Ukraine war: Edinburgh humanitarian worker shares experiences of defusing mines in ongoing conflict

An Edinburgh resident who leads a demining task force in Ukraine has spoken about her experiences of working in the ongoing conflict.

By Neil Johnstone
Sunday, 24th July 2022, 4:55 am

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Mairi Cunningham, 33, who lives in Leith, travelled to Ukraine in November last year to remove land mines in the Donbas region, just months before Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

Mairi, who has worked for the HALO Trust (Hazardous Area Life-support Organization) since 2018, is now a programme manager in Ukraine and heads a 400-strong team of brave humanitarian workers that remove undetonated explosives throughout the country.

Leith resident, Mairi, is a Programme Manager for Scottish charity, The HALO Trust

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    But despite having worked in dangerous environments across the world including Syria, Cambodia and Somaliland, Mairi said her job has become increasingly difficult following Russia’s aggressive assault.

    Mairi, originally from Broughty Ferry near Dundee, said: “When I took on this role in November no-one could have imagined how things would unfold. This is not exactly what I signed up for.

    “I knew there were security challenges of a hostile neighbour, but I do not think anyone could have anticipated the situation was going to change so dramatically.”

    She added: “I’ve worked in post conflict environments clearing up explosive ordnance, but suddenly living amongst an actual conflict of this scale adds a whole new dimension to the challenges of this job.”

    Mairi said: “I doubt either of my parents are happy with my career choice right now but hopefully they understand why we’re here. I think they are proud of the work we are doing."

    The HALO Trust team are currently conducting operations in areas around Kyiv, clearing unexploded cluster munitions where Russian troops have recently withdrawn. The charity’s work not only plays a crucial role in helping people living around Kyiv return to some sort of normality, but the team also educates civilians, especially children, about the risks of landmines.

    Mairi said: “Although we are now far away from advancing Russian troops, we still face the threat of missile strikes across the country.

    “The danger and unpredictability of the situation, it can get to you without you realising.”

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    She added: “That threat is pervasive. You carry on as if life is normal and get reminders that life is not normal.”

    The heroic HALO Trust workers were forced to suspend their regular operations following the February invasion but maintained “a symbolic presence in Lviv” during the first months of the conflict, before resuming relief work in May once Russian forces had been pushed back.

    Mairi said: “It was a stressful experience, but nothing compared to the ordeal of our colleagues who have lost loved-ones or been displaced from their homes.

    “A staff member was killed in Mariupol during the bombardment and fighting there. The majority of our 30 staff in Mariupol made it out but we still have six who are unaccounted for and we’ve lost contact with.”

    Mairi said she is “immensely grateful” to the UK government who have provided £2million to the HALO Trust, adding that their financial support will “prevent further deaths and allow families to return to homes, factories to reopen and fields to be re-cultivated.”

    The UK’s Minister for Europe, Graham Stuart said: “Putin’s illegal use of landmines in Ukraine is deliberately inflicting death and injury to innocent civilians.

    “That is why the UK Government supports The HALO Trust’s world-leading demining work.

    “Mairi’s team in Ukraine is saving lives and helping communities to rebuild their homes and livelihoods.”

    Mr Stuart added: “We will continue to support the Ukrainian government in its fight against Putin’s illegal and inhumane war.”