While media images showed the initial destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam leaving thousands of homes underwater and civilians without electricity or clean drinking water, it wasn’t able to show the unexploded ordnances lurking under the surface, affecting untold numbers of people. In today’s episode, we go to the Kherson Region, which has been heavily impacted unexploded ordnances, and hear from civilians and a Ukrainian Red Cross worker on the ground about how the contamination of landmines has frozen everyday life. Then we turn to an interview with the Head of Weapons Contamination in Kyiv, Andy Duncan, to explain how this work is the very core of the ICRC’s mandate.
Our experts demonstrated it in Avully, Switzerland last week. pic.twitter.com/8aNPWCUTNK
— ICRC US & Canada (@ICRC_dc) June 15, 2023
Learn more about Artur Sakhno’s story.
Read ICRC’s report on ‘Explosive Weapons with Wide Area Effects: A Deadly Choice in Populated Areas‘.
More information about ICRC’s work on explosive weapons in populated areas worldwide.
This episode is now available for the hearing impaired.
[BONESSI] Just a quick disclaimer before we start this episode: We’re going to hear about the ongoing Russia-Ukraine International Armed Conflict. Due to events on the ground, things are constantly changing for our operations and could have changed by the time you listen to this episode.
You probably heard the news reports earlier this year.
[News clip] “And we begin with breaking news, this hour with the Kakhovka dam in Ukraine.”
[News clip] “Flooding of houses and garages in a residential area.”
[News clip] “40,000 people may need to be evacuated”
[BONESSI] Images of the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River showed houses underwater, but what it couldn’t show were the other, less visible dangers lurking beneath the surface. Dangers affecting untold numbers of people living along the Dnipro River, the frontline of the Russia-Ukraine international armed conflict.
[DUNCAN] “The areas were heavily mined.”
[BONESSI] That’s Andy Duncan, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross’s weapons contamination team [or WEC] in Ukraine. Andy says militaries often placed anti-vehicle mines around frontlines areas.
[DUNCAN] “What we saw was the deluge of water being released, sweeping away the riverbanks, sweeping away the trees and all the things that you might expect, along the riverbank. So those mines are being picked up and thrown down river.”
[BONESSI] Andy says these mines looked like boulders in an avalanche being tossed down a mountain by a burst of energy. When they settle again, they can be buried under meters of muddy sand, unknowingly under peoples’ feet.
The destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam is a tragic example of the suffering that mines can cause in armed conflict, but it’s not the only one.Today we’re going to show how these how these weapons are and will continue to endanger countless numbers of civilians on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine international armed conflict for decades to come. And, what is the ICRC doing to mitigate risks to civilians?
I’m Dominique Maria Bonessi, and this is Intercross, a podcast that offers a window into the work of the ICRC and shares the stories of those affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence.
[INTERCROSS INTERLUDE MUSIC]
[Background music plays]
[BONESSI] Ukraine is one of the most mine-affected countries in the world, next to places like Afghanistan and Yemen. It’s estimated that up to 30 percent of the land in Ukraine could be contaminated by unexploded ordnance.
Since 2014, the ICRC has been working for the people affected by the conflict, to assess contaminated areas and collaborate with the Ukrainian Red Cross society and other local actors raising awareness and educating local communities about the risks and safety measures to prevent harm.
To get a better idea of how these mines effect civilians, I want you to meet Artur Sakhno.
[Sound of tractor]
[BONESSI] Artur is an agriculture worker. In the summer of 2022, he was driving through the sunflower fields of the northern Ukrainian region of Kharkiv, when the heavy wheels of his tractor triggered devastation.
[Artur Sakhno speaking in Ukrainian with English voiceover] “We were driving to the field and hit a mine. There were only 10 meters left to the field. I hit it with a wheel. I passed out for 10 seconds, but then I remember everything. Being in the driver’s compartment and getting my leg unstuck. Then I started screaming. I was lucky. It could have been much worse, so it’s like my second birthday. The doctors did their best. I broke a bone here where the needle is. I use a wheelchair because the doctor won’t allow me to stand on my own two feet. My wife makes bandages and helps me train my legs. They were in a cast for three months. I still need two surgeries on my right leg.”
[BONESSI] Artur’s story shows the great risks many people affected by the conflict take to continue to provide for themselves and their families.In other places, like the Kherson region, which has also been heavily impacted by fighting along a constantly changing frontline, fear of mine contamination has frozen everyday life. Maksym Kozhemiaka, head of the village of Bobrovyi Kut, explains:
[Sound of Maksym Kozhemiaka speaking]
[BONESSI] Water supply lines were cut due to the flooding from the Dnipro River, and then restored earlier this year.
Residents are unable to heat their homes and ovens during the winter months with gas and electric lines cut.
And hundreds of students are unable to attend school in-person because two out of three of the schools in the village are closed.
[KOZHEMIAKA] “There used to be three schools before the escalation of hostilities, and only this school has not been damaged. The only problem is to have a shelter because without one the school cannot reopen.”
[BONESSI] The law in Ukraine currently states that if a school does not have a bomb shelter for students, students need to stay home. It’s reminiscent of 2020, when schools closed because of the COVID pandemic and then again when hostilities broke out in early 2022. That’s why the Ukrainian Red Cross went to the Kalynivka secondary school to talk to students and teachers about the risks of mines in their community. Ihor is the acting headmaster of the school.
[IHOR] “Basic demining was conducted only recently, but a lot of mines still remain in forest belts, woods and fields. Mine accidents still happen, for example agricultural workers have run tractors over mines twice with grave consequences. So I believe it is very important to know about mines and mine risks, what they look like because, unfortunately, the demining of Ukrainian land is going to take decades.”
[BONESSI] Oleksandr Chuhin agrees.
[Sound of Oleksandr Chuhin speaking]
[BONESSI] He’s the head of the Mine Safety Unit at the Mykolaiv Red Cross office and helped speak to students and teachers at Kalynivka school. He says their main message is to inform people about mine safety.
[CHUHIN] “Our main activity is to instruct people how to behave in our region.”
[BONESSI] Since January 2023, Oleksandr and his team have trained almost 5000 people in their region on how to avoid landmines and report them to URCS and other local authorities.
We’re going to turn to an interview with Andy Duncan, the weapons contamination expert you heard at the top of the episode, to talk about why the ICRC does this work. But first, take a quick second to have you listen to our sister podcast Humanity in War, Hosted by Elizabeth Rushing.
[HUMANITY IN WAR TRAILER]
[BONESSI] I’m back with Andy Duncan now to talk more about ICRC’s WEC work in Ukraine. Andy has been leading the WEC program in Ukraine since last year and has worked on and off for the ICRC in places like Vietnam and Gaza since 2019.
I first want to talk about Ukraine’s history of weapons contamination before the escalation of the armed conflict. Can you tell me a little bit about this history? And then what role has the ICRC played?
[DUNCAN] “The history of weapons contamination in Ukraine goes back a very, very long time. This area has been fought over for centuries, but in particular, during the First World War and the Second World War, there was a lot of contamination, and a lot of that contamination still resides here. However, coming forward to the present the specific contamination that the ICRC has been involved with started in 2014. And when the line of contact consolidated in 2014-2015. And we saw a lot of mines being laid and entrenched positions, that’s when the ICRC’s current program started and focused towards Luhansk and Donetsk. And then in February 2022, that expanded and we’re reacting to work with contamination now, all the way from Lviv in the north, northwest, down to the south, southeast.”
[BONESSI] Can you give me an idea of the status of weapons contamination in the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict, and how saturated are these weapons contaminations?
[DUNCAN] “The area contaminated is unknown at the moment. The scope and scale of that contamination is considerable. And estimates vary between 10 and 30% of the country is contaminated. Now, what I can say is that all these estimates are accurate and yet inaccurate at the same time, because it required a detailed survey of the land to confirm the areas that are contaminated. And of course, the land continues to be contaminated. Every time there’s a missile strike or drone strike, or there’s artillery fire or the change in the front line, then the contamination will expand. Yes, there are organizations currently clearing the contamination. But it is a slow, methodical process, at the same time, the two belligerents are continuing to fight. So trying to define the area of contamination is difficult. And of course, when you’re looking at a large field, you may see one or two objects in that field which confirm that there is something there. But until you’ve done that detailed survey, it is difficult to be precise about the level of contamination. But there is no doubt that where fighting takes place, the contamination is significant.”
[BONESSI] “That seems like a big challenge. How does the WEC team enable the ICRC to meet its humanitarian mandate?
[DUNCAN] “The specialists and the WEC team are part of the planning process. So, every activity that the ICRC undertakes here in Ukraine starts with a member of the weapon contamination team, understanding the task that is to be implemented, and then advising to make sure that it is safe to do so that the routes that are being taken are safe, that the places that we plan to stop and deliver the activity are safe from explosive contamination.”
[BONESSI] And just to be clear, there might be some confusion with people who aren’t aware of what the ICRC mandate is or what we do or what weapons contamination experts do on our teams. Can you give me an idea, we’re not doing clearing of weapons contamination, we’re not going into the field and removing these weapons, is that correct?
[DUNCAN] “It is, so we’re not doing the large-scale clearance of minefields, or the large scale clearance of explosive remnants of war. There are other organizations that are focused on that. We are a more agile organization focusing on the population. And therefore, we don’t stop to clear fields or forests of contamination, we focus on the people and how best to meet the needs of the people. And we can operate a little further forward than a lot of the nongovernmental organizations that are working in Ukraine.”
[BONESSI] Can you give me an idea of what some of those activities look like that we’re doing as the WEC team in the ICRC?
[DUNCAN] “When the Russians left Kherson, or the, Kherson Oblast, north of the Dnipro River in November, early November 2022, there was a population remaining. And there was a former front line running through the oblast. And we knew that there was considerable contamination along that front line. The population required assistance, there was no electricity. There were no medical supplies. And there was limited amounts of food and water. Because without electricity, the water couldn’t be pumped. So there was a real need to provide short-term assistance to the population in Kherson City, and a number of outlying villages, all of which had been a long the former frontline. So we needed to make sure the routes that we took to drive there were safe. And when we arrived, we had to consider the areas that we were working in. There could have been, we could have come under artillery fire, so we had to make sure that the area was safe. And we had somewhere to go, should there be artillery fire, that might have caught ICRC personnel, in the open as it were, and, and then there was unexploded ordnance along the routes, and in around the areas that were working. We just had to make sure that that we avoided those areas, having confirmed the hazard, advise the team so that we could continue working in a safe way. In relation to all the contamination that was evident.”
[BONESSI] How do we maintain our neutrality while doing this work?
[DUNCAN] “It doesn’t matter who laid the mine in the ground or who fired the shell it didn’t function, there is a hazard and explosive hazard that needs to be dealt with. And there is a population at risk from the explosive hazard. The ICRC we are acutely aware of both sides using munitions. But when it comes down to a specific item, it doesn’t matter where it came from, who supplied it, who delivered it, because the hazard at that point, on that day is what we’re focused on, as well as the population at risk.”
[DUNCAN] “We are completely neutral in terms of the way we work on both sides. Our freedom of movement is constrained considerably with the conflict moving between sides, but we have people on both sides, and we support on both sides of the conflict, those that are clearing, the exposed hazard, clearing the contamination, we support them, in the same way that we will support any organization trying to remove that hazard. We focus on making sure that we don’t do it in a military way. So we take a very, very civilianized, low risk way of doing it.”
[BONESSI] “I wanted to understand a little bit more about, you know, when you’re in the field, and you’re saying, you know, if you’re moving a team, you’re trying to do operations, or activities, such as delivering aid, or getting water or getting electricity to certain parts of, you know, the frontline area is there a job that you guys are maybe tagging or flagging these weapons contamination for other actors, other humanitarian organizations to say, ‘hey, we found these here, and we’re just reporting this to you that way, you know, later on to come back and clean this up’?
[DUNCAN] “So one of our key activities within the weapon contamination is to map the data that we acquire, we can’t be everywhere. And our partners in the Ukrainian, Red Cross Society are also moving around delivering aid and so on, and they have a certain capability, but we have a remit to map all the data. We also have the ability to mark areas that are hazardous and have confirmed contamination. We have all those abilities. But we are one of several organizations that are involved in this because we can’t be everywhere. And of course, they map these areas and we share the data. We’re building a picture across Ukraine. But one of the key things we do in addition to those things that should directly linked the ICRC is we support those such as the State Emergency Services Ukraine, with their clearance task. If you can imagine that there’s a problem with electricity, then you may need an electrical engineer to walk the lines, the electricity, pylon lines, to find the problem. And if that area is contaminated, then you need someone to go before to clear that. And if that’s set into motion, State Emergency Services of Ukraine, then we will help with provision of equipment and training and mentoring, so that they help the utility workers and the utility workers are there for helping the population. There are many, many, many parts to this. And it’s not, just a case of the ICRC driving and delivering, we are supporting in many, areas. And we work with the Ukrainian Red Cross Society to deliver the risk awareness and safe behavior, because the Ukrainian Red Cross Society are recruited from the community, and they’re delivering the message in the community, to the community. Whereas many other organizations are bringing in people from different countries. And they go to a location and they’ve got to learn the environment, they’ve got to understand the way that the Ukrainians in that particular area are working and living and how their children are going to school. Whereas the Ukrainian Red Cross Society, because they come from the community, and they’re in the community, is just so much more powerful in getting the message across. They are a very important partner is spreading the messages of risk awareness and, above all, safe behavior.”
[BONESSI] Can you talk a little bit about what those messages say? What are you communicating to people, for example, what to do if you find a weapon in the ground while you’re, you know, in your garden?
[DUNCAN] “So the basic premise of our education is, if you see something that isn’t right, you don’t approach it, you don’t touch it, and you do report it. And that in its basic format is the message we’re putting out. When we give the risk, when I say behavior training, we go and describe other things. We might begin to talk about, why the object is there? How did it get there? And in terms of risk behavior, we have to address the things we see on the internet, where people see something being done on the internet. They don’t know the context, and they don’t know how safe it is. But they believe that it’s safe, because the person who did that activity, picked it up, moved it, touched it, whatever, didn’t die. There’s an assumption that it’s safe. And the key message is that just because someone did something once and didn’t die, doesn’t mean to say it’s safe for you to do it.”
[BONESSI] How do states start to regulate, and ban certain types of munitions? How does that process work?
[DUNCAN] “It’s advocacy. It’s explained to people why something should be banned, and why something should not be used in warfare. We make sure that everyone understands why there should be an international ban on the use of anti-personnel mines. And we encourage nations to sign up to that ban there is no enforcement, because the advocacy, and the approach that we take is convincing an individual nation that they themselves will uphold the convention that they signed up to. And along with other supranational organizations, such as the UN, we monitor what people say and what they do. And then we may talk to them about inconsistencies in what they do, having signed up to a convention, so that is true across the globe, and in all conflicts. The onus is on the nation that signed the convention, the treaty, to abide by that.”
[DUNCAN] “The key message about the scope and scale of the weapon contamination here in Ukraine is about the time it will take to resolve and clear the land and the resources that it will take. One might think that in a technologically advanced age, we can find a quick and easy solution. My long experience suggests that a methodical deliberate approach is the best solution. When we’re trying to clear the land, and clear buildings and make the places that people live safe again. And that is all reasonable effort. Defining all reasonable effort can be difficult. And being 100% clear, in terms of weapon contamination, may, in certain circumstances, be unrealistic. But we have to make sure we have to put our hand on our heart and say that we have made all reasonable effort to remove the weapon contamination here in Ukraine. And that will take time, and that will take resources. So the message is, we need a long term strategy for the clearance of the weapon and contamination here in Ukraine.”
[BONESSI] And thank you this week to our tireless communication teams in Ukraine, Russia, and Geneva for all their hard work in getting this episode across the finish line. That includes, Achille Balthazar Despres, Edilbek Arstnov, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Jesus Serrano Redondo, Jenny Sparks, Florian Seriex, Nadia Dibsy, and Vincent Pouget.
If you’d like more on weapons contamination in the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict, you can visit our website and subscribe to the podcast at intercrossblog.icrc.org so you never miss an episode. There you can also see an AI powered, mine-hunting drone that’s being researched by our experts in Geneva and could help weapons contaminations experts in the future.
To learn more about the ICRC’s other work for the people affected by this conflict, you can follow our colleagues on X.com, formerly known as Twitter, @ICRC_UA. And you can follow us @ICRC_DC.
See you next time on Intercross.