Hero dad on 'surreal' Ukraine frontline, where soldiers order McDonald’s as lives are torn apart

An aid worker is helping farmers in war-torn Ukraine clear their land of deadly landmines and is also combating food insecurity for the poorest people across the world.

Jon Cunliffe, from Bacup, heads up the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) de-mining task force in Ukraine. Two years on from Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine has overtaken Iraq and Afghanistan to become the most heavily mined country on the planet.

Ukraine has long been a top grain exporter. Roughly 156,000sq km of agricultural land has been rendered too dangerous to farm, which means heightened food insecurity.

Manchester-based MAG and Scottish de-mining charity, The HALO Trust have been using £11.6million of UK Government funding to bring land mined by Russian forces back into productive use.


Jon said: “De-mining is not just saving lives and reviving farmers’ livelihoods in Ukraine – our work also helps feed people all over the world. Ukraine is one of the most world’s most important grain exporters, so this war has had a serious knock-on effect for the poorest countries.

“Since this war erupted, the price of a loaf of bread has probably gone up 10 or 20 pence in the UK. If you think how British people are feeling the pinch from the cost-of-living crisis, in the world’s poorest countries, that increase in price is even more devastating.

“People are suffering worldwide from increased grain prices because Ukraine’s agricultural land is strewn with landmines and unexploded ordnance so too dangerous to farm. The pressure to get that land back into productive use is not just from Ukrainian farmers and its government, but from the international community as well.

“I am proud our de-mining work can make such a difference.”

The UK Government last month announced £17million in new funding to MAG and HALO to carry out life-saving de-mining work across eight countries in Africa and Asia - Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Laos, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

It follows £11.6million funding announced last year for projects in Ukraine and Afghanistan – supporting more than 50,000 people from programmes across the 10 countries. Ukraine’s production of grain and oil seeds decreased by 37 per cent in 2022 according to UN and partners’ Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment.

Former nurse Jon has carried out humanitarian work in many of the world’s most hazardous spots, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen before he was deployed to Ukraine last May.

Dad-of-one Jon says his experience of Europe’s first state-on-state conflict since WWII has been a ‘surreal paradox’ – with soldiers ordering McDonald’s takeaways to eat on the frontline. He said: “It’s the normality of day-to-day life in Ukraine, which rams home the spectre of war on our doorstep for the first time in over 70 years.

A boy plays in front of houses ruined by shelling in Borodyanka, Ukraine
Aid workers are helping farmers in war-torn Ukraine clear their land of deadly landmines. MUST CREDIT PHOTOS TO: MAG/Julia Kochetova

“It is strange to be operating in a conflict so close to home. Ukraine is very much a European country.

“It’s just a two-hour flight from the UK to Krakow on the border with Ukraine. Despite the war, the trains run absolutely on time and the food is amazing here. I’ve never had a bad meal.

“It is just a surreal paradox that you can be living normal life and 20km away there’s people dying in fighting. Guys can literally go to McDonalds and take their burgers back to the front line.

“But everybody’s traumatised by this war. I’ve got a driver who has lost two of his brothers on the front line already.

“Many of our staff have lost family or friends – either through air strikes or on the front line. So many people have lost their homes.

“The air strikes come in waves. I’m mainly based in Kyiv and we’ve had a lot of what you call ‘window shakers’, where something’s landed close enough that the whole windows are rattling away.

“The non-stop bombardment of Kharkiv, Kherson and Mykolaiv is just mind-blowingly tiring, to be honest. It just wears you out.”

Jon added: “The worst thing about airstrikes is you just don’t know where something is going to land. The very first missile of the war in Yemen blew up literally in front of me.

“In Baghdad, I lived through the dark days of the insurgencies with IEDs going off everywhere. I ran the largest health operation in Northern Syria in 2013 to 2015 and I lost 85 staff and had some 200 staff injured.

“So, in that sense, I’ve not found Ukraine a shock, but there is a sense Ukrainians have fallen a long way. They have been battered back to a situation most never thought could happen again.

“This is a western country in so many ways. You can imagine it would be like de-mining in Scotland, England or France, if they had been invaded.”

Highly experienced Jon says his de-miners have had to face new challenges as they carry out their dangerous work in Ukraine. He said: “There is clear evidence of booby-trapping and there’s some horrific tactics going on.

“There’s been much more mixing of mines, so you have anti-personnel and anti-tank mines clustered together, which makes de-mining more complicated as you are dealing with two different beasts. Mixed minefields are a pain because you can’t use all the tools you’d like to use to clear them.

The ruins of Ukrainian city of Mariupol, in an area now under the control of Russian military and pro-Russian separatists (picture taken April 19, 2022)
A boy plays in front of houses ruined by shelling in Borodyanka, Ukraine -Credit:AP

“The presence of anti-personnel mines mean you can’t put a sniffer dog in there or it will just turn to red mist. The Russians have developed some highly ingenious mines.

“You’ve got ones that they can fire from a rocket or a piece of artillery that will land on the ground, right themselves and then fire out four trip wires, which will go off with a very low amount of pressure.”

Despite operating in such a hazardous environment, Jon says his wife Nathalie and 17-year-old daughter Sam have got used to his life as a humanitarian hero. He shrugged: “I’ve worked on every humanitarian emergency you can think of since 1997.

“Because I’ve been at it so long and my wife is an ex-aid worker as well, the reaction of my family and friends is not too bad.

“The people around me are as relaxed as you can be about my work. When your 17-year-old daughter doesn’t pick up the phone when you ring, you know they are not fretting too much.

“I wouldn’t want it any other way. I know that they are proud about what I do.”