Clearing Ukraine of unexploded ordnance – why it will take more than a lifetime.

06 September 2023
On Ukraine Independence Day, 24th August, we were privileged to listen to Uliana Yurenko, head technical translator at MAT Kosovo, share her experience of life in Ukraine and her experience of helping to deliver explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) training to Ukrainian nationals, many of whom have been women.

Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Jersey Overseas Aid has pledged £262,000 to charity, Friends of Ukraine – EOD, to fund explosive ordnance disposal training for Ukrainian nationals – critical training that Uliana helps to deliver. To date, Jersey’s funding has enabled in excess of 100 courses to be delivered to Ukrainian nationals who are now redeployed in country, delivering humanitarian mine action – a critical task that will help to make Ukraine safe for future generations.

Friends of Ukraine-EOD has partnered with MAT Kosovo, a world-renowned explosive ordnance disposal training team to deliver this training to Ukrainian nationals.  Since the conflict began, devastatingly more than 1,000 Ukrainian mine clearance operators have been killed, and increasing capacity in this area is an absolute priority. With almost 60% of Russian ordnance that is dropped in Ukraine not exploding, (the average is usually 15% - the high rate is due to the age of the devices and how they have been stored) this means Ukraine is one of the most heavily contaminated countries in the world.

Uliana shared her thoughts with us.

What do you do?

I am part of the team at MAT Kosovo delivering EOD training. I am responsible not only for translating the training materials into Ukrainian but I’m also the primary point of contact for new recruits, before, during and after their training. I manage a team of three interpreters. I am also a level 3 trained EOD operator myself, so can provide advice to trainees.

What made you decide to take on this critical role?

I had been working in military interpretation since 2018.  I worked with the Canadian Military before being appointed as the advisor to the Commander of the Canadian Military Training Mission in Ukraine.  Early 2022 I undertook a voluntary placement at MAT Kosovo before accepting the role full time. My desire to move into the field was fuelled by a need to use my skills to defend my country – something all responsible Ukrainians have been doing. Before all of this I worked in marketing for a high performance car dealership in India!

Who have you trained?

Our first courses were made up primarily of women – the first course was eight Ukrainian women who we now refer to as the ‘Great Eight’. The Great Eight are all in Ukraine using the skills they learnt on our course, and almost all of them have been back to us since in order to qualify to a higher level of competency. Our trainees come from all walks of life – we’ve had a midwife, members of the emergency services, the National Guard, we even had a surfing instructor come back to Ukraine to undertake the training so that they could help their country.  As I said earlier, all responsible Ukrainians are doing their bit to defend their country and to make it a safer place in the future.

Was training women in EOD a big step for Ukraine?

Yes, it was. Before 2022 no women had ever been trained in EOD – the culture was very much the men defend the women of the country. When we first asked for trainees, the Ukrainian Government decree, that stated that men of fighting age could not leave the country, meant we could only take women to Kosovo – and so the Great Eight came to be!  Now women are very much part of the framework; the pressure and the need to add capacity has seen women become an integral part of the EOD community.

And are women good at the job?

They are exceptionally good. Our male counterparts are extremely competent but women approach EOD in a slightly different way. In my experience men tend to walk straight to the device and consider how to dispose of it. They are also motivated by peer pressure a little more, so if disposing of a device is above their competence level, rather than taking a step back and saying they need advice or support, they often attempt it.  Women on the other hand look at the bigger picture – they ask if there may be a school nearby or shops and assess whether it is the right approach to dispose of the device at that time. They also ask for help more readily.

What are the risks involved in this work?

If an EOD operator follows the processes exactly, the risk is minimised. The biggest risk is complacency or an operator trying to operate above their level of competency. Asking for help and advice is key – all of our trainees have access to trainers and message groups where they can ask advice, share experiences and updates on new devices. This is invaluable. As the war progresses, devices also become more sophisticated so techniques for disposing of these are being developed and learning shared. The standards that MAT Kosovo train too – International Mine Action Standards – means the Ukrainian EOD operators we train are well equipped and very competent.

What is the need? How long will it take to clear?

No one can say with any certainty how much unexploded ordnance there is Ukraine, but we do know every day that the war rages on there are thousands of devices dropped. It’s estimated that for every day’s worth of ordnance dropped, it will take 30 days to clear it – that means if the war ended tomorrow it would take at least 50 years to clear Ukraine. I probably won’t be alive to see Ukraine free of unexploded ordnance and its likely my future children won’t either.  There will be devices to dispose of for generations.

How has the war changed your life?

The implications for me and my fellow Ukrainians is massive. I moved to a suburb of Kyiv just before the invasion – I thought this was to be my home long term – I still find it tough to think back to those days. I lost the job I love and the life I had. Now, I live away from my partner and my family, so many families in Ukraine are separated – divorce rates have gone up significantly. We have friends who have moved back to Ukraine but have not been able to bring the children of the family back as it is not safe. Even in those areas that have been liberated, there is a huge risk as swathes of land have not been cleared. How could you tell your young children to play in this space and not go any further? How could you know they wouldn’t pick up something shiny they find in the woods?  The area I always imagined bringing up a family in is out of my reach now – it won’t be safe enough in my lifetime. It is the same for everyone – we are focused on defending our country and our duties come first.

What are your hopes for the future?

I think Ukraine could become a Centre of Excellence for EOD – we will be pioneering new techniques that speed up the task of disposal.  We will have highly skilled operators who can share their learning with other countries around the world that are blighted by unexploded ordnance. That is my hope.