Landmines in Karabakh: A Clear and Present Danger
Those of you who paid attention 25 years ago will remember that the beautiful and popular Princess Dianna’s time was spent ridding the world of landmines. With, I might add, good reason.
Every single day, landmines kill and maim people around the world. It happens mostly in countries at peace — and the majority of victims are usually civilians. There are two varieties of landmines: anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. Both have brought about great suffering in the past decades. Anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the Mine Ban Convention, adopted in 1997. Over 150 countries have signed this treaty.
Placed under or on the ground, antipersonnel landmines can lie dormant for decades until a person or animal triggers their detonating mechanism. They are unable to distinguish between a soldier and a child, indiscriminately killing or wounding civilians, aid workers, peacekeepers, and soldiers alike. Landmines pose a threat to the safety of civilians during conflicts and long afterwards.
When triggered, a landmine unleashes unspeakable destruction, often destroying one or more limbs and projecting metal and debris into the wound, as well as causing burns, blindness, or other life-long injuries. Sometimes the victim dies from the blast, due to loss of blood or because they don’t get to medical care in time. Those who survive and receive medical treatment often require amputations, long hospital stays, multiple operations, and extensive rehabilitation.
In 64 countries around the world, there are about 110 million landmines still lodged in the ground — waiting!
Last November, as a result of 44 days of war with Armenia, Azerbaijan liberated its occupied territories in and around its Nagorno-Karabakh region. These territories were under Armenia’s occupation for nearly 30 years. During these three decades, Armenia has planted hundreds of thousands of landmines, especially in the areas formerly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis.
Over 800,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis were expelled from the occupied territories in the early 1990s. Their number has grown now to over 1 million, who are eagerly waiting for the day to return to their liberated homelands.
However, their yearning desire is complicated by the presence of landmines. Estimatedly, an area of 830 million square meters in Karabakh has been contaminated with landmines. For comparison, this is 8 times larger than the area of Paris. Military experts from both Azerbaijan and Armenia have described the ground in those areas as being covered with “carpets of land mines.” All these areas need to be de-mined before 1 million forcibly displaced Azerbaijanis can return home.
Landmines can be cleared — but only laboriously and at enormous expense. Ironically, these weapons that can cost less than $3 each to manufacture can cost up to $1,000 each to clear. Trained workers have to crawl their way along, probing the soil ahead, inch by inch. One person can clear only 20 to 50 square metres per day.
The demining effort is also made difficult by Armenia’s refusal to provide the maps of minefields, which is considered a serious breach of international humanitarian law.
The result is the growing number of Azerbaijanis regularly killed and maimed by landmines. Since the ceasefire of November, 22 citizens of Azerbaijan have been killed as a result of mine explosions. 100 citizens have been seriously injured.
The massive mine contamination of these territories also seriously impedes the rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. Almost every single house of forcibly displaced Azerbaijanis has been looted and destroyed during 30 years of occupation. With few exceptions, nearly all Azerbaijani villages, towns and cities have been razed to ground. They all need to be reconstructed from scratch for the return of their displaced populations. But all this cannot be done without clearing them from landmines first.
As mentioned, most of the landmines were planted during the 30 years of occupation, particularly along the fortified former frontlines near Tartar and Aghdam, and in the districts of Fuzuli and Jabrayil. However, evidence shows that as Armenia was withdrawing from occupied territories both during the 44-day war and after the ceasefire, many more landmines were planted. It is not surprising therefore that many of the mine explosions took place in areas far away from the former frontlines — in districts such as Gubadli, Lachin, Zangilan and Kalbajar, which are on the border with Armenia.
Since November, Azerbaijan has been expanding the capacity of the state demining agency beyond the 500 specialists it had employed before the November cease-fire. According to reports, Azerbaijan plans to increase the number of specialists to 15,000.
However even with an increased capacity and funding, it might take Azerbaijan alone up to 10 years for the contaminated areas to be cleared, which in turn will prolong the suffering and plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced people. International assistance to Azerbaijan in this regard will be of paramount importance.