Clearing Mines and Saving Lives in Karabakh
AMARAS, Karabakh — In an almost perfectly idyllic setting, with a monastery dating back to the 4th century and a nearby mulberry orchard, there’s hardly a soul around. Even the church in the complex is empty, save for a small boy waiting to sell candles to anyone who does visit. The roads are devoid of traffic and therefore silent, while the only sound that breaks up the tranquil atmosphere is that of bird song. Mesrop Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet, is reputed to have established a pioneering school to use his unique script here at the beginning of the 5th century, but the first time I visited Amaras was by military helicopter in 1994 for another reason entirely.
On assignment for the U.K’s The Independent, it was to cover the immediate aftermath of the cease-fire agreement which put the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh on hold. This time, however, more than 15 years later, it was with civilian sappers from the British HALO Trust demining charity to cover another war-related story. Despite a tentative peace and relative calm, while it is common knowledge that soldiers still die on the front line each year, what isn’t is that civilians often fall victim to other dangers. Marks on the grass, indicating that a large vehicle had recently stopped nearby, highlighted that only too well. It’s unlikely that the driver knew that he had actually parked in a minefield.
Fortunately, there had been no loss of life or injury but, given a policy of reclaiming agricultural land as well as promoting tourism, it’s an accident waiting to happen. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine that the vehicle could well have been a coach loaded with tourists from the diaspora.
During the war, militias from both sides indiscriminately laid mines which are unable to identify or distinguish between their victims. In such a situation, and lacking any maps, the task of clearing such areas is made incredibly difficult. However, even when minefields laid by regular army units are marked, many people simply ignore them. “Unfortunately, there are still accidents happening,” says Yura Sharamanyan, operations manager for the HALO Trust, the only mine and UXO clearance organization operating in the self-declared but unrecognized republic. “One was in an area where there were signs warning about the mines. People just ignored them and a tractor blew up on an anti-tank mine.”
One such victim is Kolya Kocharyan, caretaker of the Amaras monastery. His tractor hit an anti-tank mine 10 years ago and he still walks with a limp and can’t straighten his left arm. In the mulberry orchard opposite, the HALO Trust has already begun work to clear any other landmines which might remain. Unlike the task of clearing anti-personnel mines, which can be triggered by a person’s weight, the deminers wear no protective clothing as they use a metal loop detector to scour the land. Sharamanyan says that in the unlikely event of a person detonating an anti-tank mine, no amount of protection would be enough anyway.
Roly Clark, HALO’s Program Manager in Karabakh and a veteran of mine clearance operations in Cambodia, Angola and Afghanistan, says that 26 hectares [54.24 acres] were cleared in total. “We found two anti-tank mines and nine items of unexploded ordnance,” he says. “The reason for the low number of mines was probably because it was just nuisance mine laying during the war to stop tanks driving through the orchard.”
The situation, however, is a lot different in other locations. On a visit to Surarassy in 2006, a village situated less than an hour’s drive outside of Lachin, a mangled lorry lay in a ditch on one side of the road — a tell-tale sign that mines were present. Another seven were believed to remain, but villagers continued to herd their cattle along the route in the mistaken belief that it was safe. Ironically, just a few meters away, forest and grazing land were laden with at least 900 anti-personnel mines. During the war, conscripts from Karabakh had saturated the area to prevent Azerbaijani Special Forces from infiltrating past the line of contact under the cover of night.
The minefield was discovered well over a decade later when a local hunter stepped on a mine. His friend hit a second while attempting a rescue.
More recently, on December 14 last year, Artur Khudatyan, a 13-year-old resident of the village of Hin Taghlar in the Hadrut region of Karabakh, found a metal object nearby. Although the teenager had received Mine Risk Education at school, his adolescent curiosity got the better of him when he attempted to open with an axe what was actually a cluster bomb left over from the war in his backyard. It exploded but, fortunately for Khudatyan, its full load of lethal bomblets failed to detonate. If it had, he might well have been killed. The situation is even more dangerous for younger children with some cluster munitions resembling metal balls.
Around 328 civilians have been killed or injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Karabakh since the 1994 cease-fire, with at least six accidents, such as the one involving Khudatyan, occurring in 2010. The situation is improving, with over 80 percent of 5,093 hectares [12,584 acres] contaminated by landmines and 70 percent of over 30,000 hectares [74,100 acres] affected by cluster bombs now cleared by the HALO Trust, but there is still much work left to do. For now, though, over 10,000 landmines and 50,000 items of UXO have been neutralized since the charity started operations in 2000. Work is not just confined to Karabakh either; the HALO Trust is also working in the surrounding military buffer zone.
Nevertheless, even if the remainder could be cleared in the near future, that is now looking less likely, given cuts in HALO Trust’s funding for 2011. According to Clarke, a 2007 agreement with the British government came to an end last year and $400,000 will be cut from the charity’s budget otherwise made up from over $1 million from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and a smaller amount from the Julia Burke Foundation. It will, however, mean that at least dozens of deminers will be made redundant.
“Funding from the British government has been cut because it changed their mine action strategy,” says Clark. “They came up with a list of countries that will receive funding and Nagorno Karabakh wasn’t one of them. The loss of 60 deminers will therefore mean a reduction in the area cleared of mines and cluster munitions in Karabakh in 2011. This also unfortunately means the date to which communities in Karabakh can look forward to being free from the threat of landmines and UXO will be extended by several years. HALO has tried to raise funding from other governments, but Nagorno Karabakh’s political status and the politics surrounding the region have made it impossible to do so.”
Nevertheless, despite the cut in funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the British Embassy in Yerevan did host an event for the HALO Trust last December. Ironically, albeit coincidentally, the meeting was held on the same day that Artur Khudatyan was injured by the cluster bomb. Marking 10 years of its work in Karabakh, the HALO Trust invited the local media in the hope of attracting more attention to the problem and perhaps even interest from potential donors. One possible source of additional support, for example, could be the large Armenian diaspora. However, Clarke says that this is not proving as simple as it first might sound.
“We tried very hard to raise money from the diaspora in America in 2007, but without any success,” he explains. “HALO has two offices in Washington and San Francisco and all the major Armenian organizations were approached last year. An appeal signed by Bako Sahakyan, the current President of Nagorno Karabakh, as well as Arkhady Ghukasyan, his predecessor, was sent out to a diaspora mailing list provided by his representative in Washington; the media was contacted, but very little money was raised. Also, the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund was approached in 2007, but that too failed.”
In that letter, both the current and former presidents outlined the urgency of the HALO Trust continuing its work in Karabakh. “Over the last ten years Nagorno Karabakh has suffered a disproportionate level of casualties from mines and UXO, with 294 known victims. On a per capita basis, that is three times as many landmine and UXO victims as in Afghanistan, a country widely acknowledged to be one of the most mined in the world,” it read. “The HALO Trust is the only organization conducting this critical, life-saving work in Nagorno Karabakh …Clearing Nagorno Karabakh of landmines and UXO will save Armenian lives and foster a return to normality more than a decade after the war.”
“With political issues preventing many donor governments from funding HALO in Nagorno Karabakh, we really have to now look to the diaspora for support,” concludes Clarke. “By supporting HALO, the diaspora would be directly helping some of the poorest people of Nagorno Karabakh. Agricultural land cleared of mines would enable rural farmers to cultivate them for the first time since the war and cluster bombs removed from villages would literally save people’s lives.”
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The HALO Trust’s US offices have a web site at www.halousa.org