Tetiana Nykyforova inches forward using a sensor with which she carefully lifts branches and moves undergrowth, constantly keeping an eye out for a wire that could cause an explosion. She then uses a metal detector. “Each time I find something, I realise how dangerous our work can be,” the 37-year-old Ukrainian says. “Fear is part of the job. If you’re not afraid, then you’re not the right person for this sort of work.”
Until just a few months ago, Tetiana Nykyforova was a barkeeper. She mixed drinks and poured beer. When the club where she worked closed down, she wanted to do something completely different. “I wanted to do something for my country, but I didn’t want to join the Ukrainian Army,” she says. “It is important to me that people can live in safety. It makes me furious when I think that children are being injured.” In eastern Ukraine, where she lives, pro-Russian rebels have been fighting since 2014 for Donetsk and Luhansk to become independent. Following the illegal referendum among the predominantly Russia-speaking population in the region, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and started the conflict. There are thousands of mines, booby-traps and munition remnants in the areas where there has been fighting between militia supported by Moscow and the Ukrainian Army.
Tetiana Nykyforova applied to the HALO Trust, a non-governmental organisation that specialises in mine and ordnance clearance. The organisation receives funding from the Federal Foreign Office’s Directorate-General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilisation, Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Assistance. Since 2015, the Federal Foreign Office has invested some 140 million euros worldwide in clearing the insidious legacy of war in Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia, Iraq, Syria and now in Ukraine.
Around a dozen organisations supported by Germany endeavour to ensure that life can go on after fighting has come to an end and that displaced persons can return home. Germany was the second-largest donor to mine and ordnance clearance in 2017. It has not manufactured any anti-personnel mines or cluster munitions for decades and lobbies for the Ottawa Convention, which bans anti-personnel mines and has already been ratified by 164 countries. Even countries that have not ratified the Convention, such as the United States, adhere to its most important points on humanitarian grounds.
Ukraine is now one of the most contaminated countries in the world as regards mines and munition remnants, which have killed 650 people and injured 1200 in the past four years. In the affected areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, thousands of children do not attend school because of the danger of explosions. Fields cannot be farmed and many roads are closed. Everyday activities such as a walk in the woods or a game of hide-and-seek can have fatal consequences. Yuri Shahramanyan, Programme Manager of the HALO Trust mission in Ukraine, says that at least 15 million square metres are contaminated. “People don’t feel safe and the negative impact on the economy is severe.”
The situation is even worse in Iraq, where “Islamic State” (IS) has left highly contaminated towns in its wake. Booby-traps have even been found in refrigerators, toys, light switches and thresholds in Falluja, Ramadi and Mosul. Experts say that they have never seen as many mines and booby-traps as those left by IS, which did not only use booby-traps as a military measure, but also for political purposes in order to make it more difficult for the displaced civilian population to return and to further destabilise the situation.
“That is exactly why it is so important to provide rapid support,” says Rüdiger König, Director-General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilisation, Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Assistance at the Federal Foreign Office. “Clearing booby-traps is more than merely a humanitarian act,” he says.“It is the basis for stabilisation and a political process aimed at bringing about peace. It must be immediately apparent to the public that driving IS out means they will enjoy a better and more peaceful life.” That is why stabilisation does not pursue long-term development goals, but instead seeks to create a rapid peace dividend. “Our aim here is to achieve a political goal, namely to strengthen the Iraqi Government.” That is why crucial infrastructure such as hospitals, power plants, water-supply facilities, schools and administrative buildings are always cleared as quickly as possible.
The mine-clearance strategy also always involves training and deploying local staff. That was how Tetiana Nykyforova found her new job. Since completing her training, she is often in the field for ten days in a row. It is hot in the summer under the thick protective clothing – and in the winter, it is cold. The most complex work involves “mixed” minefields comprised of booby-traps, anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, grenades and unexploded ordnance. In such areas, she only moves forward five to fifteen metres in a day. She takes a break every 15 minutes to ensure that her concentration does not lapse. “I enjoy this very concentrated way of working,” she says. The work suits her and she feels that she has found her true calling. “I would like to continue working here until the very last minefield has been cleared.”