Dealing With Hidden Dangers
Fifty kilometers north of Stepanakert, the wreckage of an Azerbaijani Mil-Mi 24 Hind B lies strewn across wet and muddy farmland. Armenian forces shot down the helicopter several years earlier, and local residents have since sold much of the rusting, metal carcass as scrap. Ammunition, and the huge, main gun, still cocked and ready to fire, remains however, alongside a rocket pod containing nineteen missiles.
After a cordon is posted to prevent civilians from wandering into the area, the rockets are disposed of immediately. Propellant ignites with the warheads, and smoke and debris reaches seventy meters into the air. Even if the HALO Trust [Hazardous Areas Life-Support Organization] has become synonymous with mine clearance the world over, it considers the problem of unexploded ordnance [UXO] just as seriously.
Because of the danger of UXO in Nagorno Karabagh, humanitarian organizations have already restricted operations in the de-facto, but unrecognized, republic. Every twenty-two minutes, someone, somewhere in the world is killed or maimed by landmines or UXO, and the HALO Trust also collects and collates information, identifying those areas that are safe, and those that are not.
Simon Porter, a former officer in the British Army, cut his teeth with the HALO Trust in Kosovo and Abkhazia, and has coordinated efforts to dispose of unexploded ordnance in the enclave for over a year. After arriving in 1995 to assist the local authorities, the charity left eighteen months later before returning in February last year. It discovered that progress had been frustrated by the huge turnover in the mainly conscript army.
While the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan may have been put on hold since the ceasefire agreement signed in May 1994, shifts in the front line during three years of fighting have left the entire territory laden with landmines and discarded ammunition. At least twenty-five thousand died in the conflict, but many others still fall victim to accidents involving unexploded ordnance and landmines.
"There are somewhere between thirty and fifty casualties a year," explains Porter, "and sixty percent of all fatalities and injuries are caused by UXO; items that have been fired but which have failed to detonate. While the military concerns itself with mine clearance, they are ill equipped to deal with the scale of the problem, and the government is eager for HALO to concentrate on mine clearance instead. However, to do so, we would effectively have to start from scratch."
HALO employs thirty civilian staff, and after completing two months of training, three Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) teams were formed, each comprising six de-miners that have so far disposed of 3,000 items of UXO, and 6,000 items of stray ammunition. Approximately, 7,000,000 square meters of farmland are now clear, but the work is far from over. Porter says there may be as many as 10 - 20,000 land mines in Karabagh, and activities will be expanded when additional funding is available.
Any new operation however, would require significant resources. Start-up costs alone are estimated at between three to five million dollars, and civilian staff increased to over three hundred, with operational costs running at around $1.5 million per annum. Porter is nevertheless confident that every mine could be cleared from Karabagh in as little as five to seven years.
Mine Awareness and Education
The International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] considers the problem of landmines and UXO in Nagorno Karabagh as one of great concern. A Mine Action Committee comprising representatives from the HALO Trust, the ICRC, the Ministry of Defense, Civil Defense, and the Ministry of Education now facilitates communication and coordination between those bodies dealing with the problem.
"We presented statistics to the local authorities," explains Rita Ossipian at the ICRC office in Stepanakert. "Data collected from mine victims identified the location and circumstances in which accidents occurred, and we concluded that the situation was serious. The Prime Minister agreed that a public awareness campaign was necessary."
In particular, the ICRC Mine Awareness Campaign targets the two groups most at risk - children and agricultural workers. Posters distributed to local authorities, hospitals and schools warn of the danger of landmines and UXO, and the program has since been incorporated into the national curriculum, including schools in Lachin and Kelbajar, as well as in Karabagh proper.
Through games, exercises, illustrations on notebooks, and puppet shows, the program has been particularly successful. Seventeen children were killed or injured in 1999, but only two were among casualty figures last year. Puppeteers from Armenia help school children produce their own localized scenarios, and over seven thousand have attended performances.
Community-based programs target the general population through films shown on television and notices placed in the print-based media, but warning signs are the most noticeable aspect of the campaign while traveling through Karabagh. White signs warn of the danger of landmines and UXO, while red marks known mine fields.
More alarmingly however, anti-personnel mines laid by both sides are designed to maim rather than kill, and, packed with metal shrapnel, below the knee, traumatic amputations are the most common form of injury. There is not one area that remains unaffected by landmines and munitions hidden in the ground, or obscured by grass, bushes, trees and rubble.
In particular, the ICRC considers that all areas containing abandoned houses and former military installations should be considered dangerous, and the problem of landmines and UXO remains a high priority for the international community, given that the territory will have to return to some form of normality in the future.
"A peace deal will be signed one day," explains Simon Porter, "and we are now in the perfect situation to tackle the problem sooner rather than later. Otherwise, there will be significant problems when villagers attempt to farm their land, or when refugees and Internally Displaced People [IDPs] return to their homes."
First published by The Armenian Weekly 2001. An abridged version were also published by the Genimin News Service.