Cluster Bombs in Potato Fields and Tripwires on the Cow Path

Cleaning up after five months of war in eastern Ukraine.

Photo by Vasily Maximov/AFP
Photo by Vasily Maximov/AFP

STEPANIVKA, Ukraine — An explosion boomed across the sunflower and wheat fields, sending fiery tendrils in all directions as a black mushroom cloud rose above the windy steppe. 

A crew of pro-Russian rebels had just blown up more than a ton of unexploded artillery shells and rockets collected from fields, gardens, and cow paths around the village of Stepanivka in eastern Ukraine. Based out of a brick house next to a bombed-out school in the heavily damaged village, the sappers have been trying to destroy a seemingly endless number of dangerous explosives left by intensive fighting in August, when government forces briefly took the village in their failed advance on a nearby strategic high point. Unexploded ordnance has already killed one villager, they said.

"It’s very dangerous here. We’ve already been de-mining this area for a month," said Andrei, a former Ukrainian army sapper from a nearby town, as he inspected the crater left behind by the blast. He said he had decided to continue this line of work with the rebels after he saw village boys playing with unexploded shells. "You’ve seen only a tiny bit of what we usually destroy. We’ve been destroying three such collections a day for a month now." 

Before the blast, I watched as the sappers laid more than 100 rocket, artillery, and mortar shells and grenades in a line at the bottom of a shallow ravine, and then snaked a long, green sock of plastic explosives across them. They ran a wire from the ravine to a makeshift bunker they had dug a few hundred feet away. We had barely reached a vantage point on a roadside a little more than a mile away when they detonated the cache.

After an expansive campaign by government forces in eastern Ukraine in July, rebel troops mounted a counteroffensive in August, reportedly with the help of Russian men and armor. The Russia-backed rebels claimed wide swaths of battle-scarred land. Thousands of unexploded shells lace the woods and fields in these areas, and both sides have reportedly been deploying tripwires stretched between two or more grenades, as well as land mines.

Most of the more than 3,500 people killed in the conflict (predominantly civilians) have died from shrapnel wounds sustained during shelling, but reports have begun to trickle in of others hurt by unexploded shells and explosive devices. This week, a 16-year-old lost his hand and several others were injured in a village north of Luhansk when he tinkered with a rocket-propelled grenade. In August, a woman was seriously wounded returning to Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region, a city that government forces had recently retaken from the rebels, when she opened her door and set off a tripwire attached to an F1 grenade, according to the Luhansk region’s interior ministry. Locals have also reported farm animals killed by land mines or tripwire explosives.

Both sides have taken advantage of a rocky cease-fire declared on Sept. 5 to begin destroying unexploded ordnance. (The truce has been observed in all but a few disputed areas, including around Donetsk: Nine government soldiers were killed in an attack on Monday, Sept. 29. On Tuesday a shell killed four at a school.) Crews of rebel sappers are working in such former hot spots as Novosvetlovka, a village lying on a strategic road just south of the rebel stronghold of Luhansk, and Ilovaisk, the scene of an ambush that killed at least 100 of Kiev’s volunteer troops.

The Ukrainian military has also been clearing unexploded ordnance from the city of Slovyansk, which it captured in July, and it has claimed that the area near the Russian border is full of illegal land mines.

Unexploded ordnance and land mines are a common problem in post-conflict zones around the world, where they become ticking time bombs waiting for an unlucky farmer or inquisitive child. The U.K.-based mine-clearing charity Mines Advisory Group (MAG) estimates that these weapons kill or severely injure 10 people every day. Forgotten weapons pose the greatest threat to children at play and prevent people in agricultural areas like Ukraine from growing as many crops as before.

Stepanivka lies just three and a half miles from Savur-Mohyla, a strategic high point with a view of the Russia-Ukraine border that rebels took back from government forces in August after some of the fiercest fighting seen in the five-month-old conflict. Shelling toppled the obelisk of a monument commemorating the Red Army victory over Nazi troops in a bloody battle for the hill in 1943.

The charred remains of a Ukrainian armored column — as well as scattered large-caliber ammunition — lie at the entrance to the devastated village of about 500 people, the turret of one tank blown clear off with its barrel stuck in the earth. According to Yury Poznechenko, a pensioner who lives in the village, government soldiers entered the village on July 28, setting off intensive fighting during which his 36-year-old son, a civilian, was shot and killed in the crossfire. Shelling destroyed Poznechenko’s stand-alone kitchen and house, where the remains of two large rockets still lie amid the rubble. At least eight civilians were killed by the time the Ukrainians retreated on Aug. 13, he said.

After the fighting, Poznechenko found a two-foot-long unexploded shell in his garden, which he gave to the sappers. The volunteers "work well," he said. "But you see how much stuff is lying around here, the large-caliber guns and everything else."

As people begin to return to the village — all but a few dozen fled during the fighting — many are finding shells on their property, the sappers said. Locals report ordnance they discover to the rebels, who then usually fence off the area until the sappers can deal with it. Some of these men worked as explosives specialists in eastern Ukraine’s coal mines, while others, like Andrei and the group’s commander, trained as sappers in the army.

Most of ordnance they find didn’t explode because it’s old, although sometimes it just "didn’t hit right," one sapper said. Since most is located in the soft dirt of small household gardens, sappers typically remove it by hand without any blast suits or special equipment, relying on nerves of steel and a fine sense of balance. With cluster munitions in particular, they "need to pick it up carefully and carry it in a horizontal position," Andrei explained. "A little to one side or the other, and it blows up." Two days ago, another sapper lost a hand when a cluster bomb he was carrying exploded, he said. 

According to Andrei, unexploded ordnance has claimed one life in Stepanivka: A 12-year-old boy was digging potatoes with his father when his spade struck a cluster munition that killed him, he said. 

As his comrades set up for the demolition, Andrei set fire to the end of what he said was a phosphorus-and-thermite incendiary shell that they had found at a Ukrainian position, releasing a long stream of white smoke and then showers of sparks. The Geneva Conventions on human rights in wartime forbid the use of incendiary weapons near population centers, but inhabitants of Sloviansk told me during the extensive shelling campaign there that government forces were firing phosphorus bombs in residential areas. (Both sides have used notoriously inaccurate Grad rockets with incendiary warheads near cities and towns.)

Andrei’s sapper unit in the army had detonated unexploded ordnance from the many World War II battles in the area, which continues to be discovered in little-traveled areas or after rain washes away the topsoil. He said the fallout from the 21st-century conflict here could be similarly enduring. "This is going to go on for a long time because such a huge amount of dangerous explosives were fired into this place or ended up here in some other manner," Andrei said. "Our profession will be needed here for a long, long time."

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications. Twitter: @asluhn

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