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Thursday 21 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Barry Andrews/Halo Trust
Barry Andrews For every day of war in Ukraine, 30 days of landmine clearing will be required
The Irish MEP recently visited Ukraine with an NGO and witnessed the difficult task of demining lethal weapons in a war zone.

THIS WEEK, I spent a day in a forest near Kyiv with staff from Halo Trust.

We set off on foot from the compound and immediately came upon an old lady wearing a headscarf herding her chickens along – just metres away from the spot where a local man had recently lost his life to a landmine explosion.

The winter weather had finally shifted and warm sunlight was coming through the trees. As we walked along the lane, we could have been welcoming the arrival of spring except that we were wearing flak jackets and mine clearance visors.

Red wooden posts marked where mines had been found; yellow wooden posts marked tripwires. We stuck to the path.

A catalogue of suffering

Sadly, many hundreds of civilians, from farmers to people innocently picking mushrooms, have been killed or injured by Russian landmines since the invasion.

Protecting people like the old lady and returning land to productive use is what Halo Trust has been doing in Ukraine since 2015.

A little further on we stopped at an abandoned Russian foxhole. It was a hole dug in the ground with a sheet of galvanised material thrown over it, covered in grass, leaves and earth. I had seen more sophisticated World War One trenches in Flanders. The stories about the primitive equipment provided to Russian soldiers started to make sense.

IMG_5400 Barry Andrews / Halo Trust Barry Andrews / Halo Trust / Halo Trust

Further along the lane, the Halo landmine clearance team were at work. A young man in his 20s folded up a canvass coal sack and kneeled on it. He bent down, studying the scrubby undergrowth.

The area under examination was a metre wide and 30cm deep. Once the visual examination was complete and he was satisfied that there was no trip-wire in evidence, he reached for his hedge clippers and began to cut back the vegetation and remove stones and fallen twigs. The debris was gathered up by hand and removed.

The team worked eight-hour days and only two mines had been found in the last week. I wondered how the staff managed to stop their minds from wandering. The area being cleared is about the size of 20 football fields and only 20% of it has been cleared since July – at least enough to allow the old lady to graze her chickens.

Scourge of mines

Anti-personnel mines are illegal under the Ottawa Convention however Russia is not a signatory. Such is the extent of demining required in Ukraine that it is estimated that for each day of the war, 30 days of landmine clearance will be required. This could take decades.

IMG_5332 Barry Andrews / Halo Trust Barry Andrews / Halo Trust / Halo Trust

Russia continues to develop the technology of anti-personnel mines. On average, the explosive power has been reduced on the basis that 100g of TNT can kill a person while 40g will take off a foot. The latter makes more sense as an injured soldier requires an evacuation and medical care thus tying up more resources than a dead body.

They have also developed mines with listening capacity that can distinguish between animals and humans thus not wasting any explosive ordnance on livestock.

Anti-tank mines are not illegal and the path we were walking on had not been surveyed for these devices. We were able to walk there because they require at least 150kg of pressure to detonate.

IMG_5342 Barry Andrews / Halo Trust Barry Andrews / Halo Trust / Halo Trust

Tripwire grenades are the most lethal of all. Fragments from the grenade can kill anyone within a 25m radius of the explosion.

Ukrainian spirit

Ukrainians are famously self-sufficient; this is especially true of Ukrainian farmers. Unless the pace of demining is accelerated, farmers will take greater risks to get land back into production, literally taking matters – and their lives – into their own hands.

IMG_5345 Barry Andrews / Halo Trust Barry Andrews / Halo Trust / Halo Trust

The Irish Government agreed last October to contribute 30 Defence Forces’ personnel to the EU Military Assistance Mission that will, among other things, provide demining training to the Ukrainian military. The decision was criticised by Paul Murphy TD on the basis that it was a breach of our neutrality.

This is a difficult position to understand. Far from being a breach of our neutrality, not doing it would be a breach of our humanity.

Clearing landmines from farmland or clearing unexploded remnants of war from schools, hospitals and apartment buildings is an act of demilitarisation.

How could helping to get rid of them be a breach of neutrality? We will have an opportunity to discuss these issues in more depth in June at the Consultative Forum established by the Tánaiste to discuss aspects of Ireland’s international security policy.

In the meantime, Ireland could and should be doing more in this area which will also have the benefit of contributing to addressing the global food security crisis and tackling inflation back home.

Ireland has found its voice before on nuclear non-proliferation and on banning cluster munitions. Demining is an area in which Ireland could really step up, make a meaningful impact and even provide global leadership.

Barry Andrews is the Fianna Fáil MEP for Dublin. 

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