Oleksandr Slyusar, a Ukrainian sapper with a ready smile, had spent the last 30 hours under Russian shelling in the recently liberated village of Staromaiorske in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. A rocket fired at them from a Grad system had peppered the legs and back of a fellow landmine-clearer with shrapnel.
Slyusar, 38, had taken his friend west to hospital in Zaporizhzhia city that morning, before arriving back at a secret military base within earshot of the rolling thunder of the Russian guns.
He was preparing to brief an assault unit heading to the frontlines on what perils were awaiting them. “I have just come from the shit,” he explained with refreshing honesty.
Slyusar was in a great deal of pain from his back, as he had been for weeks. His commander in the 128th brigade could not afford for to him to take time to get treatment.
“On paper, our brigade has 30 sappers,” Slyusar said as he took out a range of mines that had recently been made safe. “In reality, it is 13. As for those who are active at the moment, it is five. I inject myself with a painkiller every day. There are two mistakes a sapper generally makes: stepping on a mine and becoming a sapper.”
Ukraine is the most heavily mined country in the world. Estimates vary, but the territory affected is said to be equivalent to twice the land mass of Portugal. Some have been laid by Ukrainian forces, but most are Russian.
Countless further mines are being dug into Ukraine’s soil, distributed across fields and forest from the air or blasted into position by rockets every hour of every day.
Even as some might be cleared by detonation, often undertaken with tools no more sophisticated than a long metal rod to find them and a handful of TNT, a whole load more can float down from above.
The soldiers spearheading Ukraine’s counteroffensive face minefields that are 10 miles deep, a fact defence officials will press upon any commentator bemoaning the lack of progress in this summer’s counteroffensive.
“Today, Ukraine is the most heavily mined country in the world,” Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told the Guardian. “Hundreds of kilometres of minefields, millions of explosive devices, in some parts of the frontline up to five mines per square metre.”
There is a breathtaking variety of ways in which Ukrainian soldiers can die or be grievously injured.
There are the mines with the cute nicknames, such as the “Butterfly”, deployed from mortars, helicopters and aeroplanes, that glide to the ground, into the grasses, ready to explode on contact with a boot.
Then there’s the PMN series, which contain a high level of explosive so that rather than just removing a foot, they can take off a leg. The MON-50 and MON-90 types send fragments of sharp steel in the direction of those who brush their super-fine tripwire. They have a shredding range of up to 90 metres.
The ones the Ukrainian soldiers say they fear the most are the POM-2s and POM-3s. These are remotely distributed via rocket and float to ground on a parachute. The mine sits on its six spring-loaded feet waiting for its seismic sensors to be triggered.
Once detonated, it leaps into into the air to chest height and fires out 1,850 razors directly at its target. It has a lethal range of 16 metres.
“You can’t demine those and you don’t survive that,” said Slyusar, who was a landscape gardener before the invasion last year. “All you can do is destroy them by shooting with a Kalashnikov.”
The sappers at the front creep out into the night and start their work just before the dawn, in the often forlorn hope that they will avoid artillery fire. Any sniff of a Ukrainian mine clearer is met with lethal force.
The unit’s methods, kneeling on the ground, prodding the top surface with two-foot-long metal probes, then using a 90-second fuse to blow up anything discovered, have all the hallmarks of a death wish.
Metal detectors are useless when the ground is littered with the detritus of war. They work in four-hour shifts, in which time they can clear a strip 60cm wide by 100 metres long. “And that’s good going,” said Slyusar. When they are spotted by the enemy, a white smoke bomb is used to hide their retreat.
How far away must you get to be safe? “As far as you can run,” said Volodymyr Lysenko, 46, who works alongside Slyusar. “If you see a sapper running, it is best to overtake him.”
It is little wonder, then, that those sent out to try to clear a narrow path on which the troops can advance regularly fail to return.
The Ukrainian ministry of defence is understandably cagey about the precise number of sappers it has in its ranks. They are, after all, now a No 1 target for Russian artillery. It is known that there are five engineer demining batallions, which are broken up into 200 brigades of a similar size to Slyusar’s.
In May, the ministry of defence claimed there were 6,000 sappers in military service, but the number is probably significantly lower.
Just 200 have been trained to an international level that will enable them to act as mentors at home, according to defence ministry sources. Reznikov conceded that the level of manpower and resources was “extremely insufficient”.
There have been calls for the west to donate more mechanical means to clear the mines. The Ukrainian ministry of defence recently announced that it would also make its own clearing machines to bulldoze minefields.
Slyusar said that along with the US-donated protective equipment, familiar to those who watch Hollywood war films, there was limited value to mine-clearing machines at the front.
“The machines will just be hit by the Russian artillery and I can’t wear the heavy protective stuff when I am in the forests. It is like a jungle in there and I need to be mobile,” he said.
Slyusar’s unit only has one set of night-vision goggles and a single pair of “spider boots” between 13 men. The ungainly footwear elevates the feet to give some protection from a blast. Two of his colleagues, Kostyantyn, 38, and Andriy, 39, had lost feet in the last fortnight.
These are pressing requirements, but beyond them the answer is not equipment, said Slyusar, who has benefited from British, US and Canadian courses. “People are the most important thing,” he said.
The Russian supply of mines appears inexhaustible. “They are everywhere, Slyusar said. “I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
However, Lt Oleksandr Kurbatov, 50, of the Dnipro territorial defence, said he took hope from the fact that they were finding Soviet-era anti-tank mines such as TM-62s and OZM-72s. “If they are using this Soviet shit and going to North Korea for weapons, it tells me they are running out,” he said.
Yuri Sak, an adviser to the ministry of defence, is less convinced. “They have been preparing for a war in which they mine from Poland to Lisbon,” he said. “I fear they have enough.”
Landmine injuries can be particularly challenging for surgeons, with pulverised bone, clothing and mud mixed in with gory complex fractures.
Serhiy Ryzhenko, the chief medical officer of Mechnikov hospital in Dnipro, said his surgeons had treated 21,000 soldiers since the start of the war. Mines were the main culprit after artillery fire.
“Every day Mechnikov hospital receives 50 to 100 very, very seriously wounded people,” he said. “Among these 21,000 soldiers, 2,000 were missing limbs. The first surgery for these wounded is performed quickly near the battlefield. Unfortunately, 90% of them result in amputation in the hospital.”
It is not just that the landmines are an obstacle to the counteroffensive’s progress that worries the Ukrainian government.
The Ukrainian ground forces have detailed maps indicating where they have laid their own mines. “This is our land, so we have an interest in that,” said Sak. There is no such confidence that the Russians, even if they had such material, would share it in a postwar period.
Pete Smith, the Ukraine programme manager for Halo, a mine-clearing NGO, said the level of contamination in Ukraine was “quite unrecognisable in modern history”. The NGO has 900 mine clearers operating in the country, largely locally sourced, and hope to have 1,200 by the end of the year.
“If you’re going to try and clear this in 10 years, you would need at least 10,000 deminers,” he said. That projection is based on the numbers of landmines deployed so far.
One way or another, Slyusar can safely assume he has a job for life, however long that may be.