‘A Huge Demand’: Ukrainian Women Train to Clear Landmines

Learning to identify and defuse explosives is something Anastasiia Minchukova never thought she would have to do as an English teacher in Ukraine. Yet there she was wearing a face shield, armed with a landmine detector and venturing into a field dotted with danger warnings.

Russia’s war in Ukraine took Minchukova, 20, and five other women to Kosovo, where they are attending a hands-on course in clearing landmines and other dangers that may remain hidden across their country once combat ends.

“There is a huge demand on people who know how to do demining because the war will be over soon,” Minchukova said. “We believe there is so much work to be done.”

The 18-day training camp takes place at a range in the western town of Peja where a Malta-based company regularly offers courses for job-seekers, firms working in former war zones, humanitarian organizations and government agencies.

Kosovo was the site of a devastating 1998-99 armed conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serbian forces that killed about 13,000 people and left thousands of unexploded mines in need of clearing. Praedium Consulting Malta’s range includes bombed and derelict buildings as well as expanses of vegetation.

Instructor Artur Tigani, who tailored the curriculum to reflect Ukraine’s environment, said he was glad to share his small Balkan nation’s experience with the Ukrainian women. Though 23 years have passed, “it’s still fresh in our memories, the difficulties we met when we started clearance in Kosovo,” Tigani said.

Tigani is a highly trained and experienced mine operations officer who served as an engineer in the former Yugoslav army during the 1980s. He has been deployed in his native Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda and Kenya, and conducted training missions in Syria and Iraq.

During a class last week, he took his trainees through a makeshift minefield before moving to an improvised outdoor classroom featuring a huge board with various samples of explosives and mines.

While it is impossible to assess how littered with mines and unexploded ordnance Ukraine is at the moment, the aftermaths of other conflicts suggest the problem will be huge.

“In many parts of the world, explosive remnants of war continue to kill and maim thousands of civilians each year during and long after active hostilities have ended. The majority of victims are children,” the International Committee of the Red Cross testified at a December U.N. conference.

“Locating (unexploded ordnance) in the midst of rubble and picking them out from among a wide array of everyday objects, many of which are made of similar material is a dangerous, onerous and often extremely time-consuming task,” the Red Cross said.

Mine Action Review, a Norwegian organization that monitors clearance efforts worldwide, reported that 56 countries were contaminated with unexploded ordnance as of October, with Afghanistan, Cambodia and Iraq carrying the heaviest burdens, followed by Angola, Bosnia, Thailand, Turkey and Yemen.

Thousands of civilians are believed to have died in Ukraine since Russia invaded Feb. 24. Russian forces have bombed cities and towns across the country, reducing many to rubble.

Military analysts say it appears Russian forces have employed anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines, while Ukraine has used anti-tank mines to try to prevent the Russians from gaining ground.

With Ukrainian men from 18 to 60 years old prohibited from leaving their country and most engaged in defending it, the women wanted to help any way they could despite the risks involved in mine clearing.

“It’s dangerous all over Ukraine, even if you are in a relatively safe region,” said Minchukova, who is from central Ukraine.

Another Ukrainian student, Yuliia Katelik, 38, took her three children to safety in Poland early in the war. She went back to Ukraine and then joined the demining training to help make sure it’s safe for her children when they return home to the eastern city of Kramatorsk, where a rocket attack on a crowded train station killed more than 50 people this month.

Katelik said her only wish is to reunite with her family and see “the end of this nightmare.” Knowing how to spot booby-traps that could shatter their lives again is a necessary skill, she said.

“Acutely, probably as a mother, I do understand that there is a problem and it’s quite serious, especially for the children,” Katelik said.

Minchukova, wearing military-style clothes, said she was doubtful that normal life, as they all knew it before the war, would ever fully return.

“What am I missing? Peace,” she said. “I’m dreaming about peace, about sleeping in my bed not worried about going to bomb shelters all the time. I miss the people I lost.”

The Kosovo training center plans to work with more groups of Ukrainian women, both in Peja and in Ukraine.

“We’re planning as well to go to Ukraine very soon and start with delivery of courses there, on the theater” of war, Tigani said.

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Despite Payment, Investors Brace for Russia to Default

Prices for Russian credit default swaps — insurance contracts that protect an investor against a default — plunged sharply overnight after Moscow used its precious foreign currency reserves to make a last-minute debt payment Friday.

The cost for a five-year credit default swap on Russian debt was $5.84 million to protect $10 million in debt. That price was nearly half the one on Thursday, which at roughly $11 million for $10 million in debt protection was a signal that investors were certain of an eventual Russian default.

Russia used its foreign currency reserves sitting outside of the country to make the payment, backing down from the Kremlin’s earlier threats that it would use rubles to pay these obligations. In a statement, the Russia Finance Ministry did not say whether future payments would be made in rubles.

Despite the insurance contract plunge, investors remain largely convinced that Russia will eventually default on its debts for the first time since 1917. The major ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s have declared Russia is in “selective default” on its obligations.

Russia has been hit with extensive sanctions by the United States, the EU and others in response to its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and its continuing military operation to take over Ukrainian territory.

The Credit Default Determination Committee — an industry group of 14 banks and investors that determines whether to pay on these swaps — said Friday that they “continue to monitor the situation” after Russia’s payment. Their next meeting is May 3.

At the beginning of April, Russia’s finance ministry said it tried to make a $649 million payment due April 6 toward two bonds to an unnamed U.S. bank — previously reported as JPMorgan Chase.

At that time, tightened sanctions imposed for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prevented the payment from being accepted, so Moscow attempted to make the debt payment in rubles. The Kremlin, which repeatedly said it was financially able and willing to continue to pay on its debts, had argued that extraordinary events gave them the legal footing to pay in rubles, instead of dollars or euros.

Investors and rating agencies, however, disagreed and did not expect Russia to be able to convert the rubles into dollars before a 30-day grace period expired next week.

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Second Bombing in 2 Days in Kabul on Eve of Eid al-Fitr Holiday

A bomb blast in a passenger van in Kabul on Saturday killed at least one person, officials said, in the second explosion in the Afghan capital in two days, as security concerns rise on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

“One woman was killed and three more injured,” Khalid Zadran, a spokesman for Kabul’s commander, told Reuters.

A day earlier, an explosion killed more than 50 worshippers after Friday prayers at a Kabul mosque amid a spate of mosque attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  

One witness to the passenger van blast, Ali Maisam, 19, who was waiting outside a nearby bakery at the time, said he saw a number of bodies.

“I saw people coming out of the minibus with bloody and burnt faces. … I saw that four bodies were taken out and a woman was among the dead,” he said.

No one has claimed responsibility for the blast, but most previous bombings have been claimed by an Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State militant group.

Security concerns have risen across Afghanistan as the country prepares to mark Eid al-Fitr on Sunday under Taliban rule for the first time in more than 20 years, after the group was removed from power following a U.S. invasion in 2001.

The Taliban retook power last August after foreign forces pulled out of the country.

Taliban authorities announced on Saturday that Eid would be marked the following day, leading to raucous rounds of celebratory gunfire in the streets of Kabul late on Saturday night.

The authorities also moved to assuage people’s fears over security ahead of Eid.

“We ensure our countrymen we will ensure security during Eid,” spokesman for Taliban interior ministry Abdul Nafee Takor said.

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Conservation Group Urges Tracking of Botswana’s Big Tusk Elephants

The Botswana Wildlife Producers Association, a group that focuses on the conservation and management of the country’s wildlife, says placing electronic tracking collars on big tusk elephants could help prevent indiscriminate hunts. The idea follows the recent killing of a so-called big tusker during a sanctioned hunt, which sparked outrage among conservationists.

The association’s chief executive, Isaac Theophilus, said while his organization is satisfied that the hunt of bull elephants is being handled properly, tracking some big tusk elephants could help.

An electronic elephant collar helps keep track of the animal so that unsanctioned hunts of these animals for their tusks can be prevented.       

“The hunt from the point of view of the association is that it was perfectly legal,” Theophilus said. “We are happy with the size of the trophy that was harvested, and we are glad we still have such big tuskers. Going forward, the association would like to work hand-in-hand with [the] government to ensure that we monitor elephant populations out there. Go out there and collar a few of the so-called big tuskers and follow them to ensure that they are not harvested or anything like [that].”  

Theophilus contended the criticism of Botswana’s decision to reintroduce hunting in 2019 is unjustified. The southern African country recently opened its annual hunting season, which ends in September.

“The issue might have attracted criticism from certain quarters that do not value Botswana’s conservation efforts,” he said. “This particular hunt is a very good tusker. We should as a country be very appreciative that our conservation efforts are bearing fruit. We still have big elephants in the conservation areas, particularly in the concession areas and in the parks, where no hunting is done.” 

Local professional hunter Randy Motsumi said hunters always target old bulls with big tusks, which is what their clients demand.

“Mostly the hunters are looking for big bulls, which are old and no longer breeding,” Motsumi said. “If natural death could have occurred, who would have benefited? No one would have benefited. The animal was going to rot in the bush. Now hunters have shot a bull and it has fed more than 700 people. There is money in the government coffers and the community got employed. All these people have gained from only one big elephant that is no longer breeding.”               

Conservationist Map Ives said shooting big elephants is what drives the hunting industry.

“It is truly an impressive elephant, and the hunting of large tusks elephant is very much at the core of what the hunting industry is selling to its customer base in the United States in particular,” Ives said. “That is what the professional hunting industry is all about; is to find the biggest, largest animal because they have lists and books of records, and everybody wants to be in that book of records and publish a story about him.”     

Among critics of the decision to gun down a big tusk elephant is British Conservative Party Member of Parliament Roger Gale. He argued that tourists pay for photographic safaris to see the big tuskers, and he is opposed to Botswana’s decision to reintroduce trophy hunting.

But Botswana government spokesperson William Sentshebeng says Gale seeks to undermine Botswana’s pragmatic and sustainable conservation policy.

While elephant populations are declining elsewhere on the continent, Botswana has seen its herd grow to more than 130,000, while the most it can support is estimated at 55,000.

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Eastern DRC Residents Accuse Army of Abuse

Forced to flee her home, 62-year-old Agathe fears never to see peace again as she recounts the violence she has faced in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But the abuse Agathe has suffered in the territory of Masisi in North-Kivu province is not by rebels who have terrorized the area for more than a quarter of a century, but by soldiers.

“I tried three times to go home, but the soldiers who took control of the village behaved like those in the forest,” says Agathe, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, referring to rebels.

“They force us to work for them, they steal half of our crops. They ask us to pay taxes to access our own fields and when we don’t pay, they whip us.”

Agathe, like thousands of others displaced in Masisi, fled the fighting between DRC armed forces and rebel groups after the authorities declared a “state of siege” in the troubled region nearly a year ago.

The stringent measure gave the army and police full powers to run the administration and wage war on the hundred or so armed groups.

But in witness testimony and reports, civilians accuse soldiers of murder, rape, torture, looting, forced labor and collaborating with rebels.

“We thought that the state of siege would put an end to harassment, but in fact, it’s much worse,” says a civil society figure, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons.

“The extortion by soldiers is taking place in broad daylight and with complete impunity,” the person says.

‘Shot on the spot’

A U.N. document seen by AFP tells of troops committing hundreds of abuses including “attacks on protected people and places … abduction, recruitment and use of children,” as well as sexual violence and torture.

The abuses were documented in Masisi between May 6 last year and February 9, 2022, the U.N. Joint Human Right Office in DR Congo (UNJHRO) says.

A religious leader blames commanders. “The people will never be safe here while soldiers’ rations are stolen by their commanders,” he charges.

A health worker describes how soldiers from the 3410e regiment stormed into a health center in Loashi, 10 kilometers from central Masisi, in February looking for a rebel before they “shot him on the spot with three bullets.”

In another incident in December, soldiers from the same regiment raped 15 women held in underground cells after they were accused of witchcraft, according to a report by UNJHRO.

The soldiers demanded $200 for the release of each woman and refused to let them access health care, it adds.

The region’s armed forces spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Guillaume Ndjike, told AFP he was not aware of any accusations against the regiment.

“If necessary, they will respond [to any claims] … it’s not a problem.”

Several sources said the 3410e regiment left Masisi earlier this month, which Ndjike did not deny.

Sitting on a bench, a despondent Agathe remembers the happier times of her youth. “When I was a young girl, we could walk freely, there was no kidnapping, no shootings, no harassment,” she says, describing a world she no longer believes will return.

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India, Pakistan Reeling From Pre-Monsoon Season Heat Wave

Meteorologists warn the extreme heat gripping India and Pakistan is likely to have many cascading effects on human health, ecosystems, agriculture, water, energy, and the economy. 

For the past few days, hundreds of millions of people have been sweltering under temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius in widespread areas of India and Pakistan. The intense heat is predicted to continue until May 2 and then subside.

The World Meteorological Organization says both India and Pakistan regularly experience excessively high temperatures in the pre-monsoon period, especially in May. While heatwaves do occur in April, it says they are less common.

WMO spokeswoman Clare Nullis said national meteorological and hydrological departments in both countries are implementing measures that have been successful in saving lives in the past few years.

“A lot of work has been taken on heat health action plans specifically and in particular to protect the most vulnerable, and the most vulnerable in urban areas where the impact of the heat tends to be magnified,” she said. “So, we do hope that mortality from this ongoing event will be limited.”

Nullis said large swaths of Pakistan are experiencing daytime temperatures between five and eight degrees Celsius above normal for this time of year. She said the extreme heat will have a punishing impact on Pakistan’s mountainous regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“The Pakistan Meteorological Department is warning that the unusual heat has the risk of speeding up the melting of snow and ice, and this might trigger what we call glacial lake outbursts, which lead to flash floods,” she said. “These are, obviously, very deadly hazards.”

Meteorologists say it is premature to attribute the extreme heat in India and Pakistan solely to climate change. However, they agree it is consistent with what is expected in a changing climate.

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns heat waves and humid heat stress will be more intense and frequent in South Asia this century.

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