“We all found at least one old horseshoe”

August 1, 2021

In Ukraine, around 20 FSD deminers are currently working in the Donbass region, where an armed conflict has been going on since 2014. Roman, Stanislav and Igor are part of the team deployed in Stara Mykolaivka. A few years ago, this locality used to be a Ukrainian army ammunition warehouse. On 25 May 2018, artillery fire hit the warehouse, causing a huge explosion and scattering the ammunition in the surrounding fields. The fire lasted for 24 hours. In late 2020, FSD started to clear the area. To date, deminers have neutralised 326 explosive devices. Meet Roman, Stanislav and Igor during a well-deserved break in the shade of the teams’ rest tent.  

It is 9 a.m. in Stara Mykolaivka on Friday 9 July and the day is already well underway for the deminers. Like every summer morning, the team members met at the FSD office at 5:30 a.m. – because of the heat – to prepare the equipment: detectors, protective clothing, tools and marking material. At 6.30 am, after the usual briefing from the team leader, the deminers are ready to go into action.

What remains of the ammunition depot after its explosion
What remains of the ammunition depot after its explosion

“Honestly, look at this landscape! Who can dream of such a workplace?” smiles Stanislav, pointing to the meadow of wildflowers over which swarms of white butterflies fly. Here and there, in areas where the grass has been cut short, red triangles with skulls indicate the location of potential explosive devices for excavation.”‍

“For me, metal detecting has been a hobby for a long time: I have three different detectors at home: I used to have fun looking for coins dating back to the Second World War,” says the 41 years old former police officer. And then I thought, why not make it your job?” Stanislav joined FSD in 2017.

red triangle is placed on the ground
When the metal detector indicates the potential presence of an explosive device, a red triangle is placed on the ground

Here, however, the stakes are quite different. Every piece of ammunition found has the potential to cause an explosion. Do you need strong nerves to do this job? “You have to be serious and very disciplined, but in my case it’s less stressful than my old job as a shop manager, says Roman, 41. Here, my mind is only focused on the safety procedures, which I follow strictly; my brain is relaxed, only my hands work.”

Roman left his job as a shop manager to become a deminer
Roman left his job as a shop manager to become a deminer

‍Days consist of several 50-minute sessions of metal-detecting and excavation of suspicious objects, during those sessions, the deminer cannot afford to daydream at all. No temptation to glance at your smartphone from time to time: phones are forbidden in the work area, as they can trigger accidental explosions due to their electromagnetic radiation. No watches either: they can cause interference with metal detectors.

White painted sticks indicate that the path is safe
White painted sticks indicate that the path is safe

‍There are villages on both sides of the contaminated area. “Before FSD was deployed here, a child picked up a piece of ammunition he found in this field and played with it by setting it on fire. He was injured,” says Alexander, the leader of the demining team. ” All we want is to complete the work so that children can finally be safe, and farmers can use this land again. “

‍When they start clearing a new area, deminers say they feel a little apprehensive. “You don’t know exactly what to expect, even though you’ve investigated beforehand,” says Stanislav. “But obviously, when you have more than 300 explosive devices in one area, like here, it becomes a little bit a routine…”‍

Igor, 32, has only a few months of demining behind him, he remembers vividly the first piece of ammunition he located and excavated. “It was a 30mm shell, found on an old battlefield in eastern Ukraine. I was so proud! Today, the young deminer can no longer count the dozens of items of unexploded ordnance – or the multitude of harmless metal objects – that he has excavated. “We all found at least one old horseshoe,” smiles his colleague Stanislav.

For Stanislav, metal detecting was a hobby before it became his profession

‍When they go home, do the deminers tell their families about their day? “I talk about it a lot, I’m so passionate about it! But my friends are starting to get saturated,” laughs Igor. For Roman, there is no question of talking about work at home: “The less I talk to my wife about it, the better she sleeps.”