As thousands of women and children fled Ukraine during the early months of the Russian invasion, Ilona decided to stay. She has some skills that have become a high commodity in her country: Ilona can safely clear landmines.
When she heard Russian missiles coming down in February, Ilona sent her family abroad where she knew they would be safer. Despite initial fears about staying behind, she told CBS News she decided she had to “get herself together, and get to work.”
Ilona, 27, started clearing landmines in 2019. She took up the risky job after seeing the work done by members of The HALO Trust, a humanitarian mine clearance organization, in Kramatorsk. Ukraine’s forces had already been engaged in a simmering war with Russian-backed separatists around the eastern Ukrainian city for five years when the current invasion began in February.
Inspired by the opportunity to save lives, she left her job as a dancer to join the HALO Trust’s demining efforts.
“It was kind of a scandal in my family, because my parents thought that I would walk into an open field of mines, there would be an explosion, and that would be my job,” Ilona said. After she walked them through the work and safety measures, her parents supported her decision. The HALO Trust asked that CBS News identify its staff only by their first names.
“I really believe because of this work, people will be able to return to Ukraine,” Ilona told CBS News. “People will be able to return to their houses, to their cities, and they will be able to walk freely and live safely. We do everything for this purpose.”
A senior U.S. State Department official said Russian troops set many victim-activated boobytraps as they retreated from positions taken during the initial phase of their invasion, including improvised explosive devices in food facilities, car trunks, washing machines, doorways, hospital beds, and even in the bodies of those killed.
Ukraine’s government estimates that about 62,000 square miles of the country’s territory may be contaminated with landmines and other unexploded weapons. That’s an area slightly smaller than the state of Wisconsin, and it includes 10% of Ukraine’s farmland, making it impossible to safely farm many fields in the country’s eastern breadbasket.
Olesia, communications manager at The HALO Trust, said there had been a focus on clearing the agricultural land, with the aim of boosting food production. One farmer told her that two thirds of his land was contaminated and could no longer be plowed.
“They were producing vegetables and fruits for the Kyiv region,” she told CBS News. “This is just one example of how difficult and dangerous this work can be. The tractor drivers can go into these fields and get blown up.”
As CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata reported this week, Ukraine’s farmers — particularly in and around the front lines of the eastern Donbas region — face risks from all angles. Some have taken to wearing flak jackets as they try to bring in this season’s crops.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on July 31 that Ukraine’s typical harvest output would be cut in half this year due to the Russian invasion.
About 60% of the people killed or injured by landmines since Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region have been victims of anti-tank mines, according to Chris Whatley, executive director at The HALO Trust USA. Anti-tank mines, also known as anti-vehicle mines, go off when there’s about 440 pounds of pressure put on them.
Illona is trained as an armored excavator operator, which enables her to remove wrecked vehicles from clearance sites so her teammates can search for anti-tank mines. The hazards of the job don’t seem to phase her. Speaking to CBS News, she was focused on the importance of being useful to her country.
“Our women are just as brave and heroic as our men,” she said.
“This is complicated work. It requires tremendous concentration,” Whatley told CBS News. “There are protocols where the risks are well bound, are well reduced, as long as you follow the protocols, and that’s why we invest so much in training our people.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department announced $89 million for demining assistance in Ukraine, which will help fund 100 de-mining teams in the country.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accused Russian forces of deliberately hiding explosives in toys and shiny objects that may attract children’s attention. The U.S. official said a family returning to their home in Bucha, outside Kyiv, found a grenade hidden in their 10-year old daughter’s piano.
“This horrific use of improvised explosive devices by Russia’s forces is reminiscent of ISIS tactics in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS terrorists sought to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible and make people afraid to return home,” said the U.S. official.
Valeriia, who joined HALO Trust in November 2021, said she’s “not afraid, just proud.” Like Ilona, she said all the work the group undertakes is aimed at ensuring that, one day, everyone will be able to return to their homes.
The demining work in the Kyiv region alone will likely take a decade or more, Whatley said, and the deadly legacy of landmines is sure to linger long after the final shots are fired in the war.
There are still Soviet anti-tank mines in Afghanistan that were laid in the mid 1980’s, and anti-personnel mines laid by the then-Rhodesian regime in the 1970s still litter Zimbabwe.
The Ukrainian government estimates more than 5 million people are already living near unexploded landmines and other explosives in the country.
“We are busy clearing around Kyiv, but we are also realizing that we probably will need another 2,000 staff to deal with the threats that will be in Kherson,” said Whatley, referring to ground still held by Russia’s occupying forces.