Fear of mines worries farmers in Ukraine as the planting season starts: Every day, Ukraine becomes more contaminated with Explosive Ordnance (EO) which is now assessed to affect over 100 square kilometres* or about one-sixth of the area of Ukraine. The ongoing battles continuously add to the overall EO contamination with over 10 million people in need of Mine Action services**.
The way to small-town Bobrovytsia in northern Ukraine is by passing through vast stretches of agricultural lands that are supposed to be cultivated. But this year, many of them lay untouched. Some farmers in Ukraine fear entering the fields or cannot use surrounding roads due to the risks of mines and other explosive remnants of war. This fear is well-founded as news about farmers who hit a landmine increasingly appears in local media and creates awareness, but also fear of lost income and lethal livelihoods. One of the farmers who experiences this threat first-hand is Ostap***, 42, who had the misfortune of becoming one of the sad pieces of news about mine victims.
“Did you not fear to go to that field? The soldiers were nearby, and they could have left landmines behind?” I asked Ostap when he started talking about the landmine accident that happened to him in May 2022.
“I knew that the military base had been nearby but thought it had been illogical to plant the landmines there — they had another base close by,” he tells.
For Ostap, there was no alternative to farming as this is what he knows and has done for years to make a living.
In Ukraine, agricultural lands account for 42 million hectares or as much as 70 per cent of the country’s total land area. In villages and small towns, agricultural companies represent good—if not the only—job opportunities in the area. Regardless of the risks of Explosive Ordnance left behind since the Russian Federation military offensive launched in February 2022, many of the farmers in Chernihiv Oblast may fear the risks from contaminated land but have resumed their seasonal work in the field. Crop cultivation is season-dependent. They either need to start sowing during late winter and early spring or they will lose the whole year of production once again.
Ostap works as an agronomist in the local agricultural company. On 19 May 2022, he went to the field to monitor work and progress in the early and critical stage of the season. Three operations had to proceed one by one and according to corporate standards to ensure a quality harvest. Ostap watched after the employees and monitored each step of the process, such as how many seeds would the team put into rows. That day they were planting corn.
“I decided to check the road on the other side of the field and that was when the detonation happened. I was in a tractor. If I had been in a car, I would have been dead. But I survived and I saw the burst of the flame from the explosion. I realised that my legs were injured, and decided to move further from the crater, so I crawled away. Then, the guys from my team tried to help me and an ambulance came to drive me to the hospital in Chernihiv almost an hour later,” Ostap recalls.
His legs and arms were crushed, and he feared and expected both legs to potentially be amputated. Ostap was put in intensive care. He spent three days in a Chernihiv hospital and was then transferred to the Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedics in Kyiv wherein spent nearly three months in the hospital.
It says “workplace injury” in the documents about the incident that Ostap received from the authorities.
“The State Emergency Service found two to three other mines near the place where the accident happened to me. A couple of days after, also in the area nearby, a man died due to a detonation. Then after some months, in the autumn, when mushrooms started to grow, a family hit a landmine with a car near that same place in a forest. They were only found after their relatives reported them missing,” Ostap tells.
The doctors succeeded to assemble Ostap’s right leg and both arms, but his left leg had to be amputated. The muscles in his limbs had atrophied and he needed a long and difficult rehabilitation to be able to move them. In August, rehabilitation started, but Ostap was lucky and already after three weeks he started feeling better.
“Rehabilitation is a complicated process. Specialists usually decide how much effort the person can endure every day. They worked with me from nine in the morning until six in the afternoon, with only a lunch break,” says Ostap.
Later, he had another surgery to remove a screw from his left leg, followed by another two weeks of rehabilitation. His treatment was covered by the State nearly in full. However, Ostap needed to pay himself for medicines and a bed in a hospital during rehabilitation. Some of the expenditures were also covered by his employer. Through its victim assistance programme, DRC helped to pay for his wife’s stay in the hospital as Ostap could hardly move and needed constant support.
“I could not get up or move around on my own. They taught me to get out of bed and into a wheelchair, but I could not get to the lift or downstairs,” he remembers.
Ostap is still in recovery. He walks using crutches and cannot fully use his left hand. Nonetheless, Ostap plans to start working again soon. Moreover, he learns to drive a car with a prosthesis.
“When the doctors were checking my prosthesis and needed to take it away for some days, I protested. I do not want to use a wheelchair anymore. No way. I am lucky I can use a car because even a shop is far from my home, and it could take up to three hours to get there without a car. The next step is getting back to work. It’s hard for me to understand why society expects disabled people to sit at home jobless. I do not want to sit at home,” he says confidently.
Coordination of Victim Assistance
According to the UN, from February 2022 to March 2023, 253 civilians were killed by mines and other explosive remnants of war, and more than 400 were injured. The numbers are based on verified cases and actual numbers are considerably higher.
In March, DRC organised a roundtable in Kyiv to enhance the coordination of Victim Assistance in Ukraine. More than 40 local and international organisations, ministries, and UN agencies shared their Victim Assistance activities and challenges from Protection, Mine Action, Health, Education, and Employment spheres. DRC will be conducting various needs assessments and legal analyses to help better understand the conditions of Explosive Ordnance (EO) victims and the environments they live in.
“As for years now, DRC will continue to support victims with individual cash grants. We have also designed several trainings for communities and schools on how to create more inclusive environments for People with Disabilities, including EO victims, as well as capacity building trainings for national duty-bearers. Jointly with our Economic Recovery programme, we will also be working on creating more barrier-free workspaces as well as supporting survivor organisations. Finally, DRC will engage in advocacy on topics related to Victim Assistance – both with the public as well as with targeted stakeholders,” highlighted Nick Vovk, Humanitarian Disarmament and Peacebuilding Programme Manager.
The provision of the grant to Ostap and the round table organisation were possible thanks to the funding from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. DRC’s Victim Assistance Programme is supported as well through means donated by private foundations and individuals primarily in Denmark.
*Landmine Monitor report, 2022.
** Humanitarian Response Plan 2023, OCHA.
***Name was changed for confidentiality purposes.