Ukrainian women train in Kosovo to find and remove landmines

PEJA, Kosovo (AP) – As an English teacher in Ukraine, Anastasiia Minchukova never thought she would have to learn how to identify and defuse explosives. But there she wore a face shield, was armed with a landmine detector, and ventured into a field littered with hazard warnings.

Russia’s war in Ukraine led 20-year-old Minchukova and five other women to Kosovo, where they are taking a practical course in landmine clearance and other dangers that may remain hidden across the land after the battle is over.

“There is a great demand for people who know how to do demining work because the war will be over soon,” Minchukova said. “We believe there is still so much to do.”

The 18-day training camp will be held at a compound in the western town of Peja, where a Malta-based company offers regular courses for job seekers, companies working in former war zones, humanitarian organizations and government agencies.

Kosovo was the scene of a devastating armed conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serb forces in 1998-99 that killed about 13,000 people and left thousands of unexploded mines to be cleared. Praedium Consulting Malta offer includes bombed and derelict buildings as well as vegetation areas.

Instructor Artur Tigani, who tailored the curriculum to the Ukrainian environment, said he was happy to share the experiences of his small Balkan nation with Ukrainian women. Although 23 years have passed, “we still have fresh memories of the difficulties we faced when we started clearing Kosovo,” Tigani said.

Tigani is a highly qualified and experienced mine action officer who served as an engineer in the former Yugoslav Army in the 1980s. He has been deployed to his native Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Kenya and conducted training missions in Syria and Iraq.

During a class last week, he guided his trainees through a makeshift minefield before moving into a makeshift outdoor classroom that featured a giant board with various samples of explosives and mines.

True, it is impossible to judge how riddled with mines and duds Ukraine is at the moment, the aftermath of other conflicts suggest the problem will be huge.

“In many parts of the world, explosive remnants of war continue to kill and maim thousands of civilians each year during and long after the end of active hostilities. The majority of victims are children,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said at a UN conference in December.

“Locating (duds) amidst debris and picking them out from a variety of everyday objects, many made of similar material, is a dangerous, tedious and often extremely time-consuming task,” the Red Cross said.

Mine Action Review, a Norwegian organization that investigates clearance efforts worldwide, reported that 56 countries were contaminated with duds as of October, with Afghanistan, Cambodia and Iraq bearing the heaviest burden, followed by Angola, Bosnia, Thailand, Turkey and Yemen.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have died since the war began on February 24, when Russian troops bombed cities and towns across the country, reducing many to rubble. In recent days, Russia has turned its anger on the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine.

Military analysts say it appears that Russian forces have used anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, while Ukraine has used anti-tank mines to try to prevent the Russians from gaining ground.

Because Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are forbidden to leave their country and are most committed to defending the country, the women wanted to help in any way they could, despite the risks involved in demining.

“It’s dangerous all over Ukraine, even if you’re in a relatively safe region,” said Minchukova, who is from central Ukraine.

Another Ukrainian student, Yuliia Katelik, 38, took her three children to safety in Poland at the start of the war. She went back to Ukraine and then took part in demining training to make sure it’s safe for her children when they return home to the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where more than 50 people were killed in a rocket attack on a crowded train station this month became.

Katelik said her only wish was to be reunited with her family and see “the end of this nightmare”. Knowing how to spot booby traps that could destroy their lives all over again is a necessary skill, she said.

“Acutely, probably as a mother, I understand there’s a problem, and it’s quite serious, especially for the kids,” Katelik said.

Minchukova, who wore military fatigues, said she doubts normal life as they all knew it before the war will ever fully return.

“What am I missing? Peace,” she said. “I dream of peace, of sleeping in my bed without worrying about going to bomb shelters all the time. I miss the people I lost.”

The Kosovo Training Center plans to work with other groups of Ukrainian women both in Peja and in Ukraine.

“We also plan to go to Ukraine very soon and start conducting theater-of-war courses there,” Tigani said.


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