Soldiers prepare to clear an anti tank mine by using rope to remove the detonator during a mine clearance training exercise on July 11 2023, in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine; Unexploded munition collected by de-mining unit of National Guards of Ukraine before they will be destroyed seen in near Kherson.
Ed Ram/For The Washington Post/Getty Images; Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images
Ukraine is now believed to be one of the most mined country in the world since the Russia invasion.It could takes years to clear the minefields, allowing them to get more buried under dirt and snow.The demand for prosthetics and therapy could also overwhelm Ukraine long after the fighting stops.
Russia’s prolific use of land mines has indiscriminately maimed Ukrainians and hamstrung Western tanks, but the challenges posed by the minefields won’t end once the war does.
“I highly doubt the Russians will ever tell the rest of the world where all the mines were laid,” Dr. Aaron Epstein, a former defense contractor and doctor with expertise in military medicine, told Insider. “It’s going to be a really unfortunate, nasty discovery process.”
An organization Epstein founded, the Global Surgical and Medical Support Group, sent physicians to Ukraine last year to train military medics, physicians, surgeons, and even civilians on how to treat combat injuries. GSMSG ran combat casualty care courses out of gymnasiums and schools for a hundred people at a time and gave Ukrainian surgeons with other specializations crash courses in how to be trauma surgeons.
Some of the worst injuries coming out of the war have been amputations, many caused by the countless land mines Russia placed across broad swaths of Ukraine. Ukraine is now one of the most mined countries in the world, with an area roughly the size of Florida littered with the weapons, according to The Washington Post, which cited data from the Ukrainian government and from an independent organization. The minefields have posed issues for the much-anticipated counteroffensive that Ukraine launched in June. Western tanks have struggled to advance through them, with some getting so badly damaged that Ukrainian soldiers were abandoning them and proceeding on foot, according to a top Ukrainian general.
“What Russia did throughout the war was just scatter these things everywhere,” Epstein said, adding Russia has tiny mines purposefully made to look like leaves that can barely even be spotted on the ground. “You step on it, it kind of blows your foot off and it doesn’t kill you, but it maims you.”
The use of anti-personnel land mines in war was banned by the 1997 Mine Ban Convention. Despite having signed the treaty, Ukraine has been accused by Human Rights Watch of using banned “butterfly” mines against Russia. Russia, on the other hand, has never signed on to the treaty, nor has the US.
Even if the war ended tomorrow, it would take years of tedious, dangerous work to clear the minefields, but the longer it drags on, the worse the situation gets. Epstein said that the mines are only going to get more and more buried under dirt and snow.
“Even if a city is liberated, it will take a very long time to just make it so it’s really safe to live there,” he said. For all the towns, fields, and farmlands where mines have potentially been laid, he said there will also be a difficult question to answer: “How deep do we need to scrape the surface of the Earth to really make these places safe to live?”
It could be several years before the mine-clearing operations make it safe in some areas of Ukraine. At that point, even scraping away the top three feet of dirt might not be enough to feel safe, he said. What if the mines are now buried six feet underground? Or eight?
Serhii, a Ukrainian soldier who lost a leg from a land mine while fighting in Ukraine, is assisted by Rebecca Gonzalez at the physical therapy department at Staten Island University Hospital on July 21, 2023 in New York City. The soldier, who is preparing to return to the war against Russia, was brought to New York through a program with the non-profit Kind Deeds.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The other long-term issue mines pose for Ukraine is the care that’s going to be required for those who have been injured. Between 20,000 to 50,000 Ukrainians are estimated to have had an amputation since Russia invaded, reaching levels not seen since World War I, according to The Wall Street Journal. While Epstein said Ukraine has a good medical system, the demand for care will likely be overwhelming.
“The prosthetics and the prosthetic therapy services that are going to be required for this population are going to be something on the scale that the US military has for all of the veteran populations,” Epstein said, noting the US dwarves Ukraine in population size and GDP. Ukraine might simply not have enough resources for everyone who needs it.
There are also the psychological services and therapy that many Ukrainians will need, even those who have not been physically injured, after living under the fear of Russian artillery fire and trying to dodge mines placed in everyday items like toys and refrigerators.
Tanisha Fazal, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies medical care in war, told Insider that war-induced psychological trauma is a hidden cost of war that often gets overlooked. The issue has been compounded in recent decades because advancements in medical care mean people are “surviving injuries they would not have survived in the past,” she said.
Right now Ukrainians are, understandably, focused on the present, or winning the war and treating the wounded, but injuries like amputations are going to be a “long term-cost of war for the Ukrainians.”
“This is something that’s going to have to be part of rebuilding in Ukraine, dealing with veterans but also I think probably civilians with serious wartime injuries, both physical and mental,” she said.
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