Discover more from Passport Stamps
Ukraine's Explosive Future
Long after the war ends, Ukrainians will be at risk from the remnants of the conflict
A quick PR note: I will be on NPR 1A July 25 (Tuesday) at 10 a.m. EDT discussing my book Passport Stamps: Searching the World for a War to Call Home.
As The Washington Post reports, Russia is continuing to pound Ukraine with missiles, causing civilian casualties and destroying historic and cultural sites. Russia has been shelling Odessa for days in response to Ukraine damaging the bridge between Russian annexed Crimea and Russia.
And there’s another Washington Post report this weekend that discusses an unfortunate side effect of war, and something that I saw the impacts of in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and South Sudan: unexploded ordnance and explosive remnants of war.
Unexploded ordnance, or UXO, is pretty much what it sounds like: grenades, bombs, mortars, or other munitions that did not detonate when initially fired or deployed but still could. Explosive remnants of war, or ERW, includes UXO and live munitions left behind in a war zone.
And neither of those categories includes mines or improvised explosive devices, which Russia has employed on a large scale in Ukraine, and Ukraine has employed to a lesser extent.
Thanks to Vladimir Putin, Ukraine is now the world’s most explosives-contaminated country. A recent report from the European think tank GLOBSEC lays out the extent of the danger in Ukraine.
About 30% of Ukraine’s territory (174 000 sq.km) has been exposed to intense combat operations. This area requires survey and clearance from the vast amounts of explosive ordnance left by the invaders. Ukraine is consequently the largest mined territory in the world surpassing such former frontrunners as Afghanistan and Syria.
Efforts to demine Ukraine and clear all the various explosives from the ground will take decades and cost $37 billion just over the next 10 years, according to the World Bank as cited in the GLOBSEC report.
Of course, the problem in Ukraine did not start in February 2022. Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea created a severe crisis. According to the report, this was the situation prior to the 2022 war:
The UN ranked the East of the country to be one of the most mine-contaminated regions in the world and ranked Ukraine fifth in the world for civilian casualties caused by mines and among the top three for anti-vehicle mine incidents.
Of course, the worst thing about the pre-Feb 2022 demining was that all those efforts comprising over 7 years of work have been wasted as this territory has been re-contaminated after the advance of Russian armed forces in the area since February 2022.
And the situation has only become more dangerous and difficult, the report states:
Also, the nature of challenges in demining is different to the pre-Feb 2022 situation for the following reasons:-(1) much heavier and longer fighting; (2) the range and dispersal of the explosive ordnance is much greater7; (3) the size of potentially contaminated territories is 10 times larger.
According to a recent Washington Post report, “Between the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 and July 2023, the United Nations has recorded 298 civilian deaths from explosive remnants of war, 22 of them children, and 632 civilian injuries.”
The problem will only grow as the fighting drags on and Russia continues its indiscriminate shelling. And now Ukraine is compounding the problem as it employs cluster munitions, which are notorious for littering the ground with dud bomblets. While the percentage of duds is small—ideally less than 2 percent—the number of pieces of UXO adds up in real terms as more cluster munitions are deployed.
The human cost of this problem will only continue to add up. Most of the casualties in Ukraine today are caused by active conflict and a small percentage are caused by ERW or mines. But based on the experiences of places like Afghanistan, the casualties from ERW will continue for years.
I saw the consequences constantly in my time in Afghanistan. During one of my first embeds in 2009, I was at Combat Outpost Herrera in Paktiya province not too far from the border with Pakistan. Here’s a deleted snippet from an early draft of my book.
As I was sitting on the steps to a lookout post on the corner of the base typing away, a sergeant came around one of the buildings and yelled, “Hey reporter!” He told me that the Afghan Border Police had just arrived with a truck full of weaponry they had found.
I grabbed my gear and ran over to see a green Toyota pickup truck with a pile of rusty, dirt-covered mortars in the back. Soldiers laid out a tarp and placed the 49 mortars on the tarp. The U.S. soldiers were claiming it was a sign of progress that the Afghan soldiers brought them to the Americans to dispose of rather than try to use them or discard them in a way that could be dangerous for the locals or even fall into the wrong hands.
The soldiers said the mortars had likely been in the ground since the late ‘80s, but they were still dangerous and were an example of how much stuff was lying in the ground all over the country.
There were several nearby explosions during the few days I spent at that base. While at least one was determined to be a rocket or mortar fired at the base, soldiers speculated that others could have been Afghans stepping on or otherwise accidentally detonating ERW.
In July 2012, I reported a story about the ongoing challenges of demining Afghanistan. I visited a family of Kuchis—Afghan nomads—that had experienced several tragedies near a NATO firing range that had originally been a Soviet range. It was obviously littered with UXO, and the Kuchis grazed their animals near the range and some collected scrap metal to sell.
Numerous Kuchis were maimed or killed by UXO there. That was an example of one of the challenges in the country, according to demining experts. Many Afghans were so poor they knowingly took risks by walking around contaminated areas.
Here’s an excerpt from my book talking about that story:
I interviewed a father and son, both of whom had been maimed by explosives in the range. The main problem was that the area was not completely fenced off and not well marked. People would graze their animals, as the father had done, and cross into the range. The father lost his leg when he stepped on a mine.
Months after that, the 16-year-old son was roaming around the area picking up scrap metal to sell. He picked up a grenade that blew off both of his arms.
I could understand the injury to the father, but I was baffled by what happened to the son. I asked the son, “Your father lost his leg and another relative was killed in the range, why were you in an area that had explosives and why did you pick up a strange piece of metal? Didn’t you think it was too dangerous?”
His response was worded in a specific way that gave me my introduction to Afghan empirical logic. He said, “If I had known it was going to blow my arms off, I would not have touched it for a million dollars.”
I sat there as the response sank in. I asked the question again in a slightly different way. I was trying to tease out why the injuries and deaths to his family didn’t make him think twice and not pick up strange things in a firing range. But he answered the same way. What he was saying was that if he had known the specific object he picked up was going to maim him, he would not have picked up that specific item. However, the broader danger did not register to him that anything in the area was potentially dangerous, and he shouldn’t touch anything metallic, and frankly should not have been there to begin with.
What was even more shocking to me was the fact that the father said that after the he lost his leg, he did not warn his son to avoid the area or to be careful. That interview was a microcosm of how profound the challenge of demining Afghanistan and protecting civilians was.
Demining experts told me a big part of the problem was raising awareness and teaching Afghans about the dangers. Then, there was the gap between the need for demining and the available resources—trained personnel, equipment, money—which was enormous and a decades-long challenge under the best conditions.
In 2013, I reported a story about the lack of resources for Afghans who had lost limbs or suffered other injuries from conflict and ERW. A metaphor for the problem was that one of the civil society organizations that helped disabled Afghans was on the second floor of a building complex and to get to the office you had to climb an unsteady, open-rise metal staircase that was challenging enough for people who were not on crutches or missing limbs.
A Red Cross facility in Kabul was fabricating 2,000 prosthetic limbs a year, which was a small portion of the need. While many of the patients had been injured in combat with the Soviets and needed new prosthetics, the Red Cross was frequently seeing new patients who had been injured by ERW. Of course, they were only seeing those who had survived their encounters.
A November 2021 report “30 Years of Impact: An Evaluation of the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan” said that as of August 2021, the program “had cleared over 81% of land known to be contaminated by legacy landmines and explosive remnants of war in the country,” which was the good news. The next paragraph contained the cautionary news:
In 2021, MAPA finds itself at a critical juncture. It is not on track to meet the targets committed to as part of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention obligations. Funding for the mine action sector in Afghanistan has been decreasing steadily since 2011, dropping from $113 million to $32 million by 2020. The emergence of new threats, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), requires constant capacity building in a sector that is always at risk of brain drain. Finally, the takeover of the Taliban in the summer of 2021 threatens funding streams, as many donors are reluctant to engage with the new regime, whether directly or indirectly - even as it simultaneously opens a window of opportunity in terms of access to previously inaccessible areas, and more secure operating conditions.
And as bad as the problem is now in Ukraine, it will only get worse as Putin continues his devastating folly.