KYIV -- A Ukrainian mine-sniffing dog has become a symbol of Ukraine's resistance to Russia -- and a stark reminder of the deadly risk posed by such mines.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at a ceremony in Kyiv on Sunday (May 8) presented Patron, a Jack Russell terrier, with an award after he helped sappers detect more than 200 explosives since the start of the Russian invasion.
"I want to award those Ukrainian heroes who are already clearing our land of mines," Zelenskyy said, as quoted by the BBC.
"And together with our heroes -- a wonderful little sapper Patron who helps not only to neutralise explosives, but also to teach our children the necessary safety rules in areas where there is a mine threat," he said.
Even before Russia's February 24 invasion, Ukraine was considered one of the most mine-infested countries in the world because of land mine contamination in eastern Ukraine, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"Ukraine ranks fourth in the world for the greatest number of casualties from mines and ERW [explosive remnants of war] and third for anti-vehicle landmine accidents," it said in a statement April 4.
"Approximately 2 million people in eastern Ukraine were already at risk of injury or death from landmine exposure before the invasion but as the crisis in Ukraine continues to evolve, many more across the country will be threatened by landmines and explosive remnants of war," it said.
Leaving behind a trail of dire threats to the public's life and limb is an old practice of the Kremlin. It did the same in Central Asia, though its departure was nonviolent when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
In Kazakhstan, Moscow did nothing to address the high incidence of cancer and birth defects around the former Semipalatinsk (Semey) nuclear-bomb testing site, where it exploded more than 400 bombs between 1949 and 1989.
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, in the absence of Russian help, have received aid from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in cleaning up abandoned Soviet-era uranium mines.
'This is our reality now'
Russian forces that occupied the area north of Kyiv before retreating in April left behind countless unexploded munitions, mines and booby traps.
Hardly a day passes in Ukraine without news of casualties.
Artem Vakalyuk, a screenwriter from Kyiv, found out from Facebook that his father was one such victim.
Vakalyuk on April 28 saw a post on Facebook reporting that a land mine had hit a crew of electricians who were driving to repair a high-voltage power transmission line near Makariv, Kyiv province.
Upon closer inspection, he realised the destroyed vehicle in the photos was his father's.
"The right wheel of the vehicle drove over the mine. The crew foreman died at the scene," he said.
"The driver was thrown from the cab to the ground. He hit his head hard but survived. My father, who was sitting between them, was thrown in the cab and passed out."
"He has serious burns, both legs were fractured, and the doctors are going to put plates in ... but he's alive, and that's the most important thing," Vakalyuk said.
The incident took place on a stretch of road that had supposedly been cleared of mines, the State Emergency Service told Vakalyuk.
"But the mine the Russians left turned out to be an antitank mine, and detectors didn't react to it because the Russians had buried it deeply -- it was 60cm down and covered with plastic," Vakalyuk said. "But the utility vehicle is heavy, like a tank, so the charge was activated."
This is the fourth crew of electricians in the past month to be blown up by a Russian mine, according to Vakalyuk, who said his father is sharing a hospital room with another electrician whose story is identical.
"This is our reality now. There are appalling incidents every day," said Tymur Pistriuha, executive director of the Ukrainian Deminers Association.
Mines deliberately laid by Russian troops and unexploded ordnance are both threats, he said.
The most dangerous mine is the POM-3 -- a Russian antipersonnel mine that can be activated remotely and is equipped with a seismic sensor to detect an approaching person and eject an explosive charge into the air, he said.
Russian soldiers are laying them all along the front, and they are especially abundant near Kharkiv, he added.
"Another major problem is shells that do not detonate," Pistriuha said. "Statistics show that in eastern Ukraine, the Russians are often using old, expired weapons. They should be scrapped, but instead the Russians are shelling our country with them."
"Half of their shells fail to detonate ... and present a huge threat, especially for farmers," Pistriuha said.
The mines laid by Russian forces are meant to kill civilians, which is prohibited by all international conventions, said Pavel, a mine-clearing instructor who asked that his last name not be published.
Pavel, who works with Come Back Alive, a Ukrainian NGO that provides specialised assistance to the nation's army, is helping to clear mined areas in Kyiv province.
"The Russian soldiers purposefully want to kill the civilian population," he said. "The Ottawa Treaty -- the convention on the prohibition of anti-personnel mines -- has been signed by 133 states, including Ukraine."
Russia, which has not joined the convention, "is simply ignoring everything", he said. "And it's impossible to punish Russia appropriately."
Pavel said he has been shocked by the Russians' cunning and brutality.
In one incident, he said he found a grenade hidden under a pillow placed on the driver's seat of a van.
"The occupiers had pressed the catch down with the pillow. If someone had moved it, it would have activated."
At a private house in Hostomel, retreating Russian forces also hid a grenade under a can in the basement, he added.
"And then how many times have I gone out to examine soldiers' corpses? The Russian soldiers have left grenades and mines under dead soldiers' bullet-proof vests," he said.
Years of clearing mines
Both Pavel and Patron are now part of a large-scale mine-clearing effort expected to last years.
"Ukrainian explosive technicians have already cleared more than 16,000 hectares of Ukrainian land. More than 90,000 potentially explosive objects have been uncovered and disarmed," Deputy Interior Minister Meri Akopyan said May 3 during a meeting in Ukraine with a delegation from the UN Mine Action Service, according to an Interior Ministry (MVD) statement.
However, some 300,000 sq. km are still contaminated, she said, adding that Ukraine needs experienced specialists who have previously worked in Somalia, Syria and Iraq.
"We'll need massive technical and expert assistance for many years to come," Akopyan said.
"One year of war translates to 10 years of mine clearing," said Pistriuha of the Ukrainian Deminers Association.
"There are two important factors: the government's system for mine clearance and the funding," he said. "Regarding funding, no country's budget can cover it. It comes only from international donors."
It costs between $3 and $4 to de-mine 1 sq. km in Ukraine, and it will be hard to do that without support from international partners, he said.