The head of the Ukrainian Red Cross has told DW that Russian land mines are spread across "significant areas" of the country. He said the mines pose a threat to civilians, humanitarian work and reconstruction efforts.

Ukrainian sappers collect mines for detonation in April 2022
Ukraine faces a daunting task removing landmines left by withdrawing Russian forces Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo/picture alliance

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine drags on into another year, Maksym Dotsenko, secretary general of Ukraine's Red Cross, told DW that his organization is facing a "huge" humanitarian challenge. 

This includes supporting internally displaced people who live in the west of Ukraine, evacuating people from the east, and supporting those whose apartments and houses were damaged or destroyed.

However, Dotsenko said land mines left behind by Russian troops make accessing affected areas "very difficult" for humanitarian workers, who cannot always reach those in need due to security reasons.

Dotsenko also noted that his branch of the Red Cross does not have access to territories in Ukraine that are not currently under the control of the Ukrainian government and works with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to coordinate aid.

He added that the Red Cross tries to organize demining operations with the help of military forces as "significant areas" have been mined. However, demining operations can often take years.

Ukraine's demining teams face a deadly task

US pledges help

Last year, the US State Department said it would provide over $95 million (about €87 million) in demining assistance, including providing training and technology to locate and remove land mines.

"We expect this to be one of the largest land mine and unexploded ordnance challenges since World War Two," said the State Department's program manager for weapons removal, Michael Tirre, in remarks to the US Helsinki Commission in December.

The government of Ukraine estimates that 160,000 square kilometers of land may be contaminated with land mines, according to a State Department statement.

Mines heavily used in Ukraine

In June, 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report on Russia's deployment of land mines in Ukraine, with Russian antipersonnel mines having been heavily used in the Donetsk, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions. These include newly developed types of antipersonnel mines that have not been used before.

HRW said, for example, Ukrainian authorities in Bucha near Kyiv found "victim-activated booby traps" placed by Russian forces before withdrawal, which are prohibited under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, to which Ukraine, but not Russia, is a party.

"Russia's brazen use of antipersonnel mines in a country that has explicitly prohibited these weapons is unprecedented and deserves strong global condemnation," Stephen Goose, arms director at HRW, said in an article published on the organization's website.

Although the report said it is not currently possible to determine the exact number of land mines or casualties, the impact of mine use is being seen through the "denial of access" to civilian homes, infrastructure, transport routes and agricultural land.

It added that evidence points to agricultural production being disrupted by the presence of mines on "rural paths and roads." HRW documented one incident of a farmer being wounded after his tractor struck an anti-vehicle mine.

"Definitely this problem will stay with Ukraine for decades," said Dotsenko. "We are very worried about this. Day after day in Ukraine, you will listen about the civilians killed because of the mines. And that is terrible."

However, Dotsenko added that support for Ukraine from Europe and the rest of the world is a positive reminder for humanitarian workers and the Ukrainian people.

"We understand that we are not alone… It gives hope to the people, they see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Demining Ukraine – a huge job ahead: Mairi Cunningham of the HALO Trust

Edited by: Natalie Muller

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia