The Plight of Nagorno-Karabakh

Feb 20 2024
By James Cowan

The South Caucasus is not just a political minefield; some areas are literally littered with unexploded munitions. The UK-US landmine clearance charity, HALO, tries to help, says the organization’s CEO, retired British army General James Cowan. 

It was a deadly accident in the rugged Caucasus mountain region south of Russia.   

 After September’s lightning incursions by the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan into the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, over 100,000 Karabakhi Armenians were fleeing their homes towards the safety of neighboring Armenia.  

There was only one road out and that was now packed with vehicles – a traffic jam from hell. Among those in the bumper-to-bumper queue were nearly 100 employees of the HALO Trust, the landmine clearance charity I head, and who were fleeing with their families. 

As the traffic jam out of Nagorno-Karabakh shuddered once again to a halt, a woman traveling in an SUV got out of the back door to get some air.    

Behind the car was a truck. Its driver stepped out of his cab. Somehow, his handbrake disengaged, and the truck rolled forward. The woman was crushed and died. 

Also in the car were the woman’s husband, a senior HALO deminer, and their two children. Our colleague had to put his children in another car and drive the dead body of his wife into Armenia.   

Stories of loss and tragedy were all too common as a whole population fled, with reports of hundreds dead or injured following an explosion at a fuel depot near the largest city, Stepanakert. Most of the people in the huge column of vehicles were also hungry and exhausted. For almost a year, Nagorno-Karabakh had been blockaded. Grocery shops had empty shelves and a lack of fuel meant vital farm machinery was idle; crops were rotting in the fields. People had to queue for many hours to get the simplest of things such as bread.   

HALO has been working in Nagorno-Karabakh since 2000. Our main job was to clear landmines in the fertile soil which once grew grain, or boasted pomegranate orchards. These areas where tanks and armored personnel carriers had done their deadly work were littered with mines.     

We also made roads and schools safe so teachers could explain the dangers of unexploded munitions to the next generation. Over a two-decade period, HALO cleared deadly mines and other ordnance from over 300 square kilometers of land (that’s about the size of 30,000 Premier League soccer pitches) across Nagorno-Karabakh.    

Our work aimed to restore some normality and make life safe and enjoyable for everyone. It’s not really normal to worry about exploding munitions when you go for a walk or play games.  

The conflict had simmered for decades after the end of the first war in 1994 but Azerbaijan resumed full-scale hostilities in September 2020, with a surprise air and land attack. We immediately focused our efforts on clearing the most populous areas of deadly munitions, including Stepanakert.   

But since September’s exodus of its Armenian population, all of HALO’s work in Nagorno-Karabakh has now been stopped. Our staff and their families, along with the over 100,000 people living there, have left. As a result of the deteriorated security situation, they have all been effectively deprived of their right to their land and their homes.  

Armenia is a poor country and remains extremely dependent on Russia for trade and energy supplies, although it has maintained good relations with the West as well.  

As I write, it’s unclear whether the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will be able to return to their homes. At the moment, it doesn’t look promising. Instead, they are likely to settle in the State of their ethnic kin and perhaps hope that one day things will change. Either way, they and the Armenian government will need considerable Western aid to ease their transition.  

The death of my colleague’s wife was bad enough — two other HALO employees were also killed around the same time in the fuel depot explosion. But over 100,000 other people have also lost their homes and their land. In the words of a senior HALO staffer who worked in Nagorno-Karabakh;

 “They have left their lives behind. They have lost their past, and maybe their future as well.”  

Major General James Cowan left the British Army to join the HALO Trust as its chief executive in 2015. The landmine clearance charity was founded in 1988 in Afghanistan and achieved global prominence when Princess Diana visited its operations in Angola. Under James’s leadership HALO has increased its global workforce by a third to some 11,000 people and expanded from operations in 17 countries to 29. The organization’s work has saved the lives and limbs of more than two million people.  

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.