Landmines: Karabakh’s deadly legacy of war decreasing, but still a fact of life

Gurgen Arustamian, a carpenter in Hadrut, tells with irony about the day his life was changed by a landmine.


“I fought on the frontline for two years and was not even scratched,” he says, laughing, as if yet amazed that he survived the bloody fighting of 1991-94. “Then, eventually I was blown apart in peace time.”

In 1997, at that time 26-year-old Arustamian with his 10 year old brother were collecting wood not far from the town of Hadrut (in the southern province of the same name). Arustamian was walking ahead of his brother . . .

“I only remember that I was in pain and shock, but was yelling to my brother ‘Freeze! Stay where you are!’,” Arustamian recalls. “He wanted to come to me but I kept telling him to stay away. Then I crawled back to him and then guided him on how to reach the road and call for help”.

The unlucky war veteran had stepped on a land mine the locals call “frog” because when you step on it, it jumps up before exploding.

The “frog” damage caused Arustamian’s to lose his leg below the knee. He says he was “lucky”, considering that that same year landmine incidents killed several people.

For 18 years – since the ceasefire – Karabakhis haven’t heard the sounds of exploding missiles, but the occasional blasts from landmines is a reminder that the remains of war are a present and deadly danger.

Mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) continue to cause disabilities and human and animal casualties almost every month in Karabakh – one of the most heavily mined areas in all the former Soviet Union. Sappers say that despite the mines and UXO were laid in the earth many years ago, they are still as good as new and will still be deadly 50 years from now.

Mines were laid through the duration of the war by both Azerbaijani and Armenian troops. Many areas were mined by one side, then when that area was taken by the enemy, that side mined it, too. Some areas were taken and re-taken several times, with more mines laid each time.

According to different estimations by international organization, the number of landmines left after the fighting ceased ranged from 50,000-100,000 – enough to take out more than half of Karabakh’s population. Added to that number were thousands (estimated) of UXO – bombs that had landed without exploding, yet remaining “live” and likely to explode if struck.

Apart from death and injury, landmines led to large patches of fertile land becoming unsafe for farming. At one point, as much as 30 percent of farmland was unusable because of mine fields. The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that Karabakh has lost up to $10 million per year in potential revenue because farmlands were unsafe for cultivation.

The official statistic says 74 civilians were killed by mines and 270 were injured since 1994. But there is no exact number of people injured or killed by landmines, since there was no record kept of civilian landmine casualties during the war itself, as well as no complete information available until 2000, when HALO Trust, a UK based demining agency, started its work in Karabakh. This year four citizens were injured in land mine explosions, including two children – one by cluster bomb and one by UXO. One farmer was injured when his tractor ran over an anti-tank mine. One person was injured by anti-personnel mine.

(Through 1995-96 HALO Trust conducted an 18-month long program in Karabakh that established a mine clearance capacity for the local authorities. In 2000 it returned for the ongoing de-mining.)

Twelve years of clearing

HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian de-mining organization is the only agency that conducts minefield surveys and clearance in Karabakh. The cleared areas are handed over and are now being used by farmers. Suspected areas are marked with signs “Danger! Mines!”.

Since 2000, HALO Trust has cleared about 10,700 mines, in addition to 43,000 explosive devises and cluster bombs. Cluster bombs are listed internationally as a prohibited weapon and Azerbaijan claims it did not use such bombs in the war. But according to a HALO Trust statement “evidence found on the ground speaks to the contrary -- the Azeri forces had significant air capability, which involved the use of cluster munition bombing”.

Over the past 12 years, HALO has cleared a territory of about 27 square miles from mines, and 126 square miles from cluster bombs, which is nearly 90 percent of all minefields and 75 percent of areas affected by cluster bombs.

So far this year sappers of HALO Trust have found 183 cluster bombs in addition to 125 mines and 555 UXO.

Major Arthur Arushanian lost his left foot when he stepped on a land mine last year while on patrol along the southern border.

Now, the reserve major, who served, as he proudly says, “20 years, six months and 19 days”, is becoming a high school math teacher.

“I graduated from university, but the war started and I never had a chance to do civilian work . Now it is the right time,” says 41-year old Arushanian, father of three. He says that in his curriculum he will certainly include lessons on landmine danger.

More people are injured by UXO than by mines, and more than half of all victims are children.

Lyuda Grigorian, director of the secondary school in Nor Maragha village (Mardakert) says each year HALO Trust staff provide lessons for the school children throughout Karabakh and teaches them what to do if they see unexploded ordnance.

“This year the children in our school got books (that teach about land mine danger) and also HALO Trust provided the schools with posters with the images of mines, cluster bombs and other kind of ordnance,” says Grigorian, whose school is attended by 71 students.

Grigorian recalls the last time a mine exploded in their village.

“Two years ago the villages wanted to build a pool for fish farming. During the digging, a land mine exploded. Several people got wounded, luckily no fatal injuries.”

HALO NK currently has 140 employees, 120 of which are sappers; all are from Karabakh. A sapper makes around $365 a month – about $120 more than the average national salary. All of them undergo “Mine Risk Education Program” training which lasts several weeks. Besides de-mining, HALO conducts mapping and marking of the areas.

“The HALO Trust’s work is hard to overestimate,” says Arkadi Zakarian, a 40-year old Karabakh war veteran and HALO Trust supervisor. “These territories should be cleared of mines once and forever. Our people go to the fields, our children play there. Accidents happen all the time.”

Zakarian was 19, when Azerbaijan began shelling Stepanakert by “Alazan”, the modified “anti-grad” jet missiles. Weapons used against the civilian population included also military jet missile launchers BM-21 Grad, which supposedly had been internationally banned for use against civilian settlements.

Zakarian joined the “freedom fighters” in 1991 (the Army of Nagorno Karabakh was formed later) which launched offensives to regain control of Karabakh. Zakarian stayed three years at the front line, was wounded several times and spent several months in hospital.

He joined HALO Trust in 2001 and says he would work as long as he can, despite the danger he and his colleagues face every day.

“If you do everything right, the risk is low, but it always exists. During the years I’ve worked, no sapper died, though several got injured. Every day when I go to work, my family wishes me good luck. And when I am late they worry and start calling me,” says Zakarian, a father of two daughters.

Zakarian’s work as a supervisor is to check the cleared area after it is cleaned by the sapper and by the team leader. All of them wear shields and enforced waistcoats – the outfit, Zakarian says, saved many lives.

Tragedy mixed with surprise

Being a sapper cost Stepanakert citizen David Simonian serious neck wounds, but also due to the work, Simonian accidentally became the owner of unique artifacts, some of them dating to the Stone Age.

Simonian, now a taxi driver, keeps a collection in his home, which he proudly shows to guests or tourists – ancient arrowheads and spearheads, stone knives, obsidian arrowheads, in all 350 pieces, found across Karabakh.

Simonian found the first arrowhead soon after he joined HALO Trust in 2003.

“I was at the so called ‘Norashen-5’ field. The mine detector beeped, I thought it was a mine. But then, looked closely and realized it was a small piece of iron. I took it from the ground and saw it was an arrowhead,” says Simonian, 35.

Since then Simonian has found many arrowheads and his collection quickly grew. As Simonian was told by scientists from Armenia‘s Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, a bronze blade in his collection is unique for its kind in Armenia. Some of the exhibits go back to the Stone Age and others are of Scythian, Arab, Mongolian origin.

Simonian worked in HALO Trust until December 2005, when he was wounded in the Mardakert province. A landmine exploded and nearly took his head off. He was in a coma for a week, and emerged from it from a serious neck injury. When he recovered, he got a $4,500 insurance payment from HALO, but realized he would never again be a sapper.

Simonian, himself a historian, says he decided to become a sapper to financially secure his family. Before joining HALO Trust he was working in the Museum of History in Stepanakert, but the salary was only $66. At HALO, his salary was $175, “good money for that time”, he says.

Before the blast, Simonian neutralized more than 250 mines.

“History shows that as soon as man learned to kill, he started to make deadly weapons. The consequences of war are as terrible as the war itself,” says Simonian.

His collection of ancient weapons, and a scarred neck are Simonian’s personal history with weaponry. They also remind him that a war that ceased 18 years ago continues to cause fatal blows. Such echoes of war will continue in Karabakh for years to come.

HALO Trust NK is funded by the United States Agency for International Development ($1 million) and the REECE Foundation (a UK private foundation, $300,000). In 2011 the organization’s budget for Karabakh was cut by $400,000, resulting in 60 staff layoffs.

HALO says it is looking for additional funding and estimates that if at least current funding levels are maintained, all de-mining work in Karabakh can be finished within 5-6 years.