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article imageLurking landmines threaten lives, livelihoods in Ukraine

By Nicolas Miletitch (AFP)     Apr 8, 2015 in World

As a tenuous ceasefire brings a lull to Ukraine's yearlong conflict between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian troops, the lurking danger of landmines threatens lives as well as economic recovery, particularly on once rich agricultural lands.

"There are plenty of fields here where it's best not to walk, they're peppered with mines and unexploded shells," said Nikolai Utrimenko who runs a farm in Dmitrivka in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine.

The country was once known as "Europe's bread basket", but sowing wheat, maize or sunflowers has become life-threatening for farm workers in this little town of 5,000 people some 95 kilometres (59 miles) from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

Landmines were responsible last week for one of the bloodiest days in recent weeks, killing six soldiers in separate incidents, adding to the war's overall death toll of more than 6,000.

Farmer Lida Antonova  79  collects corn in a field near the village of Petropavlivka  eastern Ukrain...
Farmer Lida Antonova, 79, collects corn in a field near the village of Petropavlivka, eastern Ukraine
Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP

As countries from Europe to Africa to Asia toil to clear millions of mines in a task the UN estimates will take more than 1,000 years, Human Rights Watch issued a report this week underlining the danger in Ukraine and urging all sides "to destroy any antipersonnel mines they have seized or acquired."

The area around Dmitrivka, a few kilometres, from the Russian border has seen clashes in recent months between government troops and pro-Russian rebels.

Gennadiy Moskal, the pro-Kiev Lugansk regional governor, has ordered a "temporary restriction" banning hunting and fishing in areas near the border "to prevent accidents due to unexploded munitions", his press office said Wednesday.

The threat of mines and other devices is visible even to the naked eye, with Russian-made GRAD missiles poking from the earth along with side unexploded shells and cluster bombs. Almost invisible are trip wires attached to booby traps.

A man looking at a burnt tractor  destroyed by mortar shelling in the village of Dmitrivka  eastern ...
A man looking at a burnt tractor, destroyed by mortar shelling in the village of Dmitrivka, eastern Ukraine
Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP

"We haven't been able to clear all the fields of mines," said Utrimenko. "That's why we couldn't harvest the wheat and were only able to plant 500 hectares this year instead of the normal 1,000."

Even in fields supposedly cleared of mines and other ordnance there can be danger. One farm tractor blew up after hitting a well-concealed anti-personnel mine, he said. "Luckily because it was so heavy, nobody died."

One sapper sent to Dmitrivka was killed in October trying to neutralise a device that had been cunningly placed on top of another, he said.

- Farmers' 'Number 1' problem -

Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR), last week said "almost a third of the DNR's arable land needs to be cleared of mines, which has become the number one problem" for local farmers.

But the DNR's "economy minister" Yevgenia Samokhina told AFP it would take as long as 20 years to clear two areas close to the frontline -- Novoazovsk and Telmanovo.

Many fields in eastern Ukraine have become no-go areas  peppered with mines and unexploded shells
Many fields in eastern Ukraine have become no-go areas, peppered with mines and unexploded shells
Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP

Farming has also been hurt by lack of fertilisers and farm machinery in the rebel-held region, which no longer trades with the remainder of the country and so is largely dependent on Russian aid.

Utrimenko said his farm was handed 40 tonnes of fertiliser by Russia, but needed four times that much. And in Dmitrivka, just three kilometres from the Russian border, a score of combine harvesters and other machinery were destroyed when a shed was hit by shells.

"Luckily I'd kept other pieces of equipment scattered in town," Utrimenko said.

But others were not so lucky. In the small village of Petropavlivka some 40 kilometres (25 miles) away, one of its approximately 1,000 residents, 68-year-old Lida Antonova, said "all of our farm machinery was burnt, tractors, combines, the whole lot."

Garmers repair their tractor in a field near the village of Dmitrivka  eastern Ukraine
Garmers repair their tractor in a field near the village of Dmitrivka, eastern Ukraine
Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP

Precious sunflower crops dried up on the spot failing the harvest and war has left the fields dotted with craters from falling shells. Antonova was there searching for corn-cobs to feed her five hens "My field caught fire, there's practically nothing left," she said.

The hens are all she has left, says Antonova, who hasn't been paid her pension in 10 months and has only received food aid on a couple of occasions. "I've finished all my supplies and sometimes sell a few potatoes from the garden to buy oil."

"There are some days when I eat practically nothing," she added.

Her window-panes were smashed in the fighting, leaving the house chilly. "We sleep with our clothes on, with two or three layers of clothing."

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