Teddy bear bombs? Ukrainian soldiers teach kids to avoid explosives

 17 Nov 2015 - 17:24

Teddy bear bombs? Ukrainian soldiers teach kids to avoid explosives

Mariupol, Ukraine: "A bomb can be planted inside", a Ukrainian soldier warned students as he pointed to a stuffed animal at a high school in Mariupol, a strategic port city in Ukraine's war-scarred east. 

School No. 5 is located in the city's eastern district, some 10 kilometres (5.5 miles) west of the front line in a 19-month conflict between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian insurgents. 

The neighbourhood is still full of unexploded landmines and booby traps, which have been the cause of most casualties since a tenuous ceasefire was adopted in September. It is the first lasting truce in a conflict that has killed more than 8,000 people and injured nearly 18,000.

Pro-Russian rebel leaders have repeatedly threatened to seize the southeastern city of 500,000, the only major metropolis in the region still under Kiev's control. 

In January, the area was the stage of heavy shelling, killing more than 30 civilians and wounding more than 100 others. 

One of the shells landed near School No. 5 and injured a child. 

But deadly threats in Mariupol are often more covert, concealed in the ground or in unexpected objects such as stuffed animals. 

"Almost everyday civilians step on the landmines that can be really hard to identify," said the soldier who only gave his first name, Dmytro. "Even soldiers have trouble spotting them."

"Our goal is to teach children how to react", he said, adding that this included warning students against taking walks in the forest and touching objects that would have seemed harmless before the war.

The UN children's agency UNICEF said in March that at least 42 children had been killed and 109 injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance in eastern Ukrainian since the war began.

Once opposed to military presence on its grounds, the administration of School No. 5, which has 1,200 pupils, now regularly hosts Ukrainian soldiers to raise students' awareness about the dangers in their environment. 

"This school is on the outskirts of the city, in the dangerous area," said teacher Anna Yermoshkina. "We are too close to the front line, that's why these lessons are very important."

Sixteen-year-old student Mykhailo, one of the school's 1,200 students, worried about the frequency of landmine explosions in the area.

"Tractor drivers hit mines here and there, this happens quite often," he said.

Indeed farmers, along with fighters and mine-clearers, are the main victims of the scattered landmines and booby traps, according to both Ukrainian authorities and the Moscow-backed rebels.