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Jersey Evening Post Interviews Ben Remfrey, co-founder of Friends of Ukraine EOD charity

Ben Remfrey, PCM and MAT Kosovo’s Managing Director and the co-founder of Friends of Ukraine EOD charity in an interview with Tom Ogg from Jersey Evening Post talks about the FoU-EOD initiative, its achievements and the massive support from Jersey Overseas Aid and Jersey people.

Original Article by Tom Ogg | The Weeknd (Jersey Evening Post) – July 9, 2022 View original article here.
Standing with Ukraine

Former soldier and Friends of Ukraine-EOD founder Ben Remfrey discusses training Ukrainians in the art of explosive ordnance disposal and how Jersey Overseas Aid has helped to fund this life-saving work.

Former soldier and bomb disposal expert Ben Remfrey co-founded Friends of Ukraine-EOD, a charity aimed at training Ukrainians in explosive ordnance disposal –clearing unexploded mines. He spoke to Tom Ogg about the charity’s life-saving achievements and how Jersey Overseas Aid has helped to fund the project.

IT is safe to say that the invasion of Ukraine hasn’t gone entirely to plan for Vladimir Putin. The Russian president may be a former KGB foreign intelligence officer, yet hindsight suggests that whatever intelligence Putin and his team gathered prior to sending their armed forces into Ukraine rather underestimated the strength and determination of the Ukrainian military, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and the Ukrainian people in general. It seems also that Putin failed to foresee the level of financial and military support that Ukraine would receive from the international community in the aftermath of the invasion, with countries across the globe unifying in their support for Zelenskyy and his battered but unbroken countrymen and women. And, as former soldier and Friends of Ukraine-EOD founder Ben Remfrey says Jersey is among those whose financial contributions have had a truly game-changing impact on the conflict.

‘Simon Boas and the whole team at Jersey Overseas Aid have been absolutely incredible,’ says 58-year-old Ben, chatting via Zoom from his home in Guernsey. ‘We’ve had so much support from Jersey. In fact, considering we’re a Guernsey charity, we get far more support and visibility from Jersey than we do Guernsey. We’ve had some significant contributions from the private community here in Guernsey, but the difference between the two islands couldn’t be starker in terms of how they’ve responded to an emergency. Jersey Overseas Aid has just had a really good, positive, sociable approach. They have done so much to support us.’ For the uninitiated, Friends of Ukraine-EOD is a registered charity which was launched in March by Ben, fellow British Armed Forces veteran Paul Rigg and Rebecca Hodson, all three of whom are experts in the practice of EOD: explosive ordnance disposal. As its name suggests, the key aim of Friends of Ukraine-EOD is to raise funds in order to train individuals to search and locate explosive ordnance – primarily unexploded mines – in Ukraine. As anyone who has watched Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker will know, EOD is exceptionally dangerous yet essential and ultimately life-saving work.

“The amount of lives and limbs that are being saved thanks to Jersey Overseas Aid funding is unquantifiable.”

‘There is something in the region of 300 EOD operators in Ukraine,’ says Ben. ‘However, given the significant increasing EOD since war broke out, they are going to need 100 times that number.’

A managing director at both Praedium Consulting Malta Ltd and MAT Kosovo’s EOD & ERW Training Establishment, Ben has worked in ‘the EOD and mine action industry’ for over 25 years, receiving an MBE in 2007 in recognition of his tireless work. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the married father-of-two had been working with the Ukrainian military for a number of years.

‘I’ve been involved with training people from the MOD, the Special Transport Service and the State Emergency Services [in Ukraine],’ he says. ‘When the Russian Federation invaded, I was still very much in contact with a lot of the guys we’d trained, as well as those who had co-ordinated the training, and so Paul [Rigg] and I came up with the idea for Friends of Ukraine-EOD. Paul is the director of training at Alford Technologies, which is a specialist UK company that produces very good equipment for EOD personnel. It makes their jobs much more safe and effective.’

Initially, the aim of Friends of Ukraine-EOD was to collate as much equipment as possible and send it out to the people in Ukraine who had been trained by Ben and Paul and their respective companies. ‘Within a week of the invasion, the Ukrainians had lost all of their equipment because it had been in storage close to Kharkiv and had been overrun by the Russians. They had no kit and so we knew we needed to get some gear together and send it out to them as quickly as possible.’ It was with this aim in mind that Ben, Paul and their colleagues reached out to their contacts and put a ‘call-out’ on social media requesting much-needed military equipment to be forwarded to Ukraine. ‘A lot of gear immediately started pouring in, from EOD kits, which include essential stuff like firing cables and hook-and-line kits, to PPE [personal protective equipment], body armour and detectors and locators for searching and locating ordnance. We made sure everything was of the right standard and then started shipping it over to Ukraine.’ Given the sheer volume of unexploded mines littered throughout the country, however, it was decided that providing EOD training would be the most effective means by which Friends of Ukraine-EOD could assist those on the ground in Ukraine.

‘To begin, Paul and I provided a technical database of knowledgeable experts, who would be on call 24-7 to answer questions from the Ukrainian operators on munition natures and how to render them safe. This saved many lives in the early days, it was very effective, and to this day we still offer this service. ‘We then quickly set up Friends of Ukraine-EOD as a registered Guernsey charity, with three notable figures –Mark Helyar, Dave Mahoney and Andrea Dudley-Owen – as directors of the charity. I’ve known them all for years. They’re all deputies, of course, and they jumped at the opportunity to do something to help.’ Donations duly arrived, with prominent organisations like The Sir Bobby Charlton Foundation offering financial support, and it was at this point that Ben approached his fellow Friends of Ukraine-EOD directors with a suggestion. ‘I said, “look, can we match any funding that we receive to go towards training?” Generally, it costs about 8,000-9,000 euros to train a person to the standard required in Ukraine at the moment, and so we needed to get as much money as possible in order to do what we’re now doing. It means that we’re currently operating at a loss.’

At present, Ben and the team are training 32 people in Ukraine, as a result of which the number of qualified EOD operators has increased by 10% – are markable achievement for such a small charity still in its infancy. ‘We’re really concentrating on the training because we know that the amount of survey and disposal work these operators are going to have to do is massive,’ says Ben. ‘It’s worth noting that a third of these operators have been funded by Jersey Overseas Aid. The contribution from JOA has been huge. They have basically funded ten people, who are all now back in Ukraine and operating as we speak.’ As Ben says, the EOD operators are working in areas where displaced people are either due to return or are already returning: ‘The amount of lives and limbs that are being saved thanks to Jersey Overseas Aid funding is unquantifiable.’

In addition to the above, Friends of Ukraine-EOD have also supplied three truckloads of essential equipment, a vehicle and ‘explosive detection dogs’. ‘We are going to be sending more vehicles, which have been sponsored by Ford, and which will be sent into Ukraine to collect abandoned ammunition.’ Born in Cyprus, Ben lived in various towns and cities around the world during childhood, with the Remfrey family relocating to different countries depending on where Ben’s father – a professional soldier – was stationed. The family moved to Guernsey in themid-1970s, before Ben then left the island to join the British Armed Forces in 1979, aged 16. ‘My parent unit was Royal Engineers and the majority of my service was with 59 Independent Commando Squadron,’ says Ben. ‘I served in many theatres of operations and left in 1989, although ever since I have been involved with one conflict or another, specialising in bomb disposal.’ In recognition of this, Ben was awarded his well-deserved MBE in 2007 and was made a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International the same year. ‘I’ve actually been living in Malta in recent years but I returned to Guernsey in 2020 due to my ageing parents and schooling for my children,’ he says. Regarding the conflict in Ukraine, Ben says that, for many in the Eastern European country, the current war with Russia has long been on the cards. ‘I think a lot of Ukrainians have always had that thinking really. I’ve been over there quite a bit in recent years. I went to Mariupol, I went to Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Luhansk and Donetsk in the east. In December, I was sitting with a group of MOD officers and rescue service officers in Montenegro, they had just graduated, and they were all pretty sure that war was coming. They had no doubt in their minds about it, nor did they have any doubt that they would fight and that they would prevail.

“Putin overestimated his military”

‘Look, the West has known something was going to happen for a long time,’ he continues. ‘There has been war going on in the East for eight years, and the Brits and Americans and others have been providing training and equipment for the last six years, although clearly noton the scale they are now. It was always something they definitely thought would happen – and now it has.’ Asked whether he thinks there is a chance that Putin could yet lose this most misjudged of modern conflicts, Ben gives a cautiously optimistic answer. ‘Well, it’s clear that Putin thought he’d get a quick win, coming in from Belarus and other areas and taking Kiev, but it hasn’t happened like that. You know, he’s made gains in the south, and now he’s making his bid to completely take the Dombas region and southern coastline as far and as close to Odessa as he can. God forbid he goes further. Personally, I think if he secures those he will stop. There is only so much the Ukrainians can do and the Russian machine is quite a big one. ‘But I do think Putin overestimated the ability of his military. Yes, they’ve got air superiority but, on the ground, the quality of their troops is very poor and morale is very low. I don’t think a protracted conflict is going to happen simply because I don’t think the Russians will be able to maintain it.’

Here are two testimonials from newly trained EOD operators in Ukraine. Both Anastasiia and Iryna received their training thanks to Friends of Ukraine-EOD and the donations of Jersey Overseas Aid.

Anastasiia Yehorova

‘My name is Anastasiia and I was bornin 1996. I graduated from university at the end of 2019. My speciality was translation and interpreting from English and German into Ukrainian. Back in 2019 I was thinking about working in the sphere of humanitarian organisations, although I hadn’t ever thought about doing any de-mining work. In February 2021 I applied for a position of team leader with the Support to Education Project, which was set up by the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) in Ukraine. Prior to the Russian invasion, my team and I were engaged in the distribution of humanitarian assistance to educational establishments and settlements that had been affected by the conflict in the east of Ukraine since 2014.

‘At present, I am taking the EOD Level 2 course and the training at MAT Kosovo is extremely beneficial for me. When I return to Ukraine, I will be the team leader of the Non-Technical Survey (NTS) team with the Fondation suisse dedéminage Ukraine, and that’s why I wantt o obtain as much theoretical knowledge and practical skills as possible. EOD training will help me to carry out NTS processes to a much higher standard and to help my country to start the process of healing one day.

‘I get quite emotional to think that Friends of Ukraine-EOD and the people of Jersey made this training possible. It was so generous and kind to take me from Ukraine by plane through Europe, to feed and home me, to provide the very best EOD training over four weeks, and to be so kind and supportive. It is amazing. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Iryna Kustovska

‘I was born in Dnipro, Ukraine in1984. I have over ten years experience in a senior management position involving leadership responsibilities including three years work experience in an international environment with project management record. I have been a Ukrainian civil servant since 2016, and a representative of Ukraine on the Committee of Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) and International Civil Aviation Organisation since 2020.

‘I would never have thought that one day my country would be one of the most mine-contaminated countries in the world. I made a decision to take an active part in the de-mining process in Ukraine in order to make my land safe again for everyone who lives here, including my children.

‘All of my skills and knowledge would not be sufficient without the field operations knowledge that I obtained in MAT Kosovo thanks to Friends of Ukraine-EOD. When I return to Ukraine, I’m going to apply for a job in the de-mining field where people trained at MAT Kosovo are in high demand.

‘I cannot thank Friends of Ukraine-EOD enough. Without the funding provided by the people of Jersey, this opportunity would not have happened. Since learning about the support Jersey Overseas Aid gave to my training, I have learnt a good deal about Jersey, its history and its people through the internet.

‘I will always remember this generous support as long as I live.’

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