When the camera clicked, Valera’s dog started howling. “He thinks it’s a shot.”
After going through the bombing of his Ukrainian city by Russian forces, Valera’s beloved pet, Bars, is fearful, traumatized and scared. He howls in fear at every noise.
This was a conversation told by Manchester photographer Sean Sutton after his visit to the war-torn country last month with the Mines Advisory Group (MAG).
Sean has worked in conflict zones across the globe, from Syria to Angola, but says no two scenarios are alike. The sheer scale of the devastation in Ukraine has surprised him.
MAG, which is based on Peter Street in the center of Manchester, will soon begin work in Ukraine, clearing landmines and explosives and providing risk education. They will work long term with non-profit Ukrainian Mining Association (UDA) .
The work is needed. So much was obvious Sean when he visited the city of Irpin and found an unusual booby trap.
“We met a woman who was sweeping glass up and talking to her. I was part of the assessment team, so luckily I was with a technical operations manager.
“These women had fled when the building next door was hit a few times, but they came back for their cats. While we were talking to this lady, her friend came out and asked if we could look at anything.”
Close to a damaged wall and behind a wedged door, neighbors pointed to a hand grenade placed unsafely on top of a large water bottle.
“We could see the hand grenade on top of a water dispenser through the crack,” Sean says.
“We said ‘do not go near this room and make sure no one else does’. We could not do anything about it without our kit but they had already reported it. They have done the right thing.
“You find all sorts of things. Quite often corpses are caught with a hand grenade – for example under the armpit. “
Sean from the Whalley Range says it was ‘terribly shocking’ to see the impact of the war on these communities.
“It’s very fresh. It had just happened. The people I met were people who had become. They were generally older people who were traumatized. In a very difficult emotional state. That’s what stays with me, ” he says.
‘Some had become because of their animals, others had a weak relative or were even fragile. Their lives will never be the same again. You saw incredibly vulnerable people suffer.
“In a village there were 40 people who had survived, 52 were dead or missing. There was a guy who had been in his basement for 32 days. He had a mattress with ‘human’ written over it. It was just to show that there was someone alive in there.
“There is the road from that village with unexploded ordnance missiles on the ground. Across the fence were painted the words: ‘here live children’.”
This was Sean’s first visit to Ukraine, though he can compare the devastation he witnessed with other areas of conflict.
He says: “There are differences in every situation and scenario. In 2006 in Lebanon it was a rapid war. Villages were completely razed and I remember being amazed.
“Syria has extremely high levels of damage, but it happened over a long period of time. There has been massive use of explosives in populated areas. And I have spent time in Raqqa, which is apocalyptic.”
Although Sean always has an interpreter with him, he says people communicate in all sorts of non-verbal ways. These are the signals he uses to tell stories.
“In my experience, people like to talk about it with grief. But if you sense that they are not doing it, you are not doing it, ”he says. “People were amazing. It was amazing to go there as a storyteller trying to communicate issues around conflicts.”
The photographer, who is MAG’s international communications manager, says there are photos he took that he found ‘very moving’. “Like 20-story buildings just gone. They looked like they were missing teeth. You can see the covered tables and the bookshelves. Surviving lives. And they were still pulling corpses out of those buildings.
“I took a picture of a mural of a waitress carrying a tray, but behind her the whole area is ruined. It’s an apocalyptic scene.”
The MAG team has found evidence of contamination caused by cluster munitions – which is widely banned – as well as improvised explosives and other explosive munitions in Bucha, Irpin, Andriivka and Borodyanka.
Director of International Policy and Partnerships, Josephine Dresner, who led the assessment mission, says it will take years to rectify.
“The overall level of pollution in Ukraine is now so extensive that it will almost certainly require hundreds of millions of pounds and decades of hard work to remove,” she says.
“That is why it is so important to work in close and constructive cooperation with Ukrainian organizations, so that we help Ukrainians build their own capabilities, resources and capacity to deliver a long-term, sustainable approach to the challenges ahead.
“At the same time, when we mobilize our operations in a context new to MAG, the UDA’s comprehensive understanding of the explosive threat and operational challenges will be absolutely invaluable.”
MAG – which now has a permanent base in Ukraine – will work with the UDA, Ukrainian NGOs and government institutions to first focus on educating vulnerable communities about the dangers of UXOs and landmines. Surveying and clearing work is expected to begin later in the year.
MAG says there are rising reports civilians are killed and wounded by unexploded ordnance in the Kyiv region and across eastern and southern Ukraine.
Sean says it’s not uncommon in conflict zones. He says it is very common for children to pick up explosives. “They pick up a shiny metal object, and that’s it,” he says. “I come across it everywhere with children. It’s a challenge for us with risk education, so we have to find ways to teach people.”
It is estimated that 2 million people were already in danger of landmines and explosive remnants of war in eastern Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion earlier this year – a result of the conflict in 2014.
Greg Crowther, MAG’s director of programs, says the team in Ukraine has decades of experience in complex conflict environments after stays in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
“Our approach will, as always, be to work very closely with the relevant national authorities and to engage with local partners to ensure that we have the greatest possible impact, coordinate effectively with other agencies and that efforts do not overlap,” he says. .
You can learn more about MAG’s work in Ukraine and donate to charity here.