Home International Despite losing limbs, Ukrainian sappers return to work clearing land mines

Despite losing limbs, Ukrainian sappers return to work clearing land mines

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More than a dozen Ukrainian sappers have returned to their de-mining jobs in a national police unit of some 100 people, despite being wounded in blasts while clearing mines during Russia’s invasion.

Oleksii Poliakov, a member of the national police special de-mining unit, works with mine fuses during a de-mining operation near Izum town, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, October 24, 2023. Picture: Reuters, Sofiia Gatilova

By Vitalii Hnidyi

KHARKIV REGION, Ukraine – Andrii Ilkiv, a Ukrainian police sapper, had his leg amputated below the knee after a land mine blew up beneath him in September 2022.

By May the following year he was back at work, standing on a prosthetic limb, sweeping for and defusing mines.

The 37-year-old father of four is one of 14 sappers who have returned to their de-mining jobs in a national police unit of some 100 people, despite being wounded in blasts while clearing mines during Russia’s invasion.

“Of course, obviously there’s fear when you return, when you stand next to a minefield there’s fear, but on the other hand you know that with the help of a metal detector, a sapper spade and special equipment, you can move, and conduct de-mining work,” said Ilkiv.

Ukraine, locked in a raging 20-month war with Russia, estimates that 174,000 sq km of its territory – about a third of the country – is potentially strewn with mines or dangerous war detritus.

Kyiv fears it could take decades to clear the area.

Ilkiv’s unit was created during the war and is focused on humanitarian mine clearance away from the fighting. They are now operating in the regions of Kherson and Kharkiv, parts of which were recaptured from Russia last year.

Four of their sappers have been killed in blasts so far, and 16 wounded.

Ilkiv, wounded when an anti-personnel mine exploded in the village of Dementiivka in the Kharkiv region, said he decided to return because of the large volume of mine-clearance work still to be done, an argument that he presented to his wife.

“She was a bit surprised, shocked. But she has accepted it,” he told Reuters while working in the Kharkiv region this week.

The area they were clearing when the mine exploded, wounding him, was particularly tricky, he said. “The mines were buried beneath the ground, impossible to uncover with visual cues.”

“At first you don’t feel pain, and you can use this moment of numbness to perform first aid – put on the tourniquet, before the state of shock comes over you.”

Valeri Onul, another sapper, also returned to work in the unit despite losing a leg in a blast in November.

“I lifted myself up, looked down, one of my legs was gone … they started pulling me out, I tried to help with my good leg, moved bit by bit and managed to get myself out without triggering two mines that were there,” he said.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the blast, he said he was sure he would return to mine-clearance work when he had made a recovery.

“Many thoughts crowded my mind, I do not know how many per second, but there was one crazy wish, after I was brought to hospital and I regained my senses, already then, I wanted to get back to work.”

Firefighters work in the area damaged during a Russian missile strike in Cherkasy, Ukraine. File picture: Governor of Cherkasy Regional Military-Civil Administration Ihor Taburets via Telegram, Handout via Reuters

DRONE DEBRIS DAMAGES CRITICAL FACILITY IN WEST

A critical infrastructure facility in western Ukraine’s Khmelnytskiy region was damaged during an overnight Russian drone attack, an official said on Wednesday.

“In Shepetivka district, as a result of the downing of enemy aerial targets, they crashed on the territory of a critical infrastructure facility,” a senior official in the Khmelnytskiy region, Sehiy Tiurin, said on the Telegram messaging app.

He said the blast wave damaged non-residential facilities, residential buildings and vehicles and at least 16 people had sought medical treatment for various injuries.

The Ukrainian military said on Facebook that air forces destroyed all 11 Russian drones launched at Ukraine overnight.

Reuters was not able to verify the reports.

The Khmelnytskiy region has regularly been a target of attacks by Russian drones and missiles, which analysts link to a military airfield in the region.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attends a meeting with the commanders of troops fighting in Ukraine, at an unknown location, in this still image from video released October 5, 2023. File picture: Russian Defence Ministry, Handout via Reuters

RUSSIA’S SHOIGU INSPECTS FORCES IN EASTERN UKRAINE

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu inspected command posts of Russian troops in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, his ministry said on Wednesday, during a working visit close to the war’s front lines.

Shoigu, savagely criticised by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin until the latter was killed in a plane crash in August, has been shown several times this month in televised clips designed to project confidence about the state of Russia’s war inside Ukraine.

He told assembled servicemen that their efforts were giving Ukrainian forces “fewer and fewer opportunities”.

Ukraine in June undertook a counter-offensive, capturing villages in the east and south, but at a much slower pace than its rapid advance through the north-east a year ago. Ukraine says Russian forces in recent days have been pounding the eastern city of Avdiivka but have sustained heavy losses.

Video footage published by the ministry showed Shoigu disembarking from a helicopter before engaging in discussions with senior military personnel.

Shoigu was informed of Russian troops’ training improvements with drones, the ministry said. He stressed that commanders should ensure that troops have new winter uniforms and insulated footwear as colder weather sets in.

– REUTERS

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