Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have indicated that mine clearance is a topic that could prolong negotiations over the status of the self-declared Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, more than 12 years after a ceasefire ended the 1988-1994 hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the territory, the UK-based non-governmental organization HALO Trust is the only mine clearing operation at work here.
HALO representatives put that fact down in part to the bitter ongoing dispute over the self-declared state's status. "Trying to keep both sides happy in Nagorno-Karabakh is nearly impossible," commented Valon Kumnova, HALO Trust's program manager in Stepanakert, the territory's capital. "In every other country we work in, it is possible."
Although both Armenian and Azerbaijani forces used land mines during the Karabakh conflict, HALO has received information about mine placement only from the Armenian and breakaway Karabakh governments.
Conceivably, HALO's past interactions with the territory's military officials could motivate the silence from Azerbaijan, which refuses to negotiate with Karabakh's separatist leadership. When the de-mining organization arrived in Stepanakert in 1995, one year after the cease-fire agreement, to set up a civilian-run mine-clearing operation, the de facto state's defense ministry wanted mine-clearing support to go to the military. HALO trained Karabakh military personnel for a year, pulling out in 1996.
The organization returned in 2000 after a slew of mine accidents and fatalities the highest numbers since 1995 -- "indicated that the military personnel were not using the equipment or standard clearance procedures the way they had been trained," Kumnova said. With a decrease in tensions and a new defense chief in place, the organization this time established a civilian-run de-mining mission. HALO currently employs 210 local residents in de-mining and support program operations.
Azerbaijani officials could not be reached for comment about HALO's activities in Karabakh. HALO Trust does not operate in Azerbaijan; mine clearance there is handled by the state-run Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Some 287 mine-related casualties or fatalities have been recorded in Karabakh since 1995, the organization says. Another 215 accidents have occurred. As of December, only two fatalities were recorded in 2006, and nine accidents with anti-personnel mines or unexploded ordnance took place.
Though HALO claims that Karabakh has the world's highest incident of mines per capita (one per 13 residents, three times the number in Afghanistan), finding funding for mine clearance in the territory has been a challenge, according to Kumnova. The program manager charged that Azerbaijan's suspicion of HALO's operations lies at the root of the problem.
"It's the most difficult place to raise money . . . it's way too sensitive," he said, conjecturing that "[n]ot many countries are willing to have bad relations with Azerbaijan" because of the country's oil production. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The organization currently has a $1.3 million budget for its operations in Karabakh. The Dutch government funds 60 percent of that sum; the US Agency for International Development provides most of the remainder. Many smaller donations come from members of the Armenian Diaspora.
Ridding Karabakh of mines goes hand-in-hand with the separatist government's push for re-development of the territory's economy, including tourism and agriculture. Throughout the territory, plowed fields stand next to fields marked as potential mine fields. Sometimes, the plowed field and the potential minefield are one and the same.
Kumnova estimates that another five to six years remain before the territory can be considered "mine-impact free." HALO has cleared about 16 million square meters of land to date; another 10 million square meters remain.
Karabakh's sparse population hampers de-mining efforts. Local residents traditionally offer some of the best information about suspected mine fields and unexploded ordinance, but in Karabakh's case, there are few people around who can provide information. Karabakh Armenian leaders put the territory's population at 145,000, based on 2002 estimates. Some outside observers, however, believe true number to be far fewer. By comparison, a 1989 census put the region's population at over 185,000.
A tour of mine fields in the southern part of the territory, and near the occupied Azerbaijani town of Fizuli, revealed the scope of that emptiness. Apart from a few men, some in military uniforms, collecting debris from ruined houses near Fizuli, little sign of human activity existed.
As a result, setting an exact timeline for clearing Karabakh of mines remains elusive, Kumnova said. "[W]ith the population it has at the moment, you could drive Nagorno-Karabakh for hours and not see people anywhere," he commented. "[A]fter being in the country for six years, we're still finding mine fields."
Zoe Powell is a journalist based in Tbilisi. Sophia Mizante is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.