Teenager who survived mine explosion stresses safety rules
As UNICEF and partners continue to stress the importance of mine safety training in Ukraine, one teenager who survived a mine explosion shares his story
In the Ukrainian city of Izium, 17-year-old Habriel stands at a bus stop riddled with shrapnel. Here, 80 per cent of the landscape lies in ruins, and locals are used to shelling and gunfire. But for Habriel, this battle-scarred bus stop serves as a stark reminder of one terrifying winter evening he will never forget.
Back in February, the teenager was waiting here with a group of friends, when one presented a "petal" mine they had found. Suddenly, the mine detonated, injuring each of the seven youngsters. While everyone survived, shrapnel pierced Habriel's legs, and his 16-year-old friend Dasha bore the impact of 12 shrapnel pieces, some of which punctured her neck.
"It was sheer luck for all of us that everyone survived. The outcome could have been much worse.”
Sadly, Habriel’s story is not unique. Amid the ongoing war, Ukraine is now one of the most mine-contaminated countries in the world. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has confirmed that mines and other explosive devices caused 116 child casualties between 24 February 2022 and 19 November 2023.
“I was deafened”
The first moments in the aftermath of the explosion were the most frightening. Habriel recalls a sense of disorientation and fear for his friends.
"I was deafened,” he remembers. “Everything was a blur of white before my eyes. I couldn't see anything – there was a ringing noise in my ears.”
The first thing he saw was his wounded friends, who had been thrown into the road by the blast wave. Despite his own injuries, he carried the girls to a nearby bus stop and laid them on a bench. There, he tried to call his mother, only to discover that his phone had been punctured by a piece of shrapnel.
"If not for the phone, the shard would have struck me in the stomach," he says.
Several of his friends underwent extensive rehabilitation and suffered for some time following the explosion.
"We were all taken to a hospital in Kharkiv, where the shrapnel was removed from my body. I can say I'm really fortunate that it didn't hit a bone.”
Despite its small size, the so-called "petal" mine is deadly.
"It breaks into many pieces. Upon impact, it burns your skin and stings. One of the girls who suffered a fragment in her neck had severe injuries – her carotid artery could have been pierced”
Even now, Izium remains mined and dangerous. Across Ukraine, children and teenagers often underestimate the danger posed by mines and other remnants of war. Unfortunately, most child casualties occur when children mistake explosive items, such as hand grenades and fuses, for toys.
“We lost contact”
For Habriel, like millions of children across Ukraine, the war has been devastating. Last year, before the explosion, he and his mother spent nine challenging months in a Czech Republic refugee camp.
"Our house was decimated by shells,” says Habriel. “First, we were hiding in the church basement, but it was difficult for my sick and frightened mother. Eventually, we left. I missed home immensely during that time.”
But when they returned home, they were met by the harsh reality of war.
"Habriel's grandmother didn't want to leave,” says Kayeryna, Habriel’s mother. “During heavy shelling, we lost contact with her. Later, we learned she died, not killed by a shell, but by war, hunger and fear.”
Today, Kateryna struggles to find work in the devastated city, while Habriel continues his studies at the local lyceum. Amid a freezing winter, the family must gather firewood to prepare for potential blackouts, relying on a small stove for warmth.
However, every time Habriel goes in search of firewood, there is a risk of danger. While he always pays attention to signs that warn of mines, they are not always present, as a survey of the area is ongoing and will take a long time.
"Mines can be everywhere. Forests and roads are mined. It is better not to go to unfamiliar places at all. Even in familiar areas, we are afraid to take a step to the left or right.”
The way forward
After more than nine years of fighting in the east of the country and almost two years on from the start of the full-scale war that broke out on 24 February 2022, approximately 30 per cent of Ukraine’s territory is potentially contaminated with mines or explosive remnants of war. These have caused the deaths and injuries of many children in Ukraine, some of whom have been left with lifelong disabilities.
To keep children safe, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and partners continue to encourage mine safety across the country with:
- comics about the Mine Action Super Team;
- cartoons for children, including Safe Holidays (children aged 3-10 years), the Mine Action Super Team (children aged 8-16 years) and Patron the dog (children aged 4-16 years);
informative posters and games.
Interactive materials and videos for group work, developed by UNICEF together with child psychologists and mine education experts, are also available, which explain to children in an easy-to-understand way how to behave safely in areas that may be contaminated by mines. These include:
- an interactive online lesson featuring Patron the dog and Dmytro Monatyk at the All-Ukrainian Online School for Distance Learning, adapted for junior and senior school children;
- a series of 10 educational videos with Patron the dog and sappers about types of explosive devices and safe behaviour in the aftermath of hostilities;
- a series of tips from psychologists for communicating with children about explosive devices;
- a brochure with tasks from the Mine Action Super Team for teenagers;
- mine safety puzzles for preschoolers, primary and secondary school students;
- a manual with detailed lesson plans and presentations for mine safety lessons adapted for primary and secondary schools.
In September 2023, UNICEF launched 15 mobile safety classrooms with special equipment to conduct classes in different regions of Ukraine. In these classes, representatives of the State Emergency Service and the National Police use interactive tools and formats developed by UNICEF to introduce children to vital topics such as mine safety, fire safety, home safety, traffic rules, winter safety, water safety, cybersecurity and more. The mobile classes are being held in the Dnipropetrovska, Mykolaivska, Odeska, Zaporizhzhska, Poltavska, Kharkivska, Sumska, Kyivska, Zhytomyrska and Chernihivska regions, and the city of Kyiv.
In addition, UNICEF, together with the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, is developing a mine safety workshop to ensure that every child knows the rules that save lives and health. Teachers will also have access to an online course on teaching mine safety to children of different age groups.