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Meet the Ukrainian soldiers removing the explosives Russia buried under the frontline

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly identify the language being spoken by the soldier Misha as Ukrainian. He was speaking Russian.]

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ukraine's counteroffensive to reclaim land occupied by Russian forces has gone slowly, in part because explosives are buried under much of the frontline. One of the most crucial jobs in the Ukrainian military is removing them. NPR's Joanna Kakissis and producer Polina Lytvynova talked with the people doing this dangerous work.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: We are driving along a dirt road to reach the landmine experts in the 35th Marine Brigade. We pull over near an enormous field of sunflowers.

Let's go.

The demining unit is a short walk away, inside a camouflaged hut behind the sunflowers. These soldiers are known as sappers, after a French word describing the dismantling of enemy fortifications.

Hi. Nice to meet you. Joanna.

MISHA: Hi. Misha.

KAKISSIS: Hi, Misha - nice to meet you.

One sapper introduces himself as Misha. No one gives their last name here for security reasons. Misha's holding a metal detector. He wants to show me how it works.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL DETECTOR WHIRRING)

KAKISSIS: He turns it on and hovers it over a mine called the Black Widow, which his team recently found and disabled.

So, Misha, when you hear that sound - that, like (vocalizing) sound - you know something's up, right?

MISHA: Yeah, danger sound.

KAKISSIS: The sound of danger. On the frontline, that means a mine lies a step or two away.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL DETECTOR WHIRRING)

KAKISSIS: In case artillery fire drowns out that sound of danger, the metal detector also vibrates to warn the sappers.

MISHA: Yeah. It's like somebody calling you on your cellphone.

KAKISSIS: Oh, that's what it feels like - that kind of vibration.

Monitoring groups say Ukraine is now the most landmined country in the world. Sapper units are especially needed along the line of attack to clear landmines left by Russian soldiers. A company commander from another unit who uses the call sign Hans told NPR that Ukrainian troops cannot advance without sappers.

HANS: (Through interpreter) The biggest challenge is land mines. Every bit of land is mined. Turning our vehicle half a meter to the left or right could trigger an explosion.

KAKISSIS: We meet Misha and two of his fellow sappers, Roman and Heorhii, while they're on break from the frontline. We talk around a weathered picnic table that they call their conference room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: The men are all in their 30s. They trained for three months and have been on the frontlines of Russia's war on Ukraine for seven months. They spend up to 20 consecutive days on each mission.

MISHA: (Speaking Russian).

KAKISSIS: Misha is boyish and blue-eyed. His wife is in Germany, where he used to work in construction. He speaks a bit of English but often switches to Ukrainian [see POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION above].

MISHA: (Through interpreter) I chose to be a sapper because I imagine that you were working in silence, in peace, quietly looking for mines, and the shooting is somewhere far away. Well, I was wrong.

KAKISSIS: The sappers walk ahead of the other Ukrainian soldiers. They are right in the line of fire. Roman knows firsthand how dangerous this can be. He's tall and sunburned and used to repair churches before the war. He says two of his fellow sappers died on a mission this spring. Roman was badly injured.

ROMAN: (Through interpreter) I was wounded in the leg - tank fire. I spent a month recovering in the hospital and another month recovering at home. I was still in rehabilitation at home when the counteroffensive began.

KAKISSIS: The sappers are mainly looking for two kinds of explosives - anti-personnel mines and anti-tank mines. Heorhii, who is bearded with a gravelly voice, explains that Russian soldiers sometimes stack the explosives.

HEORHII: (Through interpreter) They put something small under an anti-tank mine, like a grenade. If we don't pull it out properly, there could be an explosion. It's called a trap mine.

KAKISSIS: Misha chimes in.

MISHA: (Through interpreter) They try to trick us all the time, thinking they are smarter than us, and we are trying to outwit them.

KAKISSIS: Sometimes, he says, the Russians stack three mines on top of each other. Misha calls this a sandwich. And, he adds, Russians often hide explosives in unexpected places, like inside an energy drink.

They'll put, like, a mine in a can of Red Bull.

MISHA: Even cigarettes.

KAKISSIS: Sometimes it's even cigarettes.

MISHA: It can be everything.

KAKISSIS: The men admit that each mission to demine the frontline feels like it could be their last. Roman says he tries to stay calm by considering the worst-case scenarios and how to get out of them.

ROMAN: (Through interpreter) What are the escape routes? What are the approaching roads? I consider as many options as possible. I will have plans ready to go in my head.

KAKISSIS: Heorhii does this, too, but he says he also appeals to divine intervention.

HEORHII: (Through interpreter) I have my own little prayer, and I have an icon of the Virgin Mary inside my helmet. I pray for everyone on our mission. I repeat the prayer three times in my head and then say, thank God we are still alive.

KAKISSIS: Just as we finish talking, a Ukrainian jet flies above, a sign Russian missiles might be in the air.

HEORHII: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: Misha, Roman and Heorhii don't seem to notice. They go back to checking their metal detectors.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL DETECTOR WHIRRING)

KAKISSIS: Though some units use advanced equipment like infrared drones, most sappers, including this crew, work the old-fashioned way. They are now back on the frontline. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.