The challenge of de-mining Karabakh

EurasiaNet, NY
Jan 11 2007

THE CHALLENGE OF DE-MINING KARABAKH

Photos by Sophia Mizante; Text by Zoe Powell 1/12/07

As preparations reportedly begin for fresh talks on January 23
between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway territory of
Nagorno-Karabakh, attention is again focusing on questions of
displaced persons and borders. But lingering in this remote
mountainous region is an issue that threatens to undermine any
chances for peace with a particularly devastating impact: land mines.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have indicated that mine clearance is a
topic that could prolong negotiations over the status of the
self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Yet, more than 12 years after a ceasefire ended the 1988-1994
hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory, the
UK-based non-governmental organization HALO Trust is the only mine
clearing operation at work here.

HALO representatives put that fact down in part to the bitter ongoing
dispute over the self-declared state’s status. "Trying to keep both
sides happy in Nagorno-Karabakh is nearly impossible," commented
Valon Kumnova, HALO Trust’s program manager in Stepanakert, the
territory’s capital. "In every other country we work in, it is
possible."

Although both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces used land mines during
the Karabakh conflict, HALO has received information about mine
placement only from the Armenian and breakaway Karabakh governments.

Conceivably, HALO’s past interactions with the territory’s military
officials could motivate the silence from Azerbaijan, which refuses
to negotiate with Karabakh’s separatist leadership. When the
de-mining organization arrived in Stepanakert in 1995, one year after
the cease-fire agreement, to set up a civilian-run mine-clearing
operation, the de facto state’s defense ministry wanted mine-clearing
support to go to the military. HALO trained Karabakh military
personnel for a year, pulling out in 1996.

The organization returned in 2000 after a slew of mine accidents and
fatalities – the highest numbers since 1995 — "indicated that the
military personnel were not using the equipment or standard clearance
procedures the way they had been trained," Kumnova said. With a
decrease in tensions and a new defense chief in place, the
organization this time established a civilian-run de-mining mission.
HALO currently employs 210 local residents in de-mining and support
program operations.

Azerbaijani officials could not be reached for comment about HALO’s
activities in Karabakh. HALO Trust does not operate in Azerbaijan;
mine clearance there is handled by the state-run Azerbaijan National
Agency for Mine Action. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight
archive].

Some 287 mine-related casualties or fatalities have been recorded in
Karabakh since 1995, the organization says. Another 215 accidents
have occurred. As of December, only two fatalities were recorded in
2006, and nine accidents with anti-personnel mines or unexploded
ordnance took place.

Though HALO claims that Karabakh has the world’s highest incident of
mines per capita (one per 13 residents, three times the number in
Afghanistan), finding funding for mine clearance in the territory has
been a challenge, according to Kumnova. The program manager charged
that Azerbaijan’s suspicion of HALO’s operations lies at the root of
the problem.

"It’s the most difficult place to raise money . . . it’s way too
sensitive," he said, conjecturing that "[n]ot many countries are
willing to have bad relations with Azerbaijan" because of the
country’s oil production. [For background see the Eurasia Insight
archive].

The organization currently has a $1.3 million budget for its
operations in Karabakh. The Dutch government funds 60 percent of that
sum; the US Agency for International Development provides most of the
remainder. Many smaller donations come from members of the Armenian
Diaspora.

Ridding Karabakh of mines goes hand-in-hand with the separatist
government’s push for re-development of the territory’s economy,
including tourism and agriculture. Throughout the territory, plowed
fields stand next to fields marked as potential mine fields.
Sometimes, the plowed field and the potential minefield are one and
the same.

Kumnova estimates that another five to six years remain before the
territory can be considered "mine-impact free." HALO has cleared
about 16 million square meters of land to date; another 10 million
square meters remain.

Karabakh’s sparse population hampers de-mining efforts. Local
residents traditionally offer some of the best information about
suspected mine fields and unexploded ordinance, but in Karabakh’s
case, there are few people around who can provide information.
Karabakh Armenian leaders put the territory’s population at 145,000,
based on 2002 estimates. Some outside observers, however, believe
true number to be far fewer. By comparison, a 1989 census put the
region’s population at over 185,000.

A tour of mine fields in the southern part of the territory, and near
the occupied Azerbaijani town of Fizuli, revealed the scope of that
emptiness. Apart from a few men, some in military uniforms,
collecting debris from ruined houses near Fizuli, little sign of
human activity existed.

As a result, setting an exact timeline for clearing Karabakh of mines
remains elusive, Kumnova said. "[W]ith the population it has at the
moment, you could drive Nagorno-Karabakh for hours and not see people
anywhere," he commented. "[A]fter being in the country for six years,
we’re still finding mine fields."

Editor’s Note: Zoe Powell is a journalist based in Tbilisi. Sophia
Mizante is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.

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