Russia’s brutal and unprovoked February 24 further invasion of Ukraine has flooded communities in its eastern, central, and southern regions with deadly explosive hazards, including landmines, unexploded bombs and munitions, and improvised explosive devices. These explosive remnants of war continue to kill and maim innocent Ukrainian civilians, while the threat they pose also blocks access to fertile farmland, delays reconstruction efforts, and prevents displaced families from returning to their homes. According to Government of Ukraine estimates, as much as 160,000 square kilometers of its land may be contaminated – an area roughly the size of Virginia, Maryland, and Connecticut combined.
A new initiative supported by the U.S. State Department is working to save lives and prevent injuries by using soccer to raise local awareness about these hidden hazards. This $1.5 million program, managed by the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, is led by Spirit of Soccer, one of our partners working worldwide to save lives and help communities recovering from conflict.
Coach Scotty Lee founded Spirit of Soccer in 1996 after witnessing first-hand the impact landmines and unexploded munitions have on communities during his time as a volunteer aid worker in the Balkans. Since then, Spirit of Soccer has been dedicated to using soccer skills clinics and tournaments to teach Explosive Ordnance Risk Education to more than 1 million children in 14 countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Iraq, and Kosovo.
Working in partnership with the Ukrainian Football Association and the Amateur Association of Football of Ukraine (AAFU), Spirit of Soccer is currently training 30 coaches from Ukraine’s Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Chernivtsi regions to teach children Explosive Ordnance Risk Education; in other words, how to recognize, avoid, and report dangerous items to local authorities, increasing their safety and that of their friends, neighbors, and community, while also having fun playing soccer.
In Bucha and Irpin, two cities that remain significantly covered in unexploded Russian bombs and explosive hazards, Spirit of Soccer and its local partners recently staged the first in a series of more than 1,400 soccer clinics and 30 tournaments expected to reach an estimated 40,000 children, to spread the word about the risk of explosive hazards and help keep kids safe as communities work toward survey and clearance efforts to eliminate unexploded munitions for good.
The United States is proud to support Ukraine’s efforts to address the impacts of explosive hazards in Ukraine. Since 2004, we have invested more than $77 million to help Ukraine address both its legacy conventional weapons challenges as well as survey and clearance efforts to mitigate the deadly explosive hazards left behind by Russia’s initial invasion in 2014 and its renewed assault in 2021. As Ukraine continues to assess the impacts of Russia’s ongoing invasion, we intend to provide more than $90 million in assistance in the coming year to address explosive hazards, including through Spirit of Soccer’s important effort, as well as working to train and equip approximately 100 Ukrainian demining teams. We will also support a large-scale train and equip project to strengthen the Government of Ukraine’s demining and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) capacity, which will be key to future recovery and rebuilding.
The United States is the world’s single largest financial supporter of conventional weapons destruction. Since 1993, the United States has invested more than $4.7 billion for the safe clearance of landmines and explosive remnants of war as well as the securing and safe disposal of excess small arms, light weapons, and munitions in more than 100 countries and territories.
For more information on how the State Department is strengthening human security, facilitating economic development, and fostering stability through demining, risk education, and other conventional weapons destruction activities, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.
About the Author: Andy Strike is a Public Affairs Specialist in the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.