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Ukraine's civilians losing life and limb in landmine crisis: "It's a real horror"

Deadly landmines plague Ukraine
Deadly landmines plague Ukraine after Russia’s invasion | 60 Minutes 13:12

A Ukrainian man thought he'd cleared his garden after he and his wife found a dozen landmines. He was wrong. 

There was a 13th landmine in Ihor Bogoraz's garden at his summer home on the outskirts of Izium, one of the millions of landmines spread across Ukraine. 

"I stepped on it and it exploded instantly," he said in Ukrainian. "And that's it — no leg."

Since our visit, he's received a prosthesis. His son is serving in the Ukrainian army. Bogoraz, a 61 year-old retired glassmaker, is one of more than 1,000 civilians wounded by mines in Ukraine, according to Ukrainian authorities. A massive effort is underway to find and remove the deadly weapons, but it will take a generation or more to be rid of them.

The victims of landmines in Ukraine 

Serhii Nikolaiv was walking in leaves from the autumn while uncovering grapevines for the spring when he triggered a mine. If it had been green, he said he would have noticed it, but the mine was brown and blended in with the leaves. 

"I stepped on it and I knew right away," Nikolaiv said in Ukrainian.

Tragedy struck twice for Serhii Nikolaiv.  His sister-in-law stepped on a mine in front of her children and was killed. 

"Even now, someone could drop a fork or a spoon and it makes a loud noise. And in your soul, you feel pain, and bitterness, and fear. It's a real horror," he said. 

Another victim, 70-year-old widow Lidia Borova, was out picking mushrooms in the forest when she came across a mine.

Lidia Borova
Lidia Borova 60 Minutes

"I turned by the tree and then there was an explosion," she said in Ukrainian. "I looked [down] at myself and I was bleeding, my arm was injured, my leg was injured. I was losing strength."

Her right foot and ankle were ripped away.

"I didn't realize how much blood I lost," she said in Ukrainian. "I don't know how I managed to survive."

Borova credits surgeon and Ukrainian hero Dr. Yuriy Kuznetzov with saving her life.

Dr. Kuznetzov,  who remained in Izium during Russia's six month occupation there said most of the victims he's treated stepped on "petal" mines, or anti-personnel mines. The 5-inch-long mines flutter from the sky by the thousands, falling like flower petals. Eleven pounds of pressure will set them off.

"The person who invented them was an evil genius because they only weigh [2 ounces] but what they can do when triggered is terrifying," Kuznetzov said in Ukrainian.

Healing the victims

Dr. Kuznetzov used to see landmine victims every week or so. Efforts are underway to clear the mines, in Izium and beyond but that will take years. 

The doctor has devoted half his life to Izium's Central Hospital. Many of his colleagues evacuated after the full-scale invasion began, but Dr. Kuznetzov, a native of Izium, stayed. 

"When you have patients and you're the only doctor or the only person who can treat them, I didn't understand how you could leave," he said in Ukrainian.

Dr. Yuriy Kuznetzov
Dr. Yuriy Kuznetzov 60 Minutes

About a week into the war, Izium's Central Hospital was bombed, crippling medical services in the city. Russia's six month occupation began a month later, and many civilians and medical staff fled. Dr. Kuznetsov stayed – and kept the hospital open.  

"The best praise for me was when a woman told me in April of 2022 that 'when we heard the hospital was still open, we realized that our town had hope, it could withstand, survive, and [have a] future,'" Dr. Kuznetzov said in Ukrainian.

Izium was liberated in September 2022.  Russian occupation left more than 1,000 dead and 80% of the city destroyed. Today, Izium, just 20 miles from the frontline, is contaminated with mines and unexploded ordnance. Civilians there are losing limbs from anti-personnel mines still scattered throughout the city and the surrounding villages.  

One of the most difficult tasks for Dr. Kuznetzov is persuading patients in the region that they need a leg amputated after a mine accident. 

"It's very difficult to explain to them that the leg is no good, no good to use," he said.

Removing the mines

While Dr. Kuznetzov helps victims, demining teams are working to remove the landmines and unexploded ordnance in Izium and beyond.  

When Vasyl Solyanik found petal mines on his roof and in his garden, he dialed 101 and emergency services sent deminers Ivan Shepelev and Ihor Ovcharuk to help. All over Ukraine, the pair have found every type of munition, Ovcharuk said: anti-infantry, anti-tank, mortars, artillery shells and rockets. 

Shepelev said as the Ukrainians liberated occupied territory, the Russian military left booby traps and mines everywhere including in civilian homes. Ovcharuk said bodies of dead Ukrainian soldiers were mined.

Demining efforts in Ukraine
Demining efforts in Ukraine 60 Minutes

Demining work is dangerous. In 2022, a mine accident shattered Ovcharuk's kneecap. Despite the dangers, the work continues.

"We know every explosive we remove means someone's life is saved," Shepelev said.

Pete Smith, who heads demining efforts for HALO Trust, a charity founded in 1988 to demine war zones, said today Ukraine is the most heavily mined country in the world.

"I think the scope is unrecognizable in modern times," Smith said. 

Smith took 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley to a farm outside of Izium sown with Russian anti-tank mines. There Pelley met HALO deminer Yulia Yaroshchuk and watched as she used a slim wand to methodically search for tripwires in a large field with tall grass.  On her knees next to a live landmine, Yaroshchuk used the wand to move the grass blade by blade. The day before our visit to the farm, a HALO deminer was killed and two others were wounded in southern Ukraine. 

Pelley asked Yaroshchuk why she continues to do such dangerous work. 

"This is my contribution to victory," she said. 

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