Deadly harvest, Ukraine

When it comes to dangerous jobs, farming is rated as one of the most, if not the most, perilous occupations in Australia. I’ve done a fair bit of agricultural work myself, and can say from experience that some of the tasks associated with primary production are inherently risky. The way some operators go about these jobs can also significantly increase the chances of getting hurt. Although I haven’t had a huge amount of experience with broad acre cropping, I have spent some time driving tractors to prepare paddocks for planting. With this particular task, assuming you manage to get into the tractor without injuring yourself, once you’re underway it’s a pretty safe working environment.

Before the Russian full-scale invasion, agriculture contributed over 10 percent of Ukraine’s Gross Domestic Product (for comparison, primary production made up less than 2.5 percent of Australia’s GDP in 2021), and provided a livelihood for around 13 million people. Ukraine mainly produces grain, so that means Ukrainian farmers spend plenty of time driving tractors. However, unlike the relatively safe and comfortable work of preparing, planting and harvesting in Australia, using a tractor in Ukraine is now a potentially lethal occupation.

Recently, my NGO work colleagues received word that one of their friends, a local farmer in a nearby district of southern Ukraine, had been out preparing his paddocks when he ran over a landmine. The incident had left him with facial injuries including a badly damaged eye. I went with my friends to visit him at the hospital a few days later.

Sergey, a tall, thin bloke in his mid-twenties, was sitting on his bed when we entered the ward. He greeted my friends warmly, and shook my hand when they introduced me. He had undergone an operation on his injured eye, but there was some concern that the procedure had not been successful.

Although describing a man who had just run over a mine in his tractor as ‘lucky’ sounds absurd, Sergey arguably had been fortunate. The explosive had detonated beneath the front of his machine, directing the blast up into the engine block. Although Sergey was sprayed by the shattered windscreen and other debris, things could have been a lot worse.

My work colleagues told me that the weekend of Sergey’s incident, five farmers in the same district were killed and several more wounded when they ran over mines and unexploded ordinance (UXO). It was getting on planting time, and with little or no other income to support their families, farmers felt they had no choice but to start preparing their paddocks despite the risk.

Today we visited a village which the NGO has supported since the area was liberated from the Russian occupiers. Turning off the main road, we travelled several kilometres along a bumpy, potholed track past large paddocks of sunflowers (Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter of sunflower oil). Soon the town came into view, with the royal blue humanitarian aid-issued tarpaulins – used to seal the roofs of houses damaged by Russian tanks, artillery and rockets – standing out starkly against the green of the village trees.

We pulled up outside what used to be the store, where about twenty residents were waiting for us. The last time I had been to the village was four months ago, and on that occasion only a small group of older ladies had met us. We were introduced to one of the village coordinators, Artem, and I mentioned to him that the population seemed to have increased significantly since my last visit. He told us that many of the villagers who had escaped to the relative safety of the nearby regional city during the fighting had now returned. It was only those who had left Ukraine entirely that were yet to come back.

During my previous visit I had seen UXO marked with flagging tape around the village, and signs warning of the presence of mines. I asked Artem whether it was now safe for the local farmers to go out into their paddocks. He told me they had been visually searching for UXO and mines on their land, and when they found something, would notify the sappers to come and deal with it. The fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian forces ebbed and flowed across the village, and perhaps the fluid nature of the battle had limited the use of mines in the surrounding farmland. However rockets, shells and other munitions strike the ground hard, and if they fail to explode, can bury themselves. How many other types of UXO were scattered across the paddocks, lurking somewhere beneath the soil?

The scale of the problem of mines and UXO in Ukraine is staggering. From a total of 300,000 km2 of land contaminated with these explosives (around 27 percent of the nation’s landmass), 160,000 km2 (the size of the United Kingdom) are considered severely impacted1. When Russia’s unconscionable and unjustifiable invasion ends, the people of Ukraine will continue to be endangered physically, and affected psychologically and financially, by these remnants of war for decades to come.

Last I heard, Sergey was facing a second operation in Odessa to save the sight in his injured eye. He told my friends that after what had happened to him on his tractor that day, he never wants to return to his village and farm.

The greatest worry I had whilst driving tractors on grain farms in Australia, was making sure I judged the turn at the end of each run correctly so I didn’t tear out the paddock boundary fence with whatever piece of agricultural equipment I was towing. I cannot begin to imagine the stress of driving across a paddock knowing that at any moment I might run over an explosive device designed to destroy vehicles or tear human beings apart.

Although employees in the Australian agricultural sector suffer injuries and fatalities every year, the war in Ukraine has made farming a far deadlier occupation, where even driving a tractor across a paddock risks reaping a deadly harvest.

1 Brown, S., 2023, ‘Landmines and Explosive Remnants of War in Ukraine Will Take Decades to Clear‘, Kyiv Post

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy Mud and Memories, Podcast Episode 2. Evacuation, Ukraine

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