BY SERHIY MELNYK ON 08 APR 2015
It is something I could not have imagined a year ago, but going to the conflict-affected territories of eastern Ukraine has become a regular part of my job. Recently I returned from one such mission, to Donetsk region. I believe the memories from the road will stay in my mind forever.
We set off for Donetsk on a Sunday morning. Our mission was driving in a convoy of UN armored vehicles. We passed the checkpoints fast, and as we were driving, I was told that we were heading to Debaltseve. When I heard it, the level of adrenaline in my blood rose significantly.
On that day, I saw things which are rarely seen by people living on the government-controlled side. We arrived at the village of Nikishine, which was a defense point for the government forces in the fight for Debaltseve. At first, it seemed as if we had come to the Chernobyl exclusion zone – there were no people, no animals in the streets, no birds singing. No house had been left undamaged.
We stopped in the center of the village, and people started coming out of buildings. Some of them were with children. They approached us, asking: ‘How will you help us?’ I thought, anything would help these people. Their homes had been turned into ruins, their personal belongings, clothes, and food – it was all covered with rubble. Many families had lost, literally, everything they had.
After leaving Nikishine, we stopped for a while and colleagues explained why this village had been so heavily damaged. At both ends of the village were the remains of the checkpoints of the two opposing forces, with spent ammunition scattered all around.
Our convoy continued, and soon Nikishine was far behind. But my thoughts were still wandering through the empty streets of the destroyed village. Suddenly I heard a voice with a slight accent on the radio: ‘Guys, there are bricks on the road. You need to avoid them.’ It was a colleague, who was driving the first car in the convoy. He had visited the area before, and locals knew him.
Bricks are piled to mark landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO). We were on a four kilometer stretch of rural road, all covered with brick piles, and carved up from explosives and tank belts.
I felt as if there was too much adrenaline, more than my body could contain, and it went out and surrounded the entire car.
Mines and UXO are not only on the roads. They can be found anywhere – on farmland, in towns and suburbs – where active fighting has taken place. The explosives are particularly dangerous to children, who often do not understand the risk they pose. At least 109 children have been injured and 42 killed by landmines and UXO in Donetsk and Luhansk regions since the conflict began.
When displaced families return home, this is what they face. The State Emergency Service is clearing explosives from the battlefields – more than 33,000 so far – but the risk remains. This is why UNICEF is now conducting a mine-risk campaign that will educate half a million children and their families about mines and UXO.
On that rural road, the wheels of our vehicle avoided at least twenty mines and UXO. The fields were full of shell craters and pits on both sides of the road. We could tell, from the way the shells had hit the ground, that the area had been under blanket fire.
The biggest danger was behind us by the time we arrived in Debaltseve. UNICEF and UNHCR were the first UN agencies to come here since the fighting in January and February.
Again, we entered a town that was devastated and seemed deserted. On our way to the town center, we saw no more than five people in the streets…our mission continued.
Serhiy Melnyk, Driver at UNICEF Ukraine (Kyiv office)