In the days following the Russian withdrawal from the outskirts of kyiv, a driver named Oleg Naumenko opened the trunk of an abandoned car and it exploded, killing him instantly.
The car had been booby-trapped, and his family and local authorities blamed the Russian soldiers. “I died with him then,” Mr. Naumenko’s wife, Valeria, said between sobs.
As ordinary Ukrainians emerge from basements and bunkers in the ruins of their hometowns, many face a new horror: thousands of mines and unexploded bombs left behind by retreating Russian troops.
Residents and authorities say departing Russian soldiers covered large swathes of the country with buried landmines and jury-rigged bombs – some hidden as booby traps inside homes. The explosives must now be found and neutralized before the inhabitants can resume some semblance of normal life.
Some of the explosives were attached to washing machines, doors, car windows and other places where they can kill or injure civilians returning home, according to residents and Ukrainian officials. Some were even hidden under stretchers and hospital corpses.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this week called his country “one of the most contaminated by mines in the world” and said authorities were working to clear thousands of people in areas from which Russian armies had withdrawn in recent weeks. He accused the Russian soldiers of leaving the explosives in their wake “to kill or maim as many of our fellow citizens as possible”.
He said the tactic was a war crime and that the Russian soldiers must have acted on instructions from senior officials, adding: “Without the proper orders, they wouldn’t have done it.”
Human Rights Watch and The New York Times reported that Russian forces in Ukraine appear to be using advanced landmines in the eastern city of Kharkiv. Several local officials also said that their districts’ bomb squads had found explosive devices left in homes.
Landmines, designed to kill people, are banned by an international treaty signed by almost every country in the world, including Ukraine; Russia and the United States refused to join.
Ukraine’s emergency services agency has deployed a small army of around 550 mine specialists to clear areas recently occupied by Russian forces. Teams worked to remove around 6,000 explosives a day, and since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, they have found more than 54,000 explosive devices, the agency reported on Tuesday.
“Wherever the occupiers spent the night, they set up tripwires,” Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky said in a television interview on Sunday. “Explosives were found under helmets, attached to doors, in the washing machine and in cars.”
The placement of explosives in Ukrainian homes could not be independently verified.
Mr. Naumenko, who was killed on April 4, worked as a driver in the village of Hoholiv, about 40 miles from kyiv. But his talent lay in repairing cars. After Russian forces withdrew from a nearby village, neighbors found an abandoned vehicle and handed it over to him.
His wife learned of his death the next day in Poland, where she had fled with their 7-year-old son and his mother at the start of the war. She returned to their village as soon as she heard the news. “What was left was the car, with the door still open and a pool of blood,” said Ms Naumenko, 28, “and a big void.”
His account was confirmed by photos and by Kyiv Regional Police, who posted a report on the incident on their Facebook page, warning returning residents “not to touch objects and things that have not not previously tested by experts”.
Other local officials are urging residents to call emergency services before entering their homes.
Retreating armies often bury land mines in order to slow the advancing enemy armies. But experts say Russian forces have a well-deserved reputation for trapping areas they evacuated in order to kill and maim returning civilians.
Human Rights Watch has documented Russia’s use of antipersonnel mines in more than 30 countries where Moscow’s forces were involved, including the conflicts in Syria and Libya. In Palmyra, during the Syrian war, traps surfaced after the Russians left the city.
“Leaving behind small gifts for civilians when they return – like hand grenades, tripwires, unexploded shells, pressure plates – it’s Russian military tradition to do so,” said Mark Hiznay, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again,” he said.
Mr. Hiznay said that “putting a landmine in someone’s freezer” was a tactic that served no purpose other than to terrorize civilians. Ukraine will have to deal with the consequences of landmines “one civilian leg at a time”, he added, explaining that it can often take years or even decades to clear all munitions.
“The presence of these devices deprives civilians of their land and forces them to make difficult choices: graze the sheep or risk stepping on a mine in the pasture,” he said.