At 7 AM on a recent Monday morning, the staff of the HALO Trust gathered at their compound in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. This summer, tension has been running high amid frequent exchanges of gunfire along the line of contact separating Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.
Amid the constant chatter of the rising risk of a resumption of all-out warfare in Karabakh, HALO Trust staffers are continuing their work of trying to eradicate a pernicious legacy of the conflict. As the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearance organization, the HALO Trust has had a permanent presence in Karabakh since 2000.
“There are currently 210 staff working at 15 sites,” Amasia Zargarian, the Caucasus Program Support Officer, told EurasiaNet.org.
Since 1995, landmines have caused 370 civilian casualties in Karabakh, one of the highest per capita rates in the world. At its peak in 2004, 43 casualties involving mines and unexploded ordnance were recorded. By 2016, that figure fell to just a single incident.
One of the biggest issues facing the HALO Trust is that the bulk of mined areas are located beyond the Soviet-era boundaries of Karabakh, creating problems in terms of funding and accessibility.
“Our biggest donor, USAID, and other bilateral donors aren’t willing to fund clearance conducted beyond the Soviet-era boundaries,” Zargarian explained. “A couple of years ago, though, we had a private family foundation based in the US who pledged up to $4M in matched funding to clear Karabakh by 2020.”
Political sensitivities complicate HALO’s work, according to Zargarian. “Azerbaijan doesn’t like the fact that we work here,” he explained. “They lobby very actively to stop what we’re doing – especially in the US Congress – saying we work with the [Armenian] military.”
Zargarian rejected the accusation of bias. “We’re very careful in maintaining ourselves as a non-political organization,” he said.
The flare-up of fighting in April 2016 marked a setback for the HALO Trust’s efforts. After the heavy fighting died down between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, HALO representatives discovered new areas of “contamination.”
“There are large swathes in the Lachin Corridor and the south-east we’re not clearing at the moment because they’re very close to the line of contact,” he said, adding that the organization is conducting an awareness campaign to teach children to stay away from ordnance that litters the area.
De-mining is a painstaking process. A crowdfunding campaign in 2016 raised $30,000 towards clearance efforts of a minefield just beyond the Soviet-era boundary near Myurishen (Miruşen), a village in the Khojavend Region of Azerbaijan, occupied by Armenian forces.
“The mines here were laid by Armenians to protect the village,” area supervisor Arkadi Zakharyan explained. “One of the deminers was posted here during the war, so he knows where some are planted.”
At a second site near the village of Harav, in Azerbaijan’s Khojaly Region, the stillness was broken by the hammering of markers into the ground; red sticks demarcated the limits of a cleared area, yellow – the site of destroyed mines. “In Harav, mines were planted close to the footpaths, but they’re long since overgrown,” Zakharyan said. “When we surveyed this area, we found a 320 centimeter-long Grad missile still live and being used as part of a fence.”
Zargarian, the program officer, said that despite the rising risk of conflict, HALO Trust remains hopeful that it can have all currently known minefields cleared by 2020.
“Overall, we’ve cleared approximately 90 percent of known mined areas,” Zargarian said. “We know it’s a really ambitious goal, but we think it’s achievable.”
Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist who covers the Caucasus and Central Asia.