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‘Someone has to do it’: Ukrainian amputee deminers back in the field

Ukrainian explosives expert Valeriy Onul lost his lower right leg after stepping on a landmine, but it hasn’t stopped him returning to his job clearing mines. “Someone has to do it,” he said. Ukraine faces an enormous task to demine areas that were under Russian occupation. The retreating troops left huge numbers of mines, many of which are booby-trapped to kill deminers. Wearing a bullet-proof vest and helmet and gloves, Onul used a sharp-ended pole to probe the ground and then gently cleared earth away from the top of an anti-tank mine. The 52-year-old is a police officer specialising in explosives from the Dnipropetrovsk region in eastern Ukraine. While working on clearing mines in farmland in the Kharkiv region, he pulled up his camouflage trouser leg to show his prosthetic limb. He received his injury in the southern Kherson region in November last year when he was preparing to defuse TM-62 (anti-tank) mines in an awkwardly narrow area. “During that preparation, I stepped on a PMN-2 (anti-personnel) mine,” said the sapper. The sappers use metal detectors to initially locate mines. He did not realise the mine was there because it was hidden in difficult terrain with a lot of gravel and shrapnel. “There are a lot of booby traps here under mines. Some of our people died defusing mines, especially at the beginning (of the war),” Onul said. “Now of course our tactics are a bit different,” he said, adding: “We know that for example out of a row of mines, at least a few will be booby-traps.” – ‘It worked out’ – Onul has returned to work despite the blast removing his leg up to the knee. “I have done this work my whole life. I like it, and I cannot screw over my guys,” he said, smiling. Onul is working in the field with another explosives expert who has also lost a limb. Andriy Ilkiv, who works in the western city of Lviv’s police department specialising in explosives, lost the lower part of his left leg and foot. His injury occurred in September last year while demining in the village of Dementiyivka in Kharkiv region. Until they reveal their prosthetic legs, the men do not stand out within the team, although they say they have some issues with mobility. Working in a cabbage field in the Kharkiv region, their team has piled up the anti-tank mines they have discovered. Two sappers crouched on the ground to destroy one mine. One of them raised an arm and shouted “Explosion!” before pressing the detonator. There was a huge boom and clouds of black smoke rose up. “Sasha, well done! It worked out,” another sapper said, patting him on the back.

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