“How can I not hate Russians when I see this,” Khrystyna asked me. We were standing before rows of Ukrainian military graves on the Field of Mars in Lviv. I had come to Ukraine as a project manager for an NGO supplying demining aid to the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU), on behalf of an American donor. Khrystyna, a fire fighter with SESU, speaks English and Polish, which has made her invaluable as an aid coordinator in the wake of Russia’s invasion. She has spent weeks sleeping in a cot in her office and coordinating with donors around the world to bring humanitarian aid into Ukraine.
Today, the Field of Mars is the final resting place for the growing number of soldiers Lviv has lost in the year since Russia’s unprovoked invasion. The rows of graves are laden with portraits, flowers, and flags. During our visit, mourners and soldiers were lowering another victim into a fresh grave. Military funerals are now a near daily occurrence, as the Russian offensive against Bakhmut intensifies.
If the war stops today, SESU will still need to clear unexploded ordnance and landmines from between 30 and 40 percent of Ukrainian territory in the coming years.
Russia, which did not sign the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty, has littered eastern Ukraine with anti-personnel mines that Ukraine and 163 other state parties to the treaty consider to be illegal. Both Ukraine and Russia use anti-tank mines, which were not banned by the treaty. Additionally, both sides use ageing Soviet rockets and artillery shells, which sometimes fail to explode, posing a risk to anyone nearby until they are neutralized. In agricultural Ukraine, simply tilling a field can be a deadly exercise. In the first nine months of the war, an estimated 277 civilians died from landmines, according to the Landmine Monitor.
When Ukrainian territory is reclaimed by the military, SESU’s humanitarian deminers check power lines, gas pipelines, and water supply to ensure that critical infrastructure is working. Then they begin demining. Depending on the density of the minefield or the need for emergency response, SESU deminers defuse up to several hundred explosive objects per day. The teams can clear from between 100 square meters to several thousand per day, depending on the ordnance and the contamination of the area.
Before the February 2022 invasion, SESU had about 600 demining specialists. The force expanded to about 1,000 by early 2023, with a total of 1,500 deminers planned by the end of the year. These new demining teams are largely equipped by international donors, including NGOs and friendly governments. With an estimated 174,000 sq km of contaminated land to clear and more landmines and unexploded ordnance added every day, the deminers face a Sisyphean task.
One rescuer from the team in Croatia described the landmines he detests the most: The PMN-2. It’s a Russian anti-personnel mine that is mostly composed of plastic, making it nearly impossible to find with a mine detector. An unlucky deminer could lose a foot or leg to the weapon in an instant. The Russians have also deployed the TMN-46 anti-tank mine, a variant of a traditional Soviet anti-tank mine but with a hidden secondary explosive underneath designed to kill deminers.
As the team trained, I asked their translator, Alina, when she thought the war would end. She wanted to keep fighting until Ukraine reclaimed all its territory, including Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. That day, her six-year-old son in Kyiv had gone to daycare instead of school in anticipation of anniversary rocket attacks; the daycare had a better bomb shelter. She was painfully aware of the devastating human cost of the war but felt that Ukraine had no other choice but to fight for its freedom and democracy. “Give us supplies, and we will fight,” she said.
Among the many bogus justifications Putin has offered for his invasion, one of the most ridiculous is the claim that Russia is protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Putin’s invasion has devastated eastern Ukraine—home to the country’s largest concentration of Russian speakers. In Croatia, I met with an internally displaced SESU demining team from Luhansk, which Russia occupied in 2014. They were ethnically Russian and could understand, but not really speak, Ukrainian. Still, they hated Putin, his war, and the devastation the Russians had wrought in their oblast. In the first weeks of the war, they told me, their SESU unit lost between fifty and sixty first responders.
What has struck me most about my recent time in Ukraine, however, is how people adapt to war. On a Sunday night, I went to the Lviv National Opera to see the ballet Don Quixote. After a security screening, audience members filtered past Ukrainian and EU flags into the opulent foyer. An announcement informed us that we would be escorted into a bomb shelter in case of an air raid warning, and that the performance would continue if the shelter order lasted less than one hour. Then the conductor mounted the podium and began the performance with the Ukrainian national anthem.
While I was in Ukraine, President Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv. He framed the conflict as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, the way Western leaders have done throughout the war. Some aspects of Ukrainian democracy will make an idealistic liberal democrat squeamish: Under martial law passed by President Zelenskyy in the wake of the Russian invasion, state TV stations were merged. Nearly every Ukrainian TV channel in my hotel room broadcast an identical program interviewing Ukrainian government figures in front of Ukrainian flags. Several pro-Russian opposition parties have been banned. Corruption is a perennial concern. And LGBTQ+ individuals and other minorities lack the protections they enjoy in most western democracies.
Nevertheless, Ukraine has demonstrated a real commitment to democratic government. In a July 2022 poll, 80 percent of Ukrainians expressed a desire for Ukraine to join the EU. Despite widespread Western predictions that ethnic Russians would turn against the Ukrainian government, Ukrainians have largely united behind President Zelenskyy and have committed to western-style democracy. From the Maidan Revolution through years of fighting against Russian incursions, Ukrainians have demonstrated their commitment to democracy and the principles of self-determination. And they have paid for it in blood.
On my last night in Lviv, I wandered aimlessly through the city, admiring its architecture. I hoped that this UNESCO world heritage site would be spared the wanton destruction that too many Ukrainian cities have endured.
Eventually, I found myself once again at the Field of Mars. A few families and soldiers were standing near individual graves. I scanned the photographs attached to each cross. In one picture, a smiling young SESU deminer posed with his mine detector in a muddy field. Soldiers of all ages are buried here, having paid the ultimate price to defend their families and to maintain Ukraine’s democracy and independence. I thought of all the people who grieved for each of these men and women, and the staggering loss for this community. And I remembered Alina’s unbowed defiance against the Russian invasion, despite the cost in blood: “Give us supplies, and we will fight.” Behind me, several Orthodox priests began singing a chant for the dead.
Paul Kroeger works as a project manager for an NGO and will complete a Master of International Affairs from the Bush School at Texas A&M University in May. Previously, he worked as an opera singer in Germany, holding soloist positions at Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater, Landestheater Coburg, and the Thüringer Opernstudio.
Images: SESU deminers operating in the Luhansk region, Ukraine. (Credit: SESU)
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