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FILE: Franklin & Marshall College visiting professor Tim Bechtel and research assistant Nina Simic show a string-activated land mine. They are working with an international team on a NATO project to develop a cheap, effective way to detect landmines in the Ukraine.

Researchers at Franklin & Marshall College who have been disabling landmines around Ukraine are facing uncertainty about their work as the country becomes a war zone.

Since 2015, a team of researchers led by Franklin & Marshall professors Tim Bechtel and Fronefield Crawford have been working to “demine” parts of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have tried to separate themselves and declare independence from Ukraine. The Franklin & Marshall professors have been conducting this work alongside researchers in Ukraine, Italy and Jordan, with funding through NATO’s Science for Peace and Security program.

Eastern Ukraine is one of the world’s “most contaminated” areas by landmines, with more than two million people each year exposed to the deadly explosives. Approximately 70% of families in this part of Ukraine are “struggling to go about their daily lives to avoid them, whether it be going to get food, school, home, hospital or crossing the ‘contact line,’” according to a report published in April 2021 from the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The so-called “contact line” is the area that separates the Ukrainian-controlled areas and the non-governmental areas led by separatists, where many landmines still exist today, Bechtel said.

Bechtel said he’d been finishing a report due to the NATO program with his colleagues in Kharkiv, Ukraine, just hours before the Russian invasion began. At the time, his Ukrainian colleagues were uncertain if their country would be invaded — and what that may look like. Before 6 a.m. in Ukraine on Thursday, Russian forces invaded the country on three fronts.

Bechtel and Crawford work with their international colleagues – as well as with F&M students – to create teams of robots that survey areas of eastern Ukraine to be able to identify landmines that may be hidden beneath the surface or disguised as trash, Bechtel said.

This work to remove landmines is intended to make eastern Ukraine more safe for its residents. In 2020 alone, at least 55 people were injured and 15 were killed by landmines or other explosives left over from war, according to the U.N. report. The group of researchers began detecting landmines shortly after Russia tried to annex Crimea in southern Ukraine.

“I find it ironic that our work on humanitarian demining to make Ukraine safe has been stalled by another conflict,” Bechtel said. “It’s pretty terrible that in trying to clean up from ongoing border conflicts, there’s now a much larger conflict that’s stopping the work so we have more of a mess to clean up later.”

Bechtel said researchers in Lancaster, Italy and Jordan all plan to continue their work. For now, he said his colleagues in Ukraine are all safe and leaving Kharkiv in hopes of getting away from any war zone.

“We’re all very concerned about them,” Bechtel added.

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