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

Landmine Threat Haunts Azerbaijan

Almost ten years after the end of the Karabakh conflict, Azerbaijan is still struggling to combat the landmine scourge.
By Zarema Velikhanova

Twelve-year-old Elvin Mammedov and his younger brother Emin recently became the victims of a war they are too young to remember. They were tending a flock of sheep near the ceasefire line in the Fizuli region of Azerbaijan on February 14 when they were blown up by a landmine.


“In February of this year alone, six people got blown up by landmines in Azerbaijan, and four of them died,” said deputy prime minister Abid Sharifov on March 10 at the first conference of the Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action, ANAMA. "Since the start of the military campaign, over 1,200 Azerbaijani citizens have been hit by mines – 333 of them died and 948 were left permanently handicapped."


On March 30, a farmer was killed and three other people were wounded by a mine in the Aghdam region. All were refugees from the Nagorny-Karabakh war.


In May, it will be the tenth anniversary of the ceasefire in the 1991-4 Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh. Since then both sides have pledged not to resort to force to resolve the dispute. However, every month people continue to die from exchanges of fire across the ceasefire line and from landmines. The most dangerous areas for mines are those which changed hands during the fighting, such as the southern half of the Fizuli region, briefly captured by the Armenians but then retaken by the Azerbaijanis.


The most tragic season is in spring when farmers begin to farm the fields, take walks into the woods and lead cattle to grazing grounds. Often they find themselves in places where ANAMA has posted signs that warn of the danger of mines but still fall prey to them.


Forty-two-year-old Farrukh Amiraslanov from the Gedabek region took his cattle to graze, but a familiar road turned out to be dangerous and Farrukh stepped on a mine. He was brought to a military hospital in Ganje in critical condition. Amiraslanov lost his right leg and the left one was badly wounded by shrapnel.


Tractor driver Sameddin Mamedov, 51, drove his tractor into a field ignoring some unfamiliar new road signs. As a result, his tractor hit a mine, and Mamedov was wounded in the leg.


“In these cases people suffered because they ignored the warning signs, but the problem is also that explosions happen on the territories that we had previously marked,” said Nazim Ismailov, director of ANAMA.


Thousands of Azerbaijani internally displaced persons or IDPs have already returned to their homes, mainly in the Fizuli region, and they need to work to feed their families. They have to cultivate the land, plough and sow and graze their cattle, and sometimes they risk their luck with the warning signs. “If I get blown up then that’s my luck, and if not, that means I got lucky, but I have to provide for my family,” said 54-year-old Vagif Samedov, a refugee from the Agdam region.


ANAMA was set up in 1998 by presidential decree to clear the affected border areas where IDPs are returning. “In its four years of existence, ANAMA has cleared a total of over 7.6 million square metres from mines,” said Ismailov. “But ANAMA has factual information on mine danger on a territory of at least 60 million square metres along the front line. Most of those sections are marked but we won’t be able to clear them from mines in the near future as it is a very expensive and lengthy procedure.”


The 2004 annual budget of the Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action is between 2.8 and 2.9 million US dollars, which is at least half a million dollars more than last year. As well as the government in Baku, the donors are the American government, the European Commission and the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP.


The demining agency has hired new staff and now has 107 engineers and 15 dogs. But to tackle the problem, Ismailov estimates they need many more – at least 700 deminers and 70 dogs. And the amount of funding required to clear the minefields will have to be vastly increased.


Currently, the ANAMA is negotiating with donors hoping to acquire a special machine by the summer that will enable the mine clearance process to be 20 times more effective.


“With this machine we will be able to clear up to five million square metres a year,” said Ismailov. The goal is to comb all the 60 million square kilometers of mine-affected land by January 1, 2008.


The Armenian-controlled areas of Nagorny Karabakh and surrounding territories also contain thousands of mines. International organisations estimate that there may be as many as 100,000 mines in total. The British-based demining organisation the Halo Trust works in Karabakh but the Azerbaijani authorities have no contact with it.


A major reason why Azerbaijan cannot raise the funds to increase its demining programme is that it has not ratified the 1997 Ottawa Landmine Convention, which bans the production, storing, usage and export of mines. Hafiz Safikhanov, Azerbaijan's national coordinator of the International Campaign To Ban Landmines, told IWPR, “There are countries who wish to work with Azerbaijan, but on principle they do not help those states that have not signed the document.”


Every year, the Azerbaijani foreign ministry makes statements in support of the convention, but insists that Azerbaijan will only sign up to it after a peace treaty is signed with the Armenians and the heavily mined ceasefire line can be dismantled “The Ottawa Convention requires that all its signatories destroy all their arms, but by clearing the front line from mines we will expose our territory to Armenia, with which we are still at war,” explained Ismailov.


The Azerbaijanis also point out that none of its strategically important neighbours – neither Armenia, Iran, Russia, nor Turkey - have yet signed the convention and that all of the countries should join together. For now, the Azerbaijani government has banned the production of mines and their transit through the country.


ANAMA is also trying to reduce the number of accidents by raising awareness among the population. Special training sessions are conducted for children and adults living in danger zones, and visual aids, posters and videos are being produced. But sadly, these measures are not enough to prevent the dreadful legacy of the Karabakh war to continue taking its toll


Zarema Velikhanova is a freelance journalist and regular IWPR contributor based in Baku.