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Ukrainian swimming pools are filled with unexploded shells

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HOSTOMEL, Ukraine – It was a perfect summer day, puffy white clouds reflecting off the still expanse of a lake, the air shimmering with warmth. The temptation to dive? Irresistible.

But beneath the surface of the lake lay an unseen danger.

A pair of teenagers watched from a jetty as ripples appeared in the water and a metal detector appeared, followed by a diver who emerged in full scuba gear. In his hands, an unexploded 82 millimeter mortar.

Just two months ago the Russians pounded this suburb of Kyiv with artillery as they retreated after failing to take the capital. In their wake, the Ukrainian authorities cleared as much land as they could. Yet they are only just beginning on the lakes and rivers – just as Ukrainians, exhausted and traumatized by Russia’s brutal occupation around Kyiv, crave places to cool off and relax.

“This one came in and didn’t explode,” said Roman Horiak, 31, an underwater sapper squad leader for the state Emergency Service. “If you step on it, it may or may not explode, depending on the state of the detonator. But an unpleasant accident can occur if a person steps on the priming element or the detonator itself.

Horiak’s team is focusing on unexploded ordnance in the lakes. Another team, led by the national police, tackles rivers where the worry is not about the devices but about the spies and saboteurs who, from hideouts on isolated islands and swamps, could help the Russians to plan a new invasion in this part of the country.

Both work in what, for them, is a surreal setting. The mighty Dnipro River, devoid of motorboats and jet skis. Suburban lakes with no kids splashing around.

Under martial law, people are prohibited from taking their own boats out onto the waterways and discouraged from going to the beaches. Most are wary, well aware of the tens of thousands of mines and unexploded ordnance that have been defused as the Ukrainians regain control of most of the country’s north.

Horiak says the rules are in place because officials can’t rely on everyone to be risk-smart. Stories abound of individuals searching for unexploded ordnance to retrieve or even attempt to detonate.

Some mortars have been laid at the bottom of Ukrainian lakes since World War II. An aficionado took one home, cut it, and blew himself up – probably by accident. In another case, a group “started a fire, threw ammunition into it, ran and hid behind trees,” Horiak said. To everyone’s disappointment, nothing exploded.

It is always possible to find bombs much larger than simple mortars. These unexploded aerial bombs, Horiak said, must be lifted from the water using an inflatable balloon and then transported to a secure detonation site miles from populated areas.

Recently, in Hostomel, his team of divers completed their work in a small lake where they searched the bottom and found the last of six mortars in the current war.

“From an outside perspective, it might seem like the process of underwater mine clearance is meditative, that there’s a zen in it,” said lead diver Denys Borbit, 40, who appeared as placidly calm as the water. “But in this particular lake, I can say that’s not the case. It’s terrible zero visibility, an unpleasant smell, and the bottom is covered with shells. Here, we work almost blind.

Work in the river is definitely more pleasant. While on patrol, Andriy Karpyna, 42, sat down and puffed on an electric cigarette as a colleague revved his speedboat across the wide, muddy Dnipro.

“The Russians have ruined our peaceful environment,” said Karpyna, the head of the national police department that oversees waterways and airspace. “Normally you would see hundreds of boats with people enjoying the summer. Now we are here thinking there is plenty of space for Russian saboteurs to hide.

Sergey Ushynskiy, 40, who uses a drone that helps monitor clearings on river islands, said: “Imagine we are now going to a shore. Do we have guarantees that there is the only person we can see from the boat? Or could it not be a group of people with guns? »

The pair had just checked out a homeless encampment they fear could be used as a hideout. Only one man was there at the time, tending to a fire. He had just made himself an omelet in a filthy cast-iron skillet and was listening to pop music on a transistor radio.

Karpyna found an illegal fishing net but continued. These days, that’s not the kind of thing the team is looking for. They are looking for “guests”, as his colleague Ruslan Doroshenko put it.

No one would divulge how many saboteurs or arms caches have been found since the Russians withdrew from the area, but all said the threat was real. And while emphasizing that Ukrainians should always be alert, Karpyna said he also understands their desire to enjoy summer traditions like fishing and boating on the Dnipro. He knows how desperate everyone is for a bit of normality.

“When I returned home to Kyiv after all those weeks of bombardment and found the playground was full of children – when I watched this scene – I finally understood the value of peace “, did he declare.

Kostiantyn Khudov and Serhiy Morgunov contributed to this report.

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