Ukraine: Area larger than UK covered with unexploded devices

ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson witnessed first hand the plethora of mines and unexploded munitions that just 300 technicians have to defuse.

As a result of war in Ukraine, more than 116,000 square miles (300,000 km2) of the territory is likely to be contaminated with unexploded devices, according to the Deputy Minister of Interior.

Just to put that into context, that is an area larger than the UK.

But in Ukraine, there are only 300 qualified technicians available to help clear them, and proper equipment to carry out the task is in short supply.

During my time in Kyiv, I went out with the National Police EOD (bomb disposal) team. They work every day clearing areas, previously occupied by Russian forces, of mines, booby traps and unexploded munitions.

Body cam footage of CJ Darton unearthing a shell. Credit: ITV News

We watched them claw at the earth with their bare hands.

We saw them walking casually, yet pretty fearlessly, through bushes and woodland just using sticks snapped off trees as prodding devices, and we witnessed them on their hands and knees scouring Russian trenches for what they’d left behind.

Many of them were not even wearing body armour, helmets or the right protection.

Working alongside them is a former British soldier, CJ Darton.

He was in the British Army for seven years and has specialist EOD training. He has been helping Ukraine’s National Police for months.

On the morning we went out, within five minutes of looking through woodland, he found a booster from an artillery shell.

"Every munition, every mine we pull out the ground is a life saved", he said.

The work, even just in and around Kyiv, is extensive, but their tools are alarmingly basic.

Mr Darton said: "We don’t really have any kit to do our job, that’s the problem.

"You’ve probably seen some of the guys, they don’t have body armour, they don’t have helmets, some of them don’t even have boots. There’s too much to manage, there’s only 300 of us across the country.”

He then went on to explain what is killing the innocent most often, in the wake of the Russian occupation.

"One of the biggest killers, is not people stepping on mines. It’s the unexploded munitions that are laying around."

Just some of the munitions unearthed by the team. Credit: ITV News

"Civilians are coming back to their homes, they find stuff in their gardens, their houses. These are weapons that have been deployed by the Russians and have hit the ground but might not necessarily have detonated.

"If they don’t explode they effectively become land mines because they can be set off by anything.

"Even a change of temperature could be enough to set them off sometimes.

"It’s dangerous for us, never mind civilians who don’t know what they are and we’ve found tanks shells, munitions even in kids’ playgrounds."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy inspects damaged buildings as he visits the war-hit Mykolaiv region on June 18. Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

Sixty technicians are responsible for working in the area around Kyiv, where Moscow’s troops left their mark.

We saw Russian rucksacks discarded and left behind in the undergrowth, pairs of Russian boots strewn across fields, empty insulin needles just cast aside.

There was something quite disturbing about seeing the belongings of Russian soldiers just lying there.

You could almost feel their presence. Despite the dangers this work entails, it has to be done so that any sense of normality can resume.

The head of the taskforce feels the weight of that responsibility.

Colonel Vlodymyr Khomenko of the Ukrainian National Police. Credit: ITV News

Vlodymyr Khomenko, Colonel, National Police Ukraine, said: "It’s down to us whether farming can continue, whether people can get back to work, whether hospitals and schools can re-open, and normal life can resume.

"Of course me and my whole team are at risk, but we understand that risk. The fear is manageable. There is no need to be afraid when you know what you’re doing."

What they’ve recovered - in this region alone already - is staggering. They took us to a huge warehouse where much of it is stored. Seeing it laid out in front of me almost didn’t feel real.

EOD technician Andrii Henyk said: "Around 85,000 unexploded devices have been found so far by our unit, in playgrounds, fields, streets and inside homes."

In amongst their haul, are cluster bombs, which were banned internationally four years ago. I saw them with my own eyes. I stood next to them.

Then, they took us to see what they do with what they find, but had to keep us at a safe distance. At the end of this particular day, they had collected a large number of these weapons together, buried them deep into a huge crater filled with sand and detonated it.

A controlled explosion set off by the team, rendering all the munitions they had unearthed useless. Credit: ITV News

The sound was deafening. When one of these explosions goes off, the shockwaves go right through your body, so the possibility that a young child might just stumble across something like this is terrifying, but that possibility is very real.

When war ends, these types of weapons stay. They are weapons of terror, and they are being left behind to destroy lives and maim civilians.

Despite the dangers, despite the risks, there is a tremendous sense of satisfaction for this team of Ukrainian police when they explode these devices. The total destruction of these weapons means they can harm no more.

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