An agglomeration of towns Severodonetsk-Rubizhne-Lysychansk is located in the picturesque floodplain of Siversky Donets in Luhansk region. They are surrounded by genuinely picturesque places. Chalk deposits emerging from the surface, hills, small woods, lakes, ponds and valleys with vast and fertile farmlands. Villages and small towns are scattered among them. Their names are as beautiful names as the landscape itself – Zolote (Golden), Bila Hora (White Mountain), Myrna Dolyna (Peaceful Valley). Even mine heaps which have been here for ages cannot spoil the picture.
But this idyllic landscape is deceptive. The contact line is close. And most of this pretty area is fraught with deadly danger – unexploded ordnance, trip wires and mines. The closer to the line, the more the earth is filled with explosives.
Since last summer, bomb disposal engineers of the non-governmental organization Danish Demining Group (DDG), whose activities are funded by the European Union, have been working in this territory. DDG is a division of the Danish Refugee Council, which began its work in Ukraine in late 2014 when the armed conflict started.
“We are working to demine the area near the village of Myrna Dolyna. By and large, our activities are aimed at solving a whole range of problems. The key tasks are to create safe conditions for the local population and put agricultural lands back in use. We are working to demine the area of the village of Myrna Dolyna,” says DDG mine clearance team head Oleksiy Shaydenkov.
Oleksiy was a career military man and served in the Ukrainian army for 18 years. In 2010, he retired and started his own business. With the onset of the conflict, he was again mobilized to the troops.
He received his first experience of humanitarian demining back in 2002 in southern Lebanon, having served two rotations as deputy company commander in the engineer sapper battalion. He also has solid experience of cooperation with international humanitarian organizations. During the conflict in Ukraine’s east, Oleksiy spent 14 months in charge of the civil-military cooperation group of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) headquarters, working along line of contact. Thus, after demobilization in 2016, he started working for the Danish Demining Group, first as an assistant and then as the group leader. He was the right man for the job.
“I’ve been working in DDG for three years and I’ve learned a lot over that period. This is completely different from many years of my previous experience. These are completely new and modern work standards, more efficient and new approaches to security, this is a new standard of productivity,” Oleksiy says.
Despite high standards and approaches to security, sappers’ work is still very dangerous and difficult. It requires high physical energy and extreme psychological concentration. In addition, there are problems in political and legal fields: the law on mine action has not yet been adopted in Ukraine, and the entire legislative framework regulating the activities of international humanitarian organizations in this area is far from perfect.
“Nevertheless, we are working and all these, let’s say, inconveniences are compensated by the fact that we immediately see the result of our work. This is an additional motivation for us,” the sappers’ leader admits. “These are square meters and kilometers of land that was deadly dangerous yesterday, and today it can already be used as before.”
The cleared land means safety for local residents, the restored communication between settlements and safe movement. And, which is no less important, the fields will get their economic potential to the land.
It is difficult to revive a field that has not been cultivated for 3-4 years into “working condition”. This is a double blow for farmers, as there are no earnings, but they still have to pay rent for idle land. If a field is not cultivated, in ten years it will become virgin land, overgrown with grass, shrubs and young trees.
“At present, the land cleared of mines literally brings farms and farmers back to life. The DDG mission happened to be here in the right place at the right time. Our work brings income back to people and inspires them with a new self-belief, and this, perhaps, motivates our team most,” Oleksiy sums up.
The group led by Oleksiy Shaydenkov is made up of people from all over Ukraine. The experience of the group leader, common goals and the desire to make this land safe and peaceful united the group into a family. A special motivation drives those who were born and lived all their life here, on the land that is now being cleared of deadly ammunition.
“I’m from Pervomaisk, this is a small town located close nearby,” says a young, pretty woman with a mine detector dressed in massive “armour” of protective gear as she points somewhere in the direction of the field.
“At present, my town is in uncontrolled territory and now my temporary house is in Zolote,” she adds with sadness.
Zolote is also a small town, which was once merged with Pervomaisk, but now is cut off by a line of contact. Previously, the way from Pervomaisk to Zolote took several minutes. Now, it takes a whole day. The checkpoint in Zolote hasn’t started to work, so the locals have to make a long detour through Stanytsia Luhanska. The most desperate people move across the contact line through secret paths, risking and sometimes actually hitting mines and trip wires. This young woman’s dream is that the demarcation line disappears, and the secret paths become open and safe.
She could do nothing to help at first. But now, making the fields and paths in the controlled territory safe is entirely within her power. This was what Olena Chyzh thought when applying for the DDG team.
Previously, Olena worked in the passport and migration service of Pervomaisk. Then she went on maternity leave. Then war came to her land, changing everything.
“When I learned that they were recruiting sappers, I did not think twice. I’ve been working here for three months. I like it here and I understand that this is a job that I will not leave and will do to the bitter end,” she says confidently. “It’s a very good team. They all are determined and calm. It is very easy to work with them, despite the fact that the work itself is quite hard and requires constant attention and close concentration.”
Every evening Olena hurries to her son, who is with his grandmother waiting for her at home. And in the morning, she is off to the field. First of all, this job allows her, as a single mother, to provide the child with everything necessary. Another motivating factor is her involvement in the team of like-minded people in the humanitarian mission which actually makes a difference. But the most important thing is the future of her son.
“Look how beautiful this place is. I am raising a child and I am uncomfortable, to put it mildly, with the very thought that he cannot go out of town and walk where he wants. I want to not worry for his future and that’s why I’m here,” Olena says with a note sadness in her voice, but her overall demeanour is that of optimism and confidence. And, when she again takes a mine detector in her hands and leaves for the field, all doubts that they will succeed disappear.