NOTHING prepares you for the sound of the air raid sirens.
When I was in Kyiv last month, three short, sharp blasts encouraged the nervous to rush to the subways.
Which meant that everyone pretty much stayed on the street, carrying on with their lives. The Ukrainians are so stoic, and so accustomed to having their city bombed that they tend to take everything in their stride.
They also know that the city is so well protected these days that it’s less likely that any long-range missiles would hit them anyway.
It’s possible, of course (30 per cent of Russian missiles will get through), but to disappear underground would be an admission of defeat, an embarrassment.
And that’s something Ukrainians don’t care for.
No backing down
On this occasion they were right to be dismissive, as 30 minutes later the app on their phones squawked into life, telling everyone the raid (a false alarm, in this case) was over.
As tensions between Ukraine and Russia continue to rise, one thing is patently clear: Ukrainians are not backing down.
Despite facing threats from their abusive neighbour, Ukrainians have shown remarkable bravery and determination in defending their sovereignty and independence.
And they’re not going to let a puffy-faced psychopath get in their way.
Scars of war
Life is tough enough in Kyiv as it is, and there is no need to interrupt the working day unless there is a good reason to do so.
Walking around the city, you see why.
The Russians were only here for a few weeks last spring, before being forced out. And while the city they left still bears the charred scars of their brief occupation – Kyiv is littered with iron tank traps – there has been a consolidated effort to clean the city up, razing blown-up buildings, rebuilding smashed pavements, and – saliently – blowing up the bombs, missiles and artillery ammunition that littered Kyiv like toxic confetti.
In some respects, the city still look like a no-go war zone. On one side of the motorway coming into town you’ll see a bombed-out petrol station, completely destroyed.
And on the other side you’ll find a petrol station that doesn’t look any different from one you might see on the M4.
This is a city that is almost carrying on as though nothing has happened. While thousands and thousands of Ukrainians have been killed, and many more have been injured or displaced.
While schools and hospitals have been destroyed, and people forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, as a nation they remain resolute.
Since hostilities broke out a year ago, the country has become something of a dumping ground for unexploded bombs and missiles, lethal booby traps (often involving nothing more sophisticated than a trip wire and a hand grenade) and of course landmines.
All of these have been gifted to Ukraine by the Russians, who, ignoring the rigours and rules of the Geneva Convention, have covered the country with dangerous explosives, with the sole intent of killing and maiming the military and civilian population.
Men, women, children, animals – the Russians’ murderous ire knows no boundaries.
The size of the problem is enormous: the Ukrainian government estimates that around 40 per cent of Ukraine – around 250,000 square kilometres – may need to be searched and cleared of Russian mines and explosives. This equates to an area larger than the United Kingdom.
“Contamination is everywhere in Ukraine,” says Halo’s chief executive, former Army Major-General James Cowan.
The Halo Trust (Hazardous Area Life-support Organization) is a humanitarian NGO (non-government organisation), a demining charity which protects lives and restores livelihoods of people affected by conflict.
Halo primarily works to clear landmines and other explosive devices left behind by conflict, as well as to promote stability and prosperity.
With over 13,000 staff worldwide – most of whom are recruited in the place they are from – Halo has operations in 30 countries, including Afghanistan, Angola, Somalia and Cambodia.
It is seriously dangerous work, as I discovered when I spent two days learning to detect landmines without blowing myself up, learning how to successfully use metal detectors and search the undergrowth for tripwires and boobytraps, which are so sophisticated they are almost invisible.
On the day that Joe Biden visited Ukraine, I spent four hours on a huge field on the outskirts of Brovary, not far from Kyiv itself.
Here, I learned to tell the difference between AP and AV mines, between AXO, OXO and OZM – mines that look like film cannisters, pizzas, or the piece of plastic that fell out of your Ikea box that you can’t find a use for.
What Halo teaches you is that a landmine can look like anything, so be careful.
The landmine issue shot to international prominence in 1997 when Princess Diana walked through one of Halo’s minefields in Angola.
The pictures of Diana breezily walking through the minefield wearing a see-through visor, a bulletproof vest and a pair of chinos went all around the world, confirming her as some kind of modern saint.
Why? Because she was smiling, that’s why. Most other people would have worn a face of grim recognition, the kind of look that says, “When will this be over?”
Diana simply looked as though she was going for a walk on the beach.
And people loved her for it. In the six months she had left on Earth, she was suddenly elevated to a position she had never known.
Shortly after her visit, the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty was signed, calling for all countries to unite to rid the world of landmines.
Prince Harry continued in his mother’s footsteps. Before he became embroiled in a global soap opera of his own making, Harry was a keen supporter of Halo.
He joined the call for Landmine Free 2025 and attended an event at Chatham House in June 2019, to announce a major conservation project in Angola, clearing the Okavango headwaters of landmines.
In September 2019, Harry even visited Halo’s Angola programme during his trip to Africa.
Ukraine is probably the organisation’s most important programme at the moment, which is why it was so invigorating to see it in operation.
While many operatives were out in the field, there was also a refresher course taking place, where longstanding deminers had to go back to school and learn their skills all over again.
No mistakes allowed
“You can never be too careful,” said one of the Halo instructors. “The people we employ are the very best in the world at identifying, clearing and safely exploding landmines, but it’s vitally important to make sure they keep up their own standards. This is a no-risk job. No one is allowed to make a mistake. Ever.”
Halo’s work is vital not just because it makes it safe for people to move around, or perhaps return to their homes.
It is vital because it allows farmers to plant crops.
And it is vital because their success will encourage the kind of investment the country needs to get back on its feet.
If the international community are convinced that Ukraine is a viable and sophisticated country, it will thrive.
Their success also proves that Britain is at the forefront of international reconstruction. The humanitarian sector is dominated by the British, and we are simply better at it than anyone else in the world.
“We need to win the peace as well as win the war,” says James Cowan. “There are already more unexploded bombs and landmines in Ukraine than in any other country in the world, and we need to find each and every one.
“Only then can we make Ukraine safe. Only then can the country begin to grow.”
‘We will destroy Putin’
There currently appears to be two Ukrainian narratives that weave around each in military circles.
The first is focussed on a total win by President Zelensky and his army. And the second and more nuanced possibility is some kind of compromise.
Many close to the Ukrainian government think that eventually some form of peace talks will need to take place, involving the forced relinquishment of territory.
But as Zelensky has spent the best part of a year promising that he won’t quit until the borders are returned to their pre-2022 status, such a compromise is obviously problematic.
“We are getting ready to destroy Putin, and as soon as we do we’re going to rebuild our country,” said one young Ukrainian woman when I asked her how she thought things were going.
“I can’t wait to party properly with the British. They have brought Halo to our country and in many respects the have given us the confidence to fight back.”
“We like the British because you were the first to help us,” said another Halo bomb disposal expert, as he taught me to use a metal detector.
“You were there first and you’ll probably be there last. We appreciate that. The Russians will eventually retreat, like a bear going back in its cave, to lick its wounds.
“And if it dares to come out again, we will be waiting. With the British.”
And then his voice was drowned out by the sound of another air raid siren.