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‘Not afraid’: Ukraine women learn to demine in Kosovo

Trainees anticipate ‘decades’ of clearing mines in their home country following Russian invasion

Anastasiia Minchukova attends a demining training near the town of Peja on April 25, 2022. (Photo by AFP)
Anastasiia Minchukova attends a demining training near the town of Peja on April 25, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

PEJA, Kosovo (AFP) — Kateryna Grybinichenko chose to sign up after rockets fell on her home city of Sloviansk, in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

The 36-year-old wanted to help — so she joined a band of Ukrainian women taking part in an intensive demining course in Kosovo, a place all too familiar with clearing deadly explosives. The trainees have traveled hundreds of miles, hoping to protect their homeland for decades to come.

After learning their craft from the experts, the women plan to return to Ukraine and put it into practice in areas where Russian troops have withdrawn.

“There are various ways to fight,” said Anastasiia Minchukova, one of the eight women who applied for the scheme. The 20-year-old English teacher, who dons a blue protective apron and a visor for the training, said there is a “huge demand for people who know [about] demining” in Ukraine.

“The only reason I’m here is to help my country,” she said.

The trainees are being taught how to detect, identify and disable explosives on the course organized by the Mines Awareness Trust (MAT) Kosovo organization. Six women started the three-week program in the western town of Peja, known as Pec to Serbs, on Monday, with two others set to arrive soon. The organizers plan to take on more trainees in the future.

Anastasiia Minchukova attends a demining training near the town of Peja on April 25, 2022. (AFP)

The course has been specifically set up in response to the invasion of Ukraine, and focuses on Russian and former Soviet arms, including guided weapons, mines and rockets. It is open to men too, but Ukrainian males aged 18 to 60 are banned from leaving the country. And the women here want to take part in the defense of Ukraine. The MAT said this course is the first of its kind outside Ukraine since the Russian invasion began in February.

Kosovo was chosen to host the scheme because of its “firsthand experience,” chief instructor Artur Tigani said. “We have gone through quite a similar situation, especially when it comes to contamination with unexploded devices.”

An estimated 13,000 people lost their lives in the war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas in the late 1990s. The conflict ended after a NATO air campaign forced Serbian troops to withdraw from the territory, paving the way for independence in 2008.

But the war left the former Serbian province with 4,500 minefields, according to US estimates after the war. The devices were scattered mainly in the mountainous Peja region, close to the Albanian border, where Tirana shipped arms and supplies to Albanian guerrillas. With international help, most of the mines have been cleared, and the risk is now officially assessed as “light.” The Kosovo instructors have also delivered training in Syria, Iraq and Libya.

“It is our life’s mission to save lives and help others save lives,” said Tigani.

Anastasiia Minchukova attends a demining training near the town of Peja on April 25, 2022. The training is organized by MAT company, which said it was the first of its kind outside Ukraine since the Russian invasion started. (Photo by AFP)

The Ukrainian trainees are aware of the huge challenge they face when they get back home. They expect to join emergency services and get to work when they return on May 13.

“I’ve seen, while traveling in [Ukraine], the huge amount of the abandoned ammunition and unexploded ordnance laying on the ground,” Grybinichenko said.

It is thought it could take decades to rid Ukraine of mines. Perrine Benoist, of the Handicap International organization, has said it will likely “take 50 years to clear everything.” Minchukova knows that she and her fellow trainees have taken on a perilous task. But she said: “It’s dangerous all over Ukraine, even if you are in a relatively safe region.”

“I’m ready for it,” she said. “I’m a Ukrainian. I’m not afraid of anything. I know we will have a chance to prove [we are] worthy of doing the same as men.”

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