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Q&A: Explosive ordnance contamination after one year of conflict

Mykola Havrylets is Humanity & Inclusion's Explosive Ordnance Risk Education Supervisor. In this Q&A, he explains the types of explosive contamination teams are seeing after one year of war in Ukraine and what HI's teams are doing to protect communities.

Q: What is your experience in explosive ordnance risk education (EORE)?

Since 2015, I have been working in explosive ordnance risk education. I started holding trainings and lectures in villages on the front lines, and today I have been working with HI since Spring 2022. Throughout the years, I have seen a lot of real-life cases wherein people are injured by contact with explosive devices. So, I understand from a first-hand perspective the relevancy and importance of what we’re teaching.

We need to educate people quickly, as a lot of them are displaced and going through stages of instability. Our main message is to change people's behavior. There are international standards that clearly state the rules for how to behave in each situation. These safety rules and regulations are written in blood, so to speak, as they are based on real incident reports.

Q: What does HI teach in EORE sessions?

Today, a lot of people are uninformed or misinformed. In our explosive ordnance risk education sessions, we explain the most common ordnances used in Ukraine, including mines and explosive remnants of war. We also discuss the influence of explosive ordnances locally, globally, personally, and on our families and loved ones in terms of economic, social and psychological pressures. We inform people about potentially dangerous locations with a high likelihood of encountering explosives, and about the most important things to pay attention to. Finally, we teach the correct behaviors under various circumstances.

We want to turn people's attention to these threats and change their behavioral patterns in case of contact or detection of something dangerous or suspicious. Everyone should have this information and spread it further among friends, acquaintances and relatives.

Q: What kinds of explosives are we seeing in Ukraine?

The engineering of weaponry is constantly evolving. Even if people received previous training years ago, the technologies have changed since then. There are modern ordnances, which we knew nothing about until this year. Some types of ordnances and mines are equipped with seismic, acoustic, and heat vision target detectors. These mines are able to feel vibrations from the ground and differentiate between the steps of an animal and a human being. If it feels the steps, it activates and detonates. Another example is a new anti-vehicular mine. When a car drives by, it jumps into the air for up to 10 meters, targets the roof of a vehicle with a detector, and explodes. We’re seeing this for the very first time in Ukraine. 

About 30% of ordnances are what we call “unexploded ordnances,” meaning that someone tried to use them, but they didn't detonate. These are even more dangerous, because they are unstable and can detonate at any moment. Even a change of ambient temperature could activate them.

Then, there are a lot of improvised explosive devices and traps, particularly in areas where combat took place. A lot of explosives are installed in residential neighborhoods, houses, apartments, and in door or window frames. So, we emphasize this for people returning to their homes after warfare. There may be a vast number of traps. Often, modern mines are indistinguishable from simple household items. One may be laying on the ground and you'd never suspect that it's something dangerous. We highlight this in the risk education sessions by showing photos and asking people whether or not an item seems dangerous. Then, we discuss the item in detail with an accompanying video, and people's perception changes instantly. They start treating everything around them with greater care and share their knowledge with others. Adults start paying closer attention to children, to ensure that their children don’t pick anything up or touch anything on the ground.

Q: What threats do these weapons pose to civilians?

Even highly trained specialists can be injured while trying to neutralize or eliminate an item. What can be expected for ordinary civilians? They are absolutely at risk. Most often, contact with explosive ordnances causes trauma to limbs, which then requires amputation. Survivors can live with the disability for the rest of their lives. They may also experience significant psychological trauma and financial difficulties to pay for support, rehabilitation and prosthetic services. There is also an emotional impact on the people around them, who live in fear, afraid to make a wrong move and sustain the same injuries.

Statistically, any interaction with a single mine results in several people getting hurt. There are a lot of incidents of people finding explosive items and bringing them home. In these cases, all members of the family get injured. The most frightening situation was when a person brought something dangerous home and was the only one to survive, while the rest of the family died. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of incidents like this.

Q: Who is HI targeting in its risk education sessions?

When we started our project, we focused on the west of Ukraine to support internally displaced people, knowing that they may go back to their residences and encounter threats. We also prioritized humanitarian organizations that were visiting contaminated areas. Today, we are focusing on the population as a whole. We’re trying to provide this information to anyone within our reach. We hold trainings in educational institutions for both students and teachers. We hold trainings for employees responsible for critical infrastructure, and we provide trainings for public utility companies, administrations of territorial communities and police officers.