HI’s risk education team traveled to a rural village in eastern Ukraine, where 100 or so displaced people have been offered refuge. Twenty displaced Ukrainians, bundled up in coats and sweaters, gathered in a small courtyard to learn how to spot, avoid and report explosives when they return home.
Sitting on one of the benches next to her mother in a wheelchair, Svitlana, 61, paid careful attention as Anita, an explosive ordnance risk education officer at HI, shared a startling statistic:
"It will take at least 100 years to clear Ukraine of mines!"
This was a shock for Svitlana, who never imagined that she would one day become a victim of war.
"Of course, we knew that there were conflicts all over the world, but I never thought we would be concerned here in Ukraine," she says.
Svitlana has been living with the noise and violence of bombing for almost 10 years now. The former designer who now works as an operator in a thermal power plant is originally from the town of Slavyansk, in the Donesk region of eastern Ukraine. She and her husband, Anatoly, a retired laborer, have two children and three grandchildren. There is also Anna, Svitlana's mother, who has always lived near them. A close-knit family, attached to their way of life, to their town.
In 2014, battles raged in eastern Ukraine. Slavyansk was caught in the crossfire of missiles and gunfire. The majority of its residents rapidly left the city. Svitlana convinced her children to flee to the south, but she decided to stay with her mother and husband.
"We lived in the basement of our house with other residents to protect ourselves from the bombing. But one day a shell fell on our house and it caught fire. Five people died that day, and others were injured. Their bodies were lying at the entrance. Fortunately, the fire services arrived quickly and managed to put out the fire. We were evacuated to another basement at a kindergarten. For five days, shells rained down. At that moment, I said goodbye to life, I thought it was over."
The Ukrainian authorities finally regained control of the town and Svitlana returned to her house and began to rebuild it. But dangers were everywhere.
"There were explosive remnants everywhere, in the forest, in the river, even our little garden was mined! For a long time we didn’t go into it because there were soldiers posted there. When they left, my husband wanted to see what had happened to it. He saw something glinting in the sunlight... it was a wire, a mine wire! So he called the deminers and they were able to defuse it. After that, we never went for a walk and we never went back to the forest or the river.”
Svitlana wanted to stay in her home, but by April 2022 she had no choice but to flee to the west of the country to protect her family. At the time, her daughter and mother refused to leave. So, reluctantly, Svitlana took her grandchildren, her son and her husband and boarded a train to Dnipro.
"We left on the very day the train station was targeted by rockets and many people died. That same day, relatives were victims of an explosion in Slavyansk, their son was injured – requiring surgical amputation – and their daughter died. We heard this terrible news just as we were fleeing. It was devastating!”
Svitlana and her family first stayed with friends in Dnipro, then in a refugee center. But with a constant stream of people arriving from the East, the shelter became overcrowded and living conditions were difficult.
"My daughter and mother eventually joined us because the situation at home had become untenable. Then we were offered the chance to come with other displaced people to this small village in the Poltava region."
Svitlana found HI's awareness training very instructive:
"I learned that mines or grenades could be hidden anywhere, even in pillows," she says, surprised.
But it also brought back the harsh reality:
"It's terrible to think that danger will be waiting for us even in our own homes when we eventually do go back. I know that our house hasn't been damaged yet. But the fighting is still going on in our area, so it could be destroyed at any time. Four missiles fell near my mother's house. All the buildings around it were destroyed: a government service center, a swimming pool, and a market. Her windows were blown out by the explosions, but the walls held."
Anna, Svitlana's mother, turned 88 this month. She survived the Second World War, and now wonders if she will be able to return home one day.
“I have children, grandchildren, it is for them that we must live. I don't know what the future is made of, we don't know anything. Hope keeps us alive," concludes Svitlana.