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In Ukraine, women take over mine clearance

Tetiana Chpak, a bomb disposal expert, crouches in a field in southern Ukraine that, despite its poppies and its bucolic air, is full of explosives.

A few years ago, this situation would have been impossible. Her profession, considered too dangerous, was prohibited for women until 2018.

“I would not have thought that my path would take me there”, admits moreover , behind a thick protective mask, the 51-year-old former mathematics teacher.

The Russian invasion, in February 2022, turned everything upside down. After helping to build fortifications to repel soldiers from Moscow, and losing her father in a bombing, Tetiana Chpak says she needed to “make herself useful”.

Like her, more and more women are getting involved in demining, where they now represent 30% of the workforce, according to the government.

The dynamic is similar for other professions traditionally associated with men, the male workforce having been dried up by military mobilization and emigration.

The authorities, who know their lands littered with explosives, hope to attract even more deminers.

In Ukraine, women take over mine clearance

A deminer for the Halo Trust organization, in a field near the village of Snigourivka, in the Mykolaiv region, June 4, 2024 in Ukraine © AFP – Genya SAVILOV

“At first my family was against it,” says Tetiana Chpak, who has been working for the Halo Trust organization in Snigourivka, Mykolaiv region, for a year. Her teenage daughter, in particular, was “worried”, she says with a touched air.

The bomb disposal expert, however, assures that her work is safe. She spots the mines, but other services detonate them.

She ended up convincing her daughter, who today says “she wants to try something similar when she grows up”, she laughs.

Tetiana Chpak is reluctant to see herself as an example, but would like “more women to do this kind of work”.

– Mom “shocked” –

“Girls are more attentive, careful”, assures Valeria Ponomareva who, at 23, already leads a team of deminers.

In Ukraine, women take over mine clearance

Valeria Ponomareva, deminer for the Halo Trust organization, in a field near the village of Snigourivka, in the Mykolaiv region, June 4, 2024 in Ukraine © AFP – Genya SAVILOV

This former hairdresser has no regrets about her professional reconversion, however “radical”.

“Mom was shocked”, she told AFP.

Among the deminers also find a former ballerina, a chemist who worked in the production of sparkling wine or even a dentist, according to Halo Trust.

Valeria Ponomareva comes from the Donetsk region, one of the most mined in the country. The war has been raging there since 2014, at the time against pro-Russian separatists.

Snigourivka, where she now works, was occupied by the Russian army, and therefore mine.

In Ukraine, women take over mine clearance

Valeria Ponomareva, deminer for the Halo Trust organization, in a field near the village of Snigourivka, in the Mykolaiv region, June 4, 2024 in Ukraine © AFP – Genya SAVILOV

Elsewhere, Ukrainian troops have also sown them in their path.

In total, nearly a quarter of Ukrainian territory could be polluted by explosive devices, which have killed more than 270 people since 2022, according to the authorities.

Valeria Ponomareva therefore knows to what extent her work is “necessary” for “the prosperity of Ukraine “.

– Titanic task –

But the conditions are not easy. You have to be methodical, patient, and ready to work outside whatever the weather.

In Ukraine, women take over mine clearance

A deminer from the Halo Trust organization works in a field near the village of Snigourivka, Mykolaiv region, June 4, 2024 in Ukraine © AFP – Genya SAVILOV

On this Tuesday in early June, the mercury happily exceeds 30 degrees.

Some recruits “work one or two days, realize that this is not “is not for them and leave”, relates Oleksandre Ponomarenko, who supervises the teams and admits that recruitment is not easy.

Women currently make up a little less than half of his troops, according to the manager, who hopes that this proportion will increase.

Some are married to soldiers and “they too would like to serve, but understand that this work is safer,” he said, not far from an anti-tank mine discovered by his employees.

In Ukraine, women take over mine clearance

A deminer from the Halo Trust organization in a field near the village of Snigourivka, in the Mykolaiv region, June 4, 2024 in Ukraine © AFP – Genya SAVILOV

Their task seems titanic. A group of 7 people can demine 80 to 100 square meters per day.

Just this Snigourivka field, approximately 35,000 square meters large, will require another year of work, estimates Oleksandr Ponomarenko, Ukrainian flag stuck on his protective vest.

By all accounts, demining Ukraine should take decades. Especially since, as the conflict continues, the lands already purged could be contaminated again.

– “Observers” –

A few kilometers away, in the village of Vassylivka, an agricultural field was recently cleared by the team.

In Ukraine, women take over mine clearance

Mykola Murai, a farmer whose field was cleared by the team of the Halo Trust organization, examines his wheat near the village of Vasylivka, Mykolaiv region, June 4, 2024 in Ukraine © AFP – Genya SAVILOV

Mykola Mouraï, the farmer who owns it, does not hide his relief. “Everything was covered in mines,” recalls this sixty-year-old, who says that this caused him to lose a lot of money.

He admits to having been “surprised” to see this work carried out by women, whom he had initially taken for “curious observers”.

Now, “I even think that they work better than men “, he said.

In Ukraine, women take over mine clearance

Iryna Nomerovska, head of a team examining land for the Halo Trust organization, in a field near the village of Vassylivka, Mykolaiv region, June 4, 2024 in Ukraine © AFP – Genya SAVILOV

“People don't really accept that young women work in mine clearance. They think it's a bit weird,” says Iryna Nomerovska, head of a team responsible for examining the land .

This trained economist, who chose this path after living under Russian occupation at the start of the conflict, nevertheless says she is “very proud”.< /p>

And above all, she asks, “who else can do it besides us?”.

All rights of reproduction and representation reserved. © (2024) Agence France-Presse

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116