Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azeri Children Get Mine-Free Zones

De-mining experts build playgrounds to encourage families to move back to border areas.
By Leila Amirova
Seven-year-old Saida Gulieva was born in a tent camp for refugees in the Azerbaijan town of Barda, not far from the Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire line that has separated the two warring sides since 1994.

Two years ago, her family moved into a new house built in their home village in the Fizuli region of Azerbaijan, an area which is divided between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces. They fled from there in 1993 but although their village ended up under Azerbaijani control they could not return for many years because they were worried about the danger of mines.

>From the family house you can see Armenian positions a few kilometres away. "We were afraid to let the children out to play in the fields, because besides the fact that they could be mined, children have been targeted [by Armenian snipers] more than once," said Saida's father, teacher Nuraddin Guliev.

Things are slowly improving, however, and Saida finally now has somewhere to play. "We used to play in the fields and made up all sorts of games," she said. "But our parents were afraid of letting us go far. Now, though, we have a playground."

Last month, as part of a de-mining programme, conducted by the Azerbaijani Red Crescent, with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, and the Norwegian Red Cross, safe new playgrounds were opened in six villages in the Fizuli region, after the areas around them had been de-mined.

Mines and unexploded ordnance - and signs saying either "No Mines" or "Dangerous Territory" - still litter large areas of Azerbaijan adjacent to the ceasefire line. An estimated 60 million square metres of land still needs to be cleared (naturally this does not include Azerbaijani territory under Armenian control on the other side of the front-line). Many villages remain in the dangerous zones, meaning that refugees cannot return there.

People are still dying. According to Azerbaijan's de-mining agency ANAMA, 48 people have been killed by mines and 101 injured since 2001.

Five Azerbaijani soldiers were wounded by a mine explosion in the Fizuli region on February 21.

ANAMA says it has de-mined 42 million square metres of territory, chiefly in four areas: Fizuli, Agjabadei, Terter and Agstafa. After a slow start, the work-rate is increasing rapidly and in 2006 alone 20 million square metres were made safe.

ANAMA says that it uncovers between 300 and 400 dangerous items a day and has spent 13 million dollars on its work, 20 per cent of which comes from the Azerbaijani government and the rest from international donors.

Fizuli region, the scene of heavy fighting in 1993 in the war over Nagorny Karabakh, is the most mine-infested area. People returned to their homes here before de-mining had properly started, leading to tragic incidents.

"When we returned to Fizuli we had no idea that our village was mined," said 70-year-old Salman Veliev from the village of Ahmedalilar. "There were mines everywhere. The second day after we arrived, my son stepped on one. He didn't die, thank God, but he lost a leg."

Veliev pointed out to IWPR a water channel and fields that had been heavily mined and in which several children died, "If grown-ups understood how serious the situation was, it was hard to convince children of it and often when they played they became the victims of deadly 'surprises' hidden in the ground."

This is why building special playgrounds has been a priority for the de-miners.

"Maybe for the city-dweller who is spoiled by lots of different amusements and can spend his free time in a more interesting way, a new playground doesn't mean much," said Novruz Aslanov of the Azerbaijan Red Crescent. "But out here it was cause for a real celebration."

And in actual fact children started gathering outside the fence of the new playground several hours before the red ribbon was cut in the opening ceremony. They were excited by the sight of the swings, slides and climbing-frames waiting for them inside.

Within moments of the opening, the children were swarming all over the new playground and their laughter was an endorsement of a job well done.

"Now we will have a holiday every day," said ten-year-old Mahia Hasanova.

The Azerbaijani Red Cross says it has built 15 new playgrounds as part of the programme and plans to build ten more.

Gulnaz Gulieva, spokesperson for the ICRC in Baku, said that the programme had been adjusted since it began to encourage village communities to play a more active part in it. They are working on a number of small projects centred on schools developed in consultation with local people.

"We have an interest in communities on the ground showing initiative and we are ready to help them with everything necessary," said Gulieva.

Leila Amirova and Eldar Husseinov are freelance journalists working in Baku.