BEZRUKY, Ukraine – When Sergiy, a 47-year-old construction worker, got out of bed Sunday morning in this small town in northeastern Ukraine, he discovered a chilling new danger in a war filled with them: He’d woken up in a minefield.
He’d heard a rocket land near his house around 1 AM, but didn’t think about it. There had been plenty of missiles since Russian forces invaded in late February. The thumps, creases, and explosions had become a cruel yet familiar soundtrack to those left behind, along with the sour smell of the weapons left in the air.
But what landed in his yard was a new weapon for the city’s residents to add to their growing lexicon of destruction: They knew the Smerch, the Grad, the Hurricane—and now they were introduced to the PTM-1S— landmine, a type of scattered ammunition.
“No one understood what it was,” said Sergiy, who refused to give his last name for fear of retaliation. The weapons rush in like any missile, but instead of exploding immediately, they eject up to two dozen mines that explode intermittently, dividing death in the hours after.
Since the invasion began, Russia has made it clear that it is willing to use force and destruction to achieve its goals, often indiscriminately. It has launched cruise missiles, sent tanks and fired mortars, artillery and rockets. Now it’s also become a little less ominous in appearance, but just as sassy.
These scattered mines, banned by some interpretations of international law and never officially registered during this war, have appeared only sparingly in Bezruky and elsewhere on the periphery of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city. The weapons add yet another danger to civilians trying to navigate parts of the devastated landscape.
The mines are green tubes the size of a liter of soda, filled with three pounds of explosives. They are often used to take out tanks but, in Sergiy’s case, had landed where his eight-year-old daughter likes to play when the weather is nice.
“These weapons combine the worst possible properties of cluster munitions and landmines,” said Brian Castner, senior weapons researcher at Amnesty International. “Each of these random attacks is illegal and they happen on top of each other.”
Scatterable landmines can be mines intended to kill people and those intended to destroy tanks. The United States last used them during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and since then they have been largely banned by a 1997 international treaty signed by 164 countries, including Ukraine, that targeted anti-personnel landmines.
Some anti-vehicle mines — like the PTM-1S that landed in Sergiy’s yard — have sensitive fuses that can cause them to explode when people pick them up, and can be considered anti-personnel mines. They are thus prohibited under international law, although neither Russia nor the United States have joined the treaty in question.
The morning of April 3 started like any other in Bezruky since the Russian invasion began: another day without power for the thousands of residents and the sporadic shelling between Ukrainian and Russian troops that had become commonplace.
It was mostly quiet, but around 10 a.m., the shed in Sergiy’s backyard exploded. There was no sound of an incoming artillery shell or missile, just the explosion.
Sergiy, who had lived in Bezruky for much of his life, went outside to inspect the damage. Debris was scattered across his workbench, the side of the shed was damaged, and a rectangular crater several inches deep had appeared.
He went outside to board the windows of his house, fearing another explosion would come, when he saw a green pipe, another PTM-1S mine, next to the fence in his neighbor’s backyard. He quickly snapped a photo and went back inside.
It exploded 20 minutes later, he said.
“The eruptions continued throughout the day at intervals of about 50 minutes, and the last one was around 3 a.m. the next night after it first landed,” Sergiy said. There is no Ukrainian military equipment in Bezruky. The Russian front lines are about eleven kilometers to the north and to the south are Ukrainian artillery positions.
The mines were set to self-destruct at specific times, a feature baked into every mine, which can be set at intervals from two hours to 24 hours. No one was killed or injured in the series of explosions that shook his neighborhood.
“It was lucky that kids weren’t playing there that day,” Sergiy said. “Normally they played in the backyard when the first pieces exploded, but it rained that day.”
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Missile attack. A rocket attack on a crowded train station in eastern Ukraine left at least 50 dead and nearly 100 injured, Ukrainian officials said, blaming Russia for hitting a key evacuation point for those trying to flee ahead of an expected, stepped-up offensive.
Bomb disposal engineers in Kharkiv, responding to calls for unexploded ordnance in the city and its periphery, said this was the first recorded appearance of the PTM-1s since the start of the war.
As Russia shifts its focus to the east of the country after cutting defeats around the country’s capital, Russian forces have stepped up their shelling around Kharkov and elsewhere in the region, often resorting to indiscriminate attacks to capture resources. .
Deliberately attacking civilians with weapons of any kind is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, and Russia’s use of these scattered mines would likely be an indiscriminate attack, as the artillery missiles carrying these mines can travel up to 20 miles , were fired into a civilian area with no military targets.
“Last week this weapon appeared,” said the team leader of an explosive ordnance disposal unit in Kharkov and nearby towns. For security reasons, he only gave his first name, Maksym. There are at least six other teams like him deployed across the region.
The randomly exploding mines are just a new feature of Maksym’s grueling job. His team of half a dozen men has been working non-stop in the Kharkiv region since the Russian invasion. It will likely take years and possibly decades to clean up all the ammunition launched during the war in Ukraine.
The 26-year-old team leader records five to thirty incidents a day, registers rockets landing in houses on his phone and is often asked by passers-by to look at explosive debris.
On Tuesday, Maksym’s rounds included excavating a 122-millimeter rocket casing for a grocery store and removing debris from an apartment building and amusement park.
Towards the end of the day, while he was working in a farmer’s field extracting the remains of a Smerch missile, a man on a bicycle came up to him and waved him down.
“Can you get the same from my house?” the man shouted.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported by Bezruky, and John Ismay from Washington. Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Bezruky.