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

Landmine Threat Haunts Karabakh

Nine years on after the Nagorny Karabakh war ended, landmines continue to destroy lives.
By Ashot Beglarian

“I can still feel my wrist and every single finger,” said Arsen Khachaturian, stretching out his stump and making imaginary movements with his missing hand. “I exercise like this several times a day.”

The armoured personnel carrier, APC, in which Arsen was travelling hit an anti-tank mine during the 1991-94 war over Nagorny Karabakh. “The blast was so powerful it sent our APC flying like a feather. Fortunately, the hatches were open, otherwise we would have been plastered against the walls of that armoured coffin and surely died. Only my hand was left behind in that death-trap,” he recalled.

Arsen’s story is a graphic illustration of the damage done by mines both during and since the war in Nagorny Karabakh. Up to a thousand people have been killed or injured by landmines since 1993.

Mines remain the deadliest legacy of the conflict more than nine years after the ceasefire. The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, estimates that at least 50,000 anti-personnel mines were laid during the war. To this must be added thousands of unexploded shells.

More than 15,000 hectares of land were mined. By the standards of other conflict zones this is not a huge area, but for a region the size of Nagorny Karabakh it is a catastrophe. Some analysts think there are enough mines and shells lying in the ground to blow up every single local inhabitant. Per head of population, that puts Karabakh on a par with Afghanistan.

The worst affected areas are Martakert, which changed hands several times during the conflict, and Fizuli, now in Azerbaijani hands just over the border. Both have a high density of landmines.

Many people were killed or injured in the first couple of years after the war, but casualties have fallen since then. Now it hardly makes the news any more when a person or animal is blown up by a mine.

Children and teenagers are the most vulnerable. The statistics show that one third of mine victims are injured while playing games, and that the highest casualty rates are suffered by the 14-to-19 age group.

With that in mind, the ICRC is running an educational scheme in secondary schools in Karabakh to teach pupils what to do if they see unexploded ordnance. It has also launched a programme to build safe playgrounds for children in rural communities. The first playground will be opened this summer.

Apart from death and injury, landmines also carry a high economic cost. An agriculture ministry official told IWPR that around 30 per cent of Karabakh’s arable land lies within the danger zone. To make matters worse these include the most fertile areas in the lowlands and foothills. The lost use of this land costs the mainly agrarian republic some 10 million US dollars a year.

The Karabakh Armenian authorities began clearing mines soon after the 1994 truce. The challenges were enormous. Most of the territory had changed hands several times, many of the minefields had never been mapped, and the terrain was rugged.

The authorities’ own efforts have been augmented by international support. The major de-mining group operating in Karabakh is the HALO Trust, a British non-government organisation which runs similar programmes all over the world, from Angola to Cambodia.

The HALO Trust worked on a small scale in Nagorny Karabakh after the ceasefire but launched a much bigger programme two years ago. It now employs 130 local staff. To date it has cleared upwards of 350,000 square metres of land, all by hand, defusing about 1,800 mines and 16,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance.

“We never think about the worst that could happen on the job. Luckily we have had no serious accidents so far,” HALO de-miner Khachik Petrosian told IWPR.

Landmines will continue to lie along both sides of the ceasefire line around Karabakh until Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders finally agree a permanent solution to their territorial dispute. For the moment, armies on both sides still regard mines as a valid defensive method.

When Azerbaijani journalist Tahir Pashazade attended a regional seminar on landmines in the Armenian town of Tsakhkadzor, he made the point that mines are a common problem for both sides.

“The sooner we become friends again, the better,” he said. “The first thing we need to do is to de-mine our souls.”

Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert, Nagorny Karabakh