LVIV, Ukraine – The instructor raised his hand above his head and revealed a small, wavy green piece of plastic nestled in his palm.
“See this? Some civilians told me they saw these on either side of the humanitarian corridor they were walking through. They looked like leaves,” said Serhii Romaniuk, the teacher, explaining that the green plastic “leaf” in his hand is actually was a deactivated landmine. “It was called a safe passage, but that was a lie. It was mined on both sides.”
His voice echoed through the dark underground room—a school basement fitted out like a military bunker, plastered with posters of various weapons and tires for practice exercises.
A handful of muscular young volunteers from a local defense force listened intently, cramming themselves into the circle of wooden school desks. Among them were civilians: young boys, women and older men.
Basic military preparation courses offered in cities like Lviv have been developed with local volunteer forces in mind. But now teachers like Mr. Romaniuk are opening their doors to civilians, especially those who have fled the fierce fighting in the east to the relative safety of western Ukraine.
The citizens on Mr. Romaniuk’s course live in the classrooms of the school above. And they have one goal in mind: “to go home,” said 13-year-old Nikita, from the Donetsk region, a prime target of Russia’s territorial goals.
“But when I go back home, I need to know how to react in the vicinity of any weapons or landmines I encounter. I’m learning a lot here: I didn’t know, for example, that mines could be connected and timed,” he said.
The war has displaced more than 12 million Ukrainians, more than half of whom have fled to safer regions in western Ukraine. But now tens of thousands of civilians are returning to the places where their army has withdrawn Russian troops. And some of those places can literally be minefields.
According to the UN, Ukrainian forces have removed nearly 80,000 mines and explosives since the large-scale invasion. But it will take years to remove all mines in Ukraine, it said.
Mines have a debilitating effect on civilian lives, as even the very possibility of their presence can be crippling. Many farmers in recaptured areas were unable to seed their fields after the military warned them it suspected mines had been planted, but said it could not clear the areas yet.
Mr. Romaniuk, a white-haired military veteran, held up a heavy, round can of what he said was an anti-tank mine – the type most commonly found in farmers’ fields.
“If you know them and know how to spot them, at least you know what to do,” said Mr. Romaniuk.
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His course is not only about landmines: Mr. Romaniuk also leads basic military exercises. And he lectures on determining the types of missiles used, the shock waves they create, and what to do if a bomb hits.
They are civilian students for whom that knowledge is no longer theoretical. The local volunteers are from Lviv, barely damaged by the war and have never experienced the kind of shelling that the civilians with whom they share the classroom have faced.
Ruslan, a 44-year-old from the embattled city of Sievierodonetsk who has requested that his last name be withheld because he fears consequences to family in Moscow and Russian-occupied areas, knows what it’s like to be knocked against a wall by a blast wave. He has survived sieges and rocket attacks and escaped from his home under mortar fire.
Listening to the lecture brought back painful memories. “It’s very difficult. But what choice do I have?” he asked.
“There is a terrible war going on and it affects everyone, whether you are a grandmother or a child,” he said. “We must try to save ourselves.”