Barely two months ago, Russians were pounding this Kyiv suburb with artillery as they retreated after failing to take the capital. In their wake, Ukrainian authorities have demined as much of the land as they can. Yet they are just getting started on lakes and rivers — right as Ukrainians, exhausted and traumatized by Russia’s brutal occupation around Kyiv, are craving places to cool off and unwind.
“This one flew in and did not explode,” said Roman Horiak, 31, head of a group of underwater sappers for the State Emergency Service. “If you step on it, it may or may not detonate, depending on the condition of the detonator. But an unpleasant accident can occur if a person steps on the priming element or detonator itself.”
Horiak’s team is focusing on unexploded munitions in lakes. Another team, led by the national police, is tackling rivers where the concern is not about devices but about spies and saboteurs who from hideouts on secluded islands and swampland might be helping the Russians plan a new invasion in this part of the country.
Both are working in what, for them, are surreal settings. The mighty Dnipro River, devoid of motorboats and Jet Skis. Suburban lakes without children splashing about.
Under martial law, people are prohibited from taking their own vessels out on waterways and discouraged from going to beaches. Most are taking heed, well aware of the tens of thousands of mines and unexploded ordnances that have been defused as Ukrainians retake control over most of the northern portion of the country.
Horiak says the rules are in place because officials can’t rely on everyone to be smart about the risks. Stories abound of individuals who have gone searching for unexploded munitions so they can collect them or even try to set them off.
Some mortars have laid at the bottom of Ukraine’s lakes since World War II. One aficionado took one home, cut it up and blew himself apart — presumably by accident. In another instance, a group “lit a fire, threw ammunition in there, ran and hid behind trees,” Horiak recounted. To everyone’s disappointment, nothing exploded.
It’s still possible to find much larger bombs than simple mortars. Such unexploded aviation bombs, Horiak said, need to be lifted out of the water using an inflatable balloon and then taken to a secure detonation site miles from inhabited areas.
On a recent day in Hostomel, his team of divers wrapped up work in a small lake where they combed the bottom and found the last of six mortars from the current war.
“It may seem from the outside perspective as if the process of underwater demining is meditative, that there is some Zen in it,” said lead diver Denys Borbit, 40, who appeared as placidly calm as the water. “But in this particular lake, I can say that this is not the case. It’s terrible zero visibility, an unpleasant odor, and the bottom is covered with shells. Here, we work almost blindly.”
The river work is decidedly more pleasant. On one patrol, Andriy Karpyna, 42, sat back and puffed on an electric cigarette as Serhiy Ushynskiy revved their speedboat down the wide, muddy Dnipro.
“The Russians ruined our peaceful environment,” said Karpyna, the head of the national police’s department that oversees waterways and airspace. “Normally you would see hundreds of boats with people enjoying the summer. Now we’re out here thinking this is a lot of space for Russian saboteurs to hide.”
Ushynskiy, 40, who operates a drone that helps to monitor clearings on river islands, piped in: “Imagine we go to a shore now. Do we have guarantees that there is the one person we can see from the boat? Or might it not be a group of people with guns?”
The two men had just come from checking on an encampment of homeless people that they worry could be used as a hideout. Only one man was there at the time, tending a fire. He had just made himself an omelet in a filthy cast iron skillet and was listening to pop music on a transistor radio.
Karpyna found an illegal fishing net but moved on. Nowadays, that’s not the kind of thing the team is after. They’re looking for “guests,” as colleague Ruslan Doroshenko put it.
No one would divulge how many saboteurs or stashes of weapons have been found since the Russians withdrew from the region, but all said the threat was real. And while stressing that Ukrainians should always be on alert, Karpyna said he also understands their desire to enjoy summer traditions like fishing and boating on the Dnipro. He knows how desperate everyone is for a bit of normalcy.
“When I came back home to Kyiv after all those weeks of shelling and I discovered that the playground was full of children — when I looked at that scene — I finally understood the value of peace,” he said.
Kostiantyn Khudov and Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.