Fragments from a War Diary, Part #88
As I sit on this modern express training running from Kyiv to Lviv, I casually watch the advertisements on the ceiling-mounted monitors. As well as adverse for various Apple electronic products, other consumer devices, and short films glorifying the heroism of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, there is a short cartoon intermittently playing warning children of the dangers of landmines. It shows some children playing on swings and roundabouts, and one of the animated characters warns the viewer of what a landmine might look like and warns other children to stay away from things with this appearance. What the cartoon does not say explicitly, of course, is that if a child steps on a landmine then they will be blown to bits. The video, while good humoured so as to appeal to children, is poignant and it leaves me moved as to the horrors that this war throws up such that children, in the innocence of their youthful years, are obliged to learn about such cruel and inhuman things.
Ukraine is littered with landmines in both its cities and in rural areas. Cities I have come across with marked landmines in the city centre or the outskirts include Kharkiv, Sloviansk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Mykolaïv. I have seen landmine warning signs in rural areas throughout the country. I have heard stories that the Vietnamese are selling landmines into Ukraine. Some fifty years after the end of the Vietnam war, Vietnam is awash with landmines and they are being collected, renovated by local people, and then sold in huge quantities into Ukraine as cheap used stock. Who knows how many of them work. That is not the point. The point about landmines is to scare people, because the consequences of stepping on one are so severe.
The presence or absence or signs warning of landmines in the proximity of a war zone is not definitive of anything. Landmines are generally spread either aerially (i.e. they are dropped out of an aeroplane, bomb or missile); or by ground-based machines; or they are spread by hand. In all cases the way they are spread is intentionally arbitrary or random so as to maximise the area in which you may be concerned about landmines while using the minimum number of landmines to achieve this effect. Therefore it is essential that they be spread randomly or their effect is undermined. They are typically placed in fields or on unsealed roads but not exclusively so. Landmines are often placed in the vicinity of military checkpoints to prevent vehicles from driving around the checkpoints. These are of the larger anti-vehicle variety and they may be hidden behind tank traps or ad hoc barracks or in a a variety of other places in the vicinity of checkpoints.
Sometimes landmines are scattered on paved or unsealed roads in full and open view, in order to retard the progress of an advancing army’s vehicles. Again these are likely to be the larger anti-vehicular mines. Where landmines are spread in fields, it is often to prevent infantry operations but also they exist to terrorise people living in rural regions, to inhibit agricultural activity, and therefore to empty rural areas of their populations and force them into towns because the near-subsistence farming they may live from becomes impossible.
The best people to know where landmines have been laid are local populations, particularly in rural areas, who have seen them being laid. Any other source of information is likely to be unreliable. The locations of minefields is like a game of Chinese whispers. As the source of the information gets ever further from the time and location of the mine laying, it becomes increasingly unreliable. Where landmine signs get placed is almost arbitrary as the location of the landmines themselves. Many minefields are entirely unmarked but you will often know you are risking your life going near one from the wails screams and shouts of local people if they see you veering off the tarmac. Sometimes village authorities will receive a set of landmine signs but whether they are accurately assigned to minefields is anyone’s guess. Sometimes farmers appropriate landmine signs as a primitive form of protection of their agricultural land. To place landmine signs on a piece of land is a form of expropriation. It means that nobody will dare go near the land and therefore effectively it is yours. There may not be any landmines there at all.
There are lots of different landmines and it requires significant training to be able to recognise the different types. Some detonate when you step on them; they are are triggered by pressure. Others detonate when you step off them. Others are detonated by movement. Many are duds. The general rule if you think you may have strayed into a minefield by accident is to stop moving immediately. You look down and you try to retrace your steps out in exactly the same footprints as you made entering the suspected minefield. If you cannot do this - and even if you can - then you wait for a sapper to arrive and you hope you are not on your own or if you are then that your mobile telephone works. Sappers are experts in mines and in particular in getting you out of a minefield and triggering the explosion of mines that may have been laid in a tolerably safe fashion. Their work is dangerous and although they tend inevitably to be gloomy, intense people (imagine a job where you spend all your days looking down at the ground in immense concentration walking forward trying not to get your own legs blown off) they are true heroes. I have worked with sappers and they are all of them superlative people.
At the end of a conflict, the problem of mine clearance presents itself. There are machines with whirring chain flails that clear minefields but the problem with them is that each time they hit a mine and it detonates, the machine is damaged and often it has to be repaired. The machines are expensive and so are the repairs. It is not generally possible for sappers to clear a minefield comprehensively without machinery. The cost on an area basis of clearing minefields is typically more than the value of the land, particularly in arable areas. Therefore minefields remain infested with mines often for decades after the conflict that gave rise to the laying of mines comes to an end. That was true in Vietnam and Bosnia and in all likelihood it will be true in Ukraine. The country may be covered in minefields for decades to come, unless we find a more cost-efficient way of clearing minefields which so far eludes us.
I have acquired an excellent pair of sets of playing cards that I think should be distributed amongst all children, villagers and other residents of front line positions in Ukraine. One contains photos and descriptions of landmines on each card that are in common use in Ukrainian military theatre. The other contains similar photos of possible unexploded ordnance that you might encounter in Ukraine. Armed with this knowledge, civilians and military personnel alike may know what they are looking for with more care and to gain a greater appreciation of when it is time to call in the sappers.