War in Ukraine

An Interview with a British Sapper Who's Helping to Demine Ukraine

mines in Ukraine
Harley and detonated TM-62s.

Harley Whitehead—a deminer from the UK in the Ukrainian Volunteer Army—has been dedicated to supporting Ukraine through a variety of humanitarian efforts since 2019. He shares with us his story of what it's like to demine some of the most dangerous frontlines in Ukraine.

Why do you do such dangerous work?

I wanted to tackle the landmine crisis in the hardest-hit regions of Ukraine, helping the people who are affected the most. I knew I could make a huge difference by demining with the right support. Ukraine is my future home where I want to see out my days, until the end. 

Since June 2023, my team has removed over 9, 000 munitions, 1, 200 this year alone. We’ve removed things like landmines, rockets, and mortars. We’ve cleared out old Russian infantry positions, too. Sometimes we find the dead bodies of Russians that have been left, and a lot of them have been there for quite some time

Harley in Kherson, Ukraine.
Harley in Kherson, Ukraine.

Demining is a dangerous job, what is the biggest threat?

Shelling is one, but our biggest threat is Russian FPV drones. We often have stacks of mines and munition. Recently we had 220 mines in the back of our truck with an FPV circling above us—we were a fantastic target.  

Our work is generally dangerous, recently one of our colleagues lost the bottom half of his leg from a landmine. On top of that, it’s local collaborators who report our positions to Russian forces, we just don't know who to trust out there.

How do you protect yourself?

Sometimes, we disarm the mines and leave them for a day. We come back to collect them at night so we’re not easily seen. Days can be really ‘hot’—we have to adapt to the amount of shelling or FPVs in the skies.

The Russians also drill in these delay timers which could activate the mine even 12 hours later, so we don’t want them to explode as we’re driving them off the front. Leaving them can reduce the risk of us and our truck exploding.

Harley's team working on an anti-tank mine. 
Harley's team working on an anti-tank mine. 

What kind of booby traps do you find?

A lot of landmines are booby trapped here. They'll have a big shell at the bottom, then a block of TNT, and a landmine on top. It’ll be rigged with an anti-lift device (ALD) underneath. As soon as you lift the mine, it'll blow the whole thing—killing everybody,

We found a TM 62 landmine under a milk trailer, it looked disarmed, but underneath was an ALD. It blew the fucking trailer onto its back. Luckily, we pulled it at a distance but shrapnel went everywhere. If someone doesn’t understand how these things are placed, and the variety of booby traps out there, it’s a fucking disaster. 

A common trap is in the Cheburashka toy, I guess because the bear is an icon from the Soviet times, it’s a statement, moving it detonates whatever is inside it.

Pom-3 deactivated by Harley’s team.
Pom-3 deactivated by Harley’s team.

Do you come across any incompetencies? 

The areas to demine are so vast and sometimes untrained organizations claim the area is clear, when in fact, that’s not the case. 

Last summer all the mine signs were taken down, we were told one field was clear, so we were going to use that to survey the mined field next to it. Natalia, one of my colleagues, was walking in front of me. She stepped on something solid, we all heard it, it was a TM 62. 

We found 12 mines in total—6 TM 62s, and a belt of PMN 2s. They’d cleared the agricultural field, but not the tree line.

In another instance, in Mykolaiv, we were told the area was clear, but we put the drone up to double check and within the first 15 minutes, we found 35 landmines still active. It’s a fucking impossible task.

What is the status of farming in the area? 

Farmers in the South are fed up with waiting. It's life or death for them, it's their livelihood. Some of them haven't planted a crop for two years. Due to the slow demining process, some are ripping down signs and doing the work themselves.

The tractor fundraised through Harley’s team, plowing Kherson farmland.
The tractor fundraised through Harley’s team, plowing Kherson farmland.

We’re keen to help them get their lives back together after occupation. Stories from the region are horrendous and sinister, and some of them haven’t been able to get over it.

People are desperate. Many have had their equipment destroyed. Recently, we cleared a farmer’s land and fundraised a tractor for him, then plowed his land ready to be sowed. It’s about rebuilding the community; landmines not only affect people but the economy too.

Locals are slowly moving back to their houses and their farmland—which is rewarding.

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