Ukraine's farmers risk death in bomb-strewn fields

Joshua Melvin, Agence France-Presse

Posted at May 06 2022 07:48 AM

A farmer and a member of a demining team of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine carry an unexploded missile remaining near the village of Hryhorivka, Zaporizhzhia Region, on May 5, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It's planting season in Ukraine and in addition to a spiking need for fuel and fertilizer, demining teams are flooded with calls to destroy the unexploded missiles or mines in fields, which in some places have wounded or killed farmers. Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP
A farmer and a member of a demining team of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine carry an unexploded missile remaining near the village of Hryhorivka, Zaporizhzhia Region, on May 5, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It's planting season in Ukraine and in addition to a spiking need for fuel and fertilizer, demining teams are flooded with calls to destroy the unexploded missiles or mines in fields, which in some places have wounded or killed farmers. Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP

Grygorivka, Ukraine - It's spring planting season in Ukraine, but this year farmers require more than fuel and fertilizer –- they also need flak jackets and deminers to destroy the bombs that have already killed or maimed others in their fields.

One of the unexploded rockets lay on an island of undisturbed black soil in Igor Tsiapa's field in the nation's southwest and posed a deadly threat to getting his corn crop planted on land that was otherwise ploughed and waiting.

"We first spotted the projectile a week and a half ago but just didn't touch this part of the field and continued on getting ready for planting," he told AFP on Thursday, a few meters from the deminers prepping the device for destruction.

"Everything has to be done on schedule if you want to have a more or less proper harvest... We had to keep working," the nearly 60-year-old added in the area of the village of Grygorivka.

Farmers in Ukraine have found themselves on the front line of a Russian invasion that has tainted swathes of the country with undetonated mines, shells and rockets.

That's because they face a unique risk of setting off one of the devices while working the soil, one more piece of worrying news for next year's harvest in Europe's breadbasket.

Police said the latest injury was in the Kyiv area where a farmer in the village of Gogoliv hit a mine on his tractor while in the fields on Wednesday.

Maria Kolesnyk, with analytics firm ProAgro Group, told AFP that about 20 incidents had been recorded of farmers being struck by accidental explosions of war ordnance, but it wasn't clear how many instances were fatal.

"In the agro community today the most sought-after profession is the sappers," she said. "We desperately need the help of the international community because Ukrainian professionals are working 24/7."

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IMPROVISED BOMB MARKERS

A booby trap found by locals near their home in Zalissya village not far from Brovary, Kyiv's area, Ukraine, 12 April 2022. Some cities and villages had recently been recaptured by the Ukrainian army from Russian forces and now people try to restore normal life there. Russian troops entered Ukraine on 24 February resulting in fighting and destruction in the country and triggering a series of severe economic sanctions on Russia by Western countries. EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
A booby trap found by locals near their home in Zalissya village not far from Brovary, Kyiv's area, Ukraine, 12 April 2022. Some cities and villages had recently been recaptured by the Ukrainian army from Russian forces and now people try to restore normal life there. Russian troops entered Ukraine on 24 February resulting in fighting and destruction in the country and triggering a series of severe economic sanctions on Russia by Western countries. EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

In Tsiapa's field the rocket was left where it landed, and the blue-helmeted sappers placed orange fist-sized blocks of explosives along its explosive payload before shoveling a mound of dirt over it.

"Every day since the start of the war we have been finding and destroying unexploded ammunition," Dmytro Polishchuk, one of the deminers, told AFP before heading into the field.

"After farmers began working in the fields, we started getting regular calls from people alerting us to new devices," he said, noting the team destroyed up to three per day.

He added people have not always waited for overstretched demining crews to arrive, noting some farmers have marked the explosives with sticks bearing plastic bottles or bags as warning and went on ploughing.

Leaving the unexploded missiles untouched is not a guarantee that they won't explode, Polishchuk said, noting some have a self-destruct setting where they can go off at any time.

For Tsiapa, farmers in areas that haven't been occupied have to pick up some of the slack, despite the risks, for places where planting could be disrupted by Russia's invasion.

"So we here have double responsibility and double pressure to grow a good harvest. Things are that way because we don't have active combat here, so we can work," he added.

Ukraine is the world's top producer of sunflower oil and a major exporter of wheat, yet the war's disruption of labour and displacement of farmers from their land as well as fuel shortages have all raised worries.

Before the war, Ukraine was the world's fourth largest exporter of corn and was set to become the third biggest exporter of wheat after Russia and the United States.

Russia and Ukraine alone account for 30 percent of global wheat exports.

In Tsiapa's field, the deminers' work came to an abrupt end with a controlled blast that sent up a puff of black smoke and thudded through the valley, where spring weather has begun to turn trees and grass back to green.

When the blast was over with, Tsiapa hopped into his red van and drove off. He had to get back to work.

jm/md/raz

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