13:56 Apr. 6, 2016
The death toll of 600 from mines and unexploded ordnance is likely to rise as former refugees try to reclaim homes and jobs
Ukraine has launched an unprecedented operation in its war-torn east to defuse a landmine crisis, the scale of which is only now becoming apparent as former refugees try to reclaim their homes and return to work.
Although the country ratified the 1997 mine ban treaty, its armed forces and Russian-backed rebels have both made widespread use of their stockpiled, Soviet-made devices. The UN estimates that mines are strewn across at least 30,000 (74,000 acres) hectares of land, far beyond the reach of current clearance efforts.
Landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) have killed more than 600 soldiers and civilians, including dozens of children, and wounded more than 2,000 during almost two years of war. As the deadlock persists, these indiscriminate weapons now pose a greater risk to non-combatants than open warfare, causing about 80% of all Ukraine's civilian casualties.
A truce helped diminish the new wave of artillery attacks that had erupted at the start of November, though fighting has again escalated in certain pockets of the front. Military commanders are exploiting periodic lulls to deploy taskforces of sappers to remove mines, UXO and booby traps throughout the "grey zone" – the battle-scarred land in limbo that straddles sovereign Ukraine and rebel-held territory.
Squads of deminers now face years of dangerous work as they spearhead Ukraine's intensified mine-clearance programme, even while their fellow soldiers continue to plant the deadly devices elsewhere to defend their positions along the volatile contact line.