Russian forces left behind bombs, death and destruction around Kiev. Now a massive demining operation is underway

“Byr,” he shouts, before tensing up and pressing the trigger. A fraction of a second later, an ear-ringing bang penetrates the otherwise silent landscape.

This is the sixth controlled explosion carried out by 34-year-old Opanasenko and his demining unit since Russia withdrew its forces from the Kyiv region earlier this month. Today, the 16 unexploded ordnance, each weighing about 45 kg (nearly 100 pounds), exploded. They have another 30 shells to go through before the day is over.

Their unit is one of many operating in the region. In all, they say they have destroyed 2.5 tonnes of ammunition in the last week and a half alone.

“If we are all alive, then everything is successful,” Opanasenko said.

As Russian forces withdrew, they left dozens of unexploded ordnance and bombs in addition to mines, they planted to slow down the Ukrainian advance, to protect their retreat or perhaps just to scorch the ground.

Mines, ammunition, and rusty machine guns from wrecked armored vehicles can be dangerous to civilians now returning to their homes, so Opanasenko’s unit goes from village to village, searching the ground for any of these deadly ammunition to be cleared.

Signs warning of mines can be seen across towns and villages around Kiev. Units like Opanasenkos will continue their work for several months to get across the country while the war rages on, according to the Ukrainian State Emergency Management Agency (SES).

“At present we have to investigate more than 300,000 hectares,” the head of SES, Serhiy Kruk, told reporters last Wednesday.

“That is why we are working in cooperation with the armed forces and the Ukrainian National Police and are doing everything we can to return the people and restore their livelihoods,” he said, adding that Kyiv will be a model for similar efforts in other regions.

Opanasenko's team says that this ammunition is an element of a Russian cluster bomb, which was found in a heavily shelled area on the outskirts of Kiev.

Elsewhere near the capital, Opanasenko told CNN another dangerous piece of ammunition they had found in a backyard. It is tubular with a blunt red tip and six fin-like attachments at the end.

“It’s one of the elements of a cluster bomb dropped from an airplane,” he says. “There are about 50 such elements in a bomb.”

“This is a very explosive fragmentation bomb to kill people, designed just to kill people,” Opanasenko adds, before taking it away for disposal.

His unit has found several of these explosives around the Ukrainian capital, he says.

Russian forces have been accused of regularly using cluster munitions against civilian targets in Ukraine. Earlier this month, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said it received credible allegations that Russian armed forces had used cluster munitions in populated areas at least 24 times.

Such attacks “could be tantamount to war crimes,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

A greater effort

Signs warning of the presence of mines or unexploded ordnance have been placed all over the Kyiv region.

Mine sweeping goes hand in hand with other clean-up efforts as residents of the Kyiv region begin to embrace their new reality and try to return to what is left of their shattered lives after Russia’s withdrawal.

About 30,000 people have returned to the area, according to local authorities. Some companies are reopening and traffic is rising sharply. Some military checkpoints have also been removed from the city’s arteries, and some public transportation has resumed.

While doing so, authorities continue to remove debris from the streets, including grenades from wrecked tanks and other armored vehicles.

A sign taped to a burned-out car reads

It is a seemingly endless clean-up task for government officials, especially those tasked with collecting corpses caught in the crossfire.

In the main cemetery of Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, rows of graves for soldiers and civilians have been dug fresh.

Here the military funerals take place in quick succession. Russia may be regrouping and moving its forces to the east, but the war is not over – and there is not a moment left.

Tetyana Bliznyuk is surrounded by her husband’s comrades as his body is laid to rest just before the sun goes down, the last of today’s funerals for members of Ukraine’s armed forces.

When she last saw her husband, Oleksandr Lytkin, he promised her he would be back right away, Bliznyuk says.

“(He was killed by) a mortar shell,” she says, her eyes still swelling red. “I’m very proud of him, he’s a hero.”

“It’s so scary! No one thought it was possible in the 21st century,” she says, adding that the war “must be stopped.”

Her pain is shared by millions around Kiev as death and destruction left behind by Russia’s invading forces become more and more visible.

Leave a Comment