They survived Russian occupation, then were hit by explosives left behind

Lyudmila Ivanenka lost her right foot when she stepped on a land mine in September after rushing outside to watch Russian forces retreating after months of occupation. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
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IZYUM, Ukraine — The day Russian forces withdrew from her Ukrainian town, 69-year-old Lyudmila Ivanenka rushed outside to see which way they were headed.

But her celebration over their unexpected retreat was cut short when, on her walk home, she stepped on a land mine, one of what she believes are explosives the troops scattered on their way out. The blast ripped off her right foot and badly injured her right arm.

Terrified that Russian troops would shell any moving vehicles, witnesses pushed Ivanenka to the hospital in a shopping cart. The journey took hours, and she nearly bled to death.

“The foot was gone,” she said from her hospital bed a few days later. “Just a piece of meat hanging at the heel.”

When she heard Russian forces were evacuating her Ukrainian town, a woman ran to see which direction they were going. Then, her life changed in an instant. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Mines and other explosives that troops leave behind have haunted generations of war victims, maiming and killing civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and many other countries, even decades after peace treaties have been signed and troops withdrawn.

In Ukraine, such hidden ordnance is tormenting civilians who — often after surviving the horrors of Russian occupation — are wounded or killed in explosions after the Russians retreat.

Ivanenka said she stepped on what she described as a PFM1 anti-personnel mine — also known as a butterfly or petal mine. These mines, which are around the size of a fist, can be triggered by a footstep on or near them.

Typically green or brown, they can be dispersed by aircraft or through mortars and are often hard to discern in forests and fields. They, like other antipersonnel mines, are banned by international law because of how easily they harm civilians.

Landmine Monitor, a publication that tracks efforts to abolish land mines, confirmed in a November report that Russia has used at least seven types of antipersonnel mines in Ukraine this year. It also found that Russian-backed separatist forces have been using antipersonnel mines since 2014.

Russia is not a signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits antipersonnel mines and mandates that countries destroy their stockpiles. Ukraine signed the treaty in 1999 and joined as a state party seven years later but has been in violation of the accord, Landmine Monitor reported, for failing to fully destroy its stockpile of antipersonnel mines by a 2010 deadline.

Although Ukraine still possesses stockpiles of such mines, which are expensive to eliminate, a previous Landmine Monitor report found no evidence that Ukraine had used antipersonnel mines in its conflict with Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

Landmine Monitor also said “there is no independent confirmation … as of yet” of Russian allegations that Ukraine has used such mines in the war this year, but “a final assessment and attribution of use of PFM-type mines in Ukraine is not possible at this time.”

And in a separate report published in June, Human Rights Watch said: “There is no credible information that Ukrainian government forces have used antipersonnel mines in violation of the Mine Ban Treaty since 2014 and into 2022.”

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presented posthumous awards to four police officers, including the chief of the national police in the Cherkasy region, who died while working to clear mines from recently liberated territory in Kherson.

“This is the form of Russian terror that will have to be countered for years to come,” Zelensky said in a speech. “Terrorists deliberately try to leave behind as many death traps as possible. Buried land mines, tripwire mines, mined buildings, cars and infrastructure.”

Zelensky said Russian mines were now spread across more than 100,000 square miles of Ukraine. “I am sure this will be among the charges against Russia for aggression — precisely mine terror,” Zelensky said. “Which is even more cruel and meaner than missiles, because there is no anti-mine system that could destroy at least part of the threat, as is done by our air defense.”

In Izyum, warnings that civilians should watch their step had circulated long before the Russian withdrawal, Ivanenka said. She knew to look for mines in grassy areas but never expected to step on one on a main road. Now, she is disabled, with no work and few prospects for a prosthetic in the near future.

“We were looking forward to them leaving. We were waiting for it. You can’t even imagine,” she said of the Russians, recounting that Russian troops shot her dog dead in front of her during the occupation. “And isn’t it frustrating for such a thing to happen at the very end of the war? At my old age?”

Even as Ivanenka was being treated at Izyum’s main hospital, explosions could be heard just outside as a demining team discovered more mines scattered across the hospital property, where the Russians also had a clinic. Staffers warned visitors not to walk in grassy areas.

In August, weeks before Russian troops retreated, Viktor Naidenko, 59, walked his goat through the field behind his house in Izyum. On his walk back, he took a slight detour and stepped on what he also described as a petal mine. He lost a foot and part of a leg.

“We don’t even know where it got here from and whose mines these were,” Naidenko said. “But there were plenty of them scattered all around Izyum.”

Because the Russians were still in control, they flew him on a helicopter to Russia for treatment. With no working phone network in Izyum, he was nearly left stranded across the border, where hospital staffers would not let him leave alone. At home, his family did not know whether he had survived.

With the help of volunteers, he made the long trek back to Izyum in late August — where he began to learn to live and farm with just one foot, using knee pads to chop wood and crutches to do chores. He has even taught himself to climb a ladder despite his disability.

After stepping on a landmine in Izyum, Ukraine, Viktor Naidenko was flown to a hospital in Russia. His family had idea where he had been taken. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Stories like his were common in the region, Naidenko said. He met another man in the hospital in Russia who had stepped on a mine just inside his own front gate. “They drop a whole bunch of mines, and they just fly all around. They could fall anywhere,” he said.

For more than eight months, Zelenyi Hai was close to the front line in Ukraine’s southern Mykolaiv region, and its potato and onion fields were sown with ordnance.

As Ukrainian forces drove the Russians out of the area this fall, locals began returning to the town, and many farmers began plowing their fields again. Ukrainian soldiers stationed there said a local man recently brought them two buckets containing parts of what appeared to be undetonated Russian grad rockets.

Another man, Oleksandr Pashchenko, 42, had collected a half-dozen large pieces of grads and cluster bomb tubes from his crater-scarred fields.

Pashchenko, a farmer, had set the twisted metal in his yard, not far from a storage shed that also had been struck by a bomb, roasting 20 tons of potatoes stored inside. “In the beginning, everyone was scared of picking it up,” Pashchenko said of the ordnance as he casually handled a chunk. “But now the shrapnel is everywhere. We’re used to it.”

Such casualness had nearly proved deadly just a few days earlier, when a young man spotted something shining in the wheat furrows. Mykola Osadtseva, 19, stopped his tractor and picked up the baseball-size metallic object. Thinking it was shrapnel, he put it under his seat and kept plowing.

When he returned home, he tossed the object out of the tractor. When it hit the ground, it exploded. The blast shattered the tractor window and sent shrapnel flying. Pieces tore into Osadtseva’s face, chest and leg, severing his femoral artery.

Shrapnel also hit his 12-year-old brother-in-law, Oleksandr Lupashchenko, who idolized him and had come by to say hello. Osadtseva’s wife, Natalya Reznichenko, was in the kitchen sorting through humanitarian aid when she heard the blast. Reznichenko thought a missile or mortar round had fallen from the sky. But when she ran outside, she saw no crater, only her husband in a rapidly growing pool of blood.

Neighbors came running to help, among them Osadtseva’s boss, who used a belt as a tourniquet on the bleeding leg and then frantically drove him to a hospital in the city. Osadtseva feared he would die on the way. They arrived just as he was losing consciousness, and doctors rushed to stop the bleeding.

Lupashchenko’s injuries were less severe: Doctors removed most of the shrapnel from his leg, and the rest was quickly working its way out on its own. The 12-year-old had been told to stay off his feet, but a few days after his release from the hospital, he was walking and itching to get back on his bike.

Osadtseva wasn’t as fortunate. He spent three days in a coma. When he woke up, he found that doctors had saved his left leg, but it would be a long time before he would be able to walk the fields again.

Worse, he couldn’t see out of his right eye. Doctors said they did not know if he ever would. On his first day home from the hospital, he lay weak and still on his bed.

Osadtseva was worried about how he would provide for his family now. He recently became a father, and his 1-month-old daughter lay silently at his side.

But the baby was to his right, and Osadtseva couldn’t see her.

Miller reported from Zelenyi Hai, Ukraine, and Galouchka from Zelenyi Hai and Izyum.