Op-Ed: Delousing Ukraine – A decade of work clearing the mines and boobytraps

Smoke rises over the Ukrainian town of Chasiv Yar near Bakhmut after Russian shelling – Copyright AFP OLIVIER DOULIERY

A large area of Ukraine has been insulted with the addition of huge numbers of nasty IEDs, land mines, and booby-trapped toys. This type of spontaneous outbreak of Russian culture dates back to World War 2. Boobytrapping dead bodies was one of the earliest revelations of war on the Eastern Front.

In Afghanistan, that other theme park for hideous things, some soulless insect decided that booby-trapping toys might be fun. A lot of young amputees were the result. Now in Ukraine, we have the full suite of obscenities.

These boobytraps work. They can be found in appliances, trip wires, and other thoughtful places. These things can be airdropped or curated by various evolutionary dead ends onsite.

They’re everywhere in Ukraine. A truly huge area is infested with highly dangerous explosives. Some of them seem to be nitro-glycerine based and highly unstable. Some are duds but still contain active explosives.

The Ukrainians say they’re delousing their country “a spoonful at a time”. That means that they have to check anything and everything, often by hand. Their problems include new “smart mines” with sensors, These mines can reposition themselves. Another option for holidaymakers is some version of the old German “jumping” mines, which detonate at waist height.

In most heavily mined parts of the world, particularly in some parts of Africa, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and old World War 2 major battlefields, the clearance work is ongoing to this day. Huge numbers of people have been affected decades after the wars.

There’s a less obvious problem here. Mine experts are a truly endangered species. Using experts to clear one mine at a time can often be too costly. Wasting all that expertise on a single mine or boobytrap doesn’t compensate for loss of skills and people.

Older methods use armored bulldozers for area clearance. It’s noisy and time-consuming but does do much of the work relatively safely. More modern clearance methods use remote control robots.

Mine detection in the form of thermal differentiation is a bit safer. The bombs have different thermal profiles from their surroundings. It’s a finicky bit of calibration, but doable.

Artillery and mine-proofed unmanned vehicles can also be used. Artillery detonates mines by pressure waves, but it’s a bit hit or miss, excuse the expression.

A lot of research has gone into clearance in the last 50 years, but there’s always something. IEDs are decades old, but still a problem. It might be possible to detonate frequency-sensitive IEDs with a frequency sweep, trying to remotely detonate them.

These mines, unexploded ordinance, and other wholesome attractions can make large areas uninhabitable for years. Those places are just too dangerous. Another unstated problem is the sheer quantity of toxic chemicals which are impregnated into the ground by explosives of all kinds.

This is a big issue for the future. Donetsk, Bakhmut, and other areas may be unliveable for a long time. In France, large areas around Verdun and other artillery-soaked combat zones are quarantined more than a hundred years later.

What’s needed is a focused global decontamination and research effort. The other need is for someone to pay for clearance. Who would you suggest?  

Op-Ed: Delousing Ukraine – A decade of work clearing the mines and boobytraps

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