At 5am on February 24, 2022, Lana, a HALO specialist in risk education was up early sending emails about plans to publish new leaflets and posters around her home town of Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine.
"I heard a big crash, like a shout. It was so loud I thought my heart stopped for a moment. I was terrified. The first thing we did was add duct tape to our windows. That was when we understood that the new phase of the war had started. All of a sudden all our plans for the future stopped."
When Russia's fresh invasion of Ukraine began 12 months ago, HALO had been in the country for six years clearing landmines, tripwires and unexploded debris from the 2014 conflict. We had 450 Ukrainian staff largely based in Kramatorsk, with small outposts in Mariupol and Shyrokyi.
In the first days and weeks of the invasion many of our staff, who have medical training, quickly volunteered to provide assistance to their fellow Ukrainians. They provided shelter to displaced people and medical care to convoys fleeing the fighting.
"At times we had to flee the vehicles and hide in ditches and buildings when firing came close to the convoy of buses," recalls Andrii, who was then HALO's chief medical officer. HALO staff repeatedly travelled back-and-forth from the frontlines to deliver humanitarian aid and escort people to safety.
As well as immediate humanitarian assistance, HALO staff set about the work of making people safe from explosives. Reports indicated that Russian forces were using a wide range of weapons in civilian areas, including various kinds of cluster bombs, incendiaries and evidence of the use of the POM-3 – a type of high explosive anti-personnel, bounding fragmentation mine with a fuse activated by vibrations as it is approached.
Even as the programme sought the whereabouts of staff in newly-occupied cities, in the first days of the conflict HALO began a digital risk education campaign identifying to people the devices that could harm them. That campaign has now reached a minimum of 15 million Ukrainians. HALO also quickly began providing risk education classes in-person. Since February 2022, HALO’s Ukrainian risk education teams have conducted 5,000 risk education sessions to 80,000 people.
In addition to the risk education campaign, HALO's mapping specialists established a new kind of database that would draw on the wealth of social media and other open sources of information about the conduct of the fighting. These allowed us, even before sending our survey or clearance teams, to map where we expect to find explosives contamination at a highly detailed level. That database has now risen to log in excess of 40,000 datapoints, from type of explosive to damaged infrastructure or destroyed armour – all of which can help us in our clearance work.
Having relocated HALO's vehicles, equipment and all staff able to move West, in April HALO was able to send out survey teams to recce the areas recently occupied by Russian forces before their withdrawal from Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy. In April, we also established a base in the town of Brovary, just east of Kyiv City for our expanding operations in the centre of the country.
A recruitment and training operation was begun so that HALO could rebuild and expand to address the huge lethal contamination facing Ukraine. We were only able to act so swiftly to grow our operations because of the incredible generosity and flexibility of our donors, both from Governments and from private sources.
In May and June HALO expanded the numbers of its staff conducting survey, clearance and risk education, largely in areas east and west of Kyiv city that had been occupied by Russian forces. We also began purchasing the heavy mechanised clearance equipment that is needed to speed up clearance in such a contaminated environment. HALO began testing remote controlled vegetation cutters as a solution to tripwires as well as mini remote-controlled tracked devices that can be fitted with specialised mounts for unearthing mines.
HALO's programme of expansion and training while conducting clearance and survey continued through a summer of media visits and planning for the future. All while rockets and power cuts affected HALO and our colleagues and families just as it does for everyone in the midst of the war.
In June, 38 new deminers passed the first deminer training course in Brovary and were deployed. A further 46 new deminers completed the second course in July. Clearance was completed on the three minefields since the start of the war, near the settlements of Hoholiv and Velyka Dymerka in Brovary.
In September, HALO clearance teams were deployed in Chernihiv region, and survey teams in Sumy close to the Russian frontier, further expanding the geographical scope of operations. As the forces of Ukraine claimed back more territory from Russia around Kharkiv in the east and down to Kherson in the south, HALO made preparations to expand its activities as soon as it was safe to do so. While continuing clearance and survey in the north, a recce team went in late 2022 to the heavily fought over territory between Mykolaiv and Kherson in the south.
As we mark the first 12 months since the February 2022 invasion, the war rages on in the east and south of the country. HALO's approach has always been to make people safe even before the fighting stops – as long as we can do so without taking risks with our own colleagues' safety. What they have done in Ukraine has been a remarkable feat, to dismantle, rebuild and expand a huge operation in the midst of a war while continuing to make people safe.
"I am proud that my job as a HALO deminer is helping our citizens stay safe during this dark chapter of our history. But I urge the world not to look away as our country enters a second year of displacement and destruction."