The mountains of Artsakh have seen relative peace since the 2016 Four Day April War. But, for many of its residents, the fear of having a leg blown off by a forgotten land mine has not yet subsided. In 2000, The HALO Trust took up the mission of clearing the landmines in Artsakh. Since then, it has been the only landmine-clearing humanitarian organization working in the area and one of only two international organizations providing humanitarian support.* HALO’s presence in Artsakh has left a significant impact on the land and the lives of those who remain there.
Artsakh, which, according to HALO, has experienced the highest per capita accident rate in the world, has seen a ten-fold reduction in landmine accidents since HALO’s operations in 2000. According to Alina Aslanian, HALO’s Programme Officer in Artsakh, over the last two decades, the trust has cleared over 47 million square metres of minefields. It has found and destroyed nearly 12,000 landmines as well as nearly 250,000 other explosive remnants of war, including cluster bombs and air-dropped bombs, resulting in the reduction of fatalities.
However, its recent success is not only a result of landmine clearance but HALO’s mine awareness projects as well. One of HALO’s core activities is Mine Risk Education (MRE). “For families living in landmine-impacted communities, MRE is a matter of life and death,” says Aslanian. MRE, which is targeted at those who are at the highest risk of becoming victims of an accident, teaches people how to stay safe while deminers work on removing the last explosives. HALO has also developed a variety of tools tailored toward children, who make up a quarter of all landmine accident victims in Artsakh. Visiting every single school in Artsakh at least once a year, the MRE team teaches children about the dangers of landmines, other explosive remnants of war, as well as basic safety rules.
Farmers and shepherds are another high-risk group, as 40% of all victims were engaging in agricultural activities at the time of the accident. “In the last several months, there have been about a dozen instances where farmers have been fortunate enough to plough items without detonating them or have been involved in the explosions of munitions but, by chance, escaped injury or death,” says Alina Aslanian.
Landmine clearance has significantly contributed to improving the socio-economic well-being of the people of Artsakh, many of whom rely on their fertile land. HALO’s evaluation of post-clearance land use has found that, once the clearance is completed, the majority of cleared land is put to use immediately. “On average, the household income of rural communities increased by nearly 40% through the use of cleared ground for agricultural purposes. Additionally, 70% of households reported that clearance enabled them to increase the number of animals that they own, directly improving their nutrition and food security,” notes Aslanian.
The Deminers of Artsakh
“I feel joy doing my job as it’s a matter of safety for our people, for the future of our children. When you see that people work in the field that you cleared [of mines], farm animals or crops growing there, you realize that you’ve done something important for your people and it makes you feel good,” says Mokho (Mkhitar) Gharamanyan, a survey team leader. 30-year-old Mokho joined HALO in 2016, after hearing about the job opportunity from friends who were already working there. “I’ve always loved doing ‘difficult’ jobs like this,” he says.
Many HALO Trust employees face discontent from their families after telling them about their chosen career path. “For three months, I didn’t tell my family about my new job as a deminer,” says 25-year-old Andrey Zaqayan, who worked as a construction supervisor prior to joining HALO. Andrey’s family thought he was still in the construction business. They only found out the truth months later after accidentally seeing his uniform. They feared for his life and tried to talk him into quitting several times, but without success. Andrey says that he is going to work as a deminer for as long as he can: “I feel proud. I feel proud doing this sacred work, knowing that those lands are now clean, knowing that people are going to be able to use the land, to enjoy those seasonal berries, without any fear.” Andrey notes that some level of fear is necessary to stay alert as he works with different types of explosives and can’t afford to be reckless. However, both he and Mokho agree that, with proper preparation and the right equipment, any job can be performed safely.
Currently, HALO Trust has 130 employees in Artsakh and focuses on employing locals who come from mine-impacted communities. Before going to the fields, HALO makes sure its employees are well-prepared for the job. All the members of HALO’s demining and survey teams have to undergo five weeks of training, which is divided into theory, practical and paramedic sections. All trainees must be able to pass the theory and practical assessments with a score over 80% and without any serious safety, standard operating procedure or HALO policy breaches to qualify to work as a HALO deminer.
In 2015, HALO gradually started challenging conventional gender norms, recruiting women as deminers. As Aslanian notes, prior to 2015, HALO encouraged women to apply but most of them only felt comfortable applying for support roles that did not challenge traditional models of gender roles, such as cooks, cleaners and office assistants. This attitude has slowly been changing. Twenty-eight women have been recruited into operational roles. In total, HALO has employed 42 women (for both operations and support roles) and currently has ten women on the clearance and survey teams. “HALO’s female operation staff work alongside men in the same roles and in positions of leadership, breaking apart the narrow set of expectations around gender roles that exist and transforming local perceptions,” says Aslanian.
“It was pretty surprising at first to find out there are women on the team,” Mokho notes “but after seeing how some women did the work even better than men, I immediately felt proud to have such women in Artsakh.” Working alongside their male counterparts, female deminers Shamiram Grigoryan and Lusine Babayan say they haven’t faced discrimination and are always treated with respect. They are both now Survey Assistant Team Leaders.
Lusine, 40, from Stepanakert joined HALO as a survey team member in 2017. With a degree in economics, she worked as an accountant for five years prior to joining HALO. Like many of her colleagues, she heard about the position on TV and, without any hesitation, sent in her application. “This kind of work always appealed to me,” she says excitedly, noting that there was even a time when she wanted to join the military. So after hearing the vacancy announcement, Lusine immediately thought, “This is what I want. I genuinely want to join.” Shamiram Grigoryan, who is originally from the village of Shaqe, joined HALO in 2018. Unemployed at the time and with four children to feed, she was facing financial hardship and jumped at the opportunity to become a deminer.
Similar to the families of their male co-workers, Lusine’s and Shamiram’s families weren’t thrilled when they heard about their decision, but couldn’t change their minds. “My dad told me, ‘Do you even realize what kind of a job it is?’” recalls Shamiram. Initially, there were also disagreements with their husbands, who didn’t feel quite comfortable knowing their wives were about to take up a dangerous job, working with a team of men. “But seeing my work, he has now come to terms with it and even befriended my colleagues,” says Shamiram happily.
HALO Trust and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Fortunately, COVID-19 didn’t hit Artsakh as hard as it hit Armenia, which allowed The HALO Trust to continue their operations but also created new challenges. MRE school sessions are now temporarily suspended as a result of school closures, but the MRE team continues to conduct one-on-one or small group sessions with high-risk groups, while observing social distancing and other safety measures. Survey operations have also been impacted for some months due to a decrease in available personnel because of their age and risk category.
In addition to keeping up with their main activities, HALO has also been working on preventing the spread of the virus in the communities of Artsakh. “We see it as our responsibility to ensure no community is left behind during this global pandemic. We have the manpower, ambulances and scale to make a difference and protect Karabakhi families from the threat of COVID-19,” says Aslanian.
To date, HALO has supported Artsakh by:
Donating 1,000 facemasks to the Central Republican Hospital, the main hospital in Stepanakert.
Distributing over a hundred hygiene kits and hygiene messaging to six villages, reaching over 400 people.
Implementing a project on behalf of the Izmirlian Foundation, delivering food, sanitation supplies and hygiene messaging to 401 families in the Berdzor region, reaching over 1,600 people.
HALO’s Future in Artsakh
Although significant progress has been made in Artsakh toward reducing the number of fatalities caused by landmines, the humanitarian need to continue landmine clearance remains, as “near-miss accidents continue to be reported far too regularly,” says Alina Aslanian. In 2017, one in every 37,000 residents was killed or injured by an explosive remnant of war. She notes that, currently, HALO’s only funding is “from the generosity of private individuals. These include benefactors of private philanthropic foundations who have seen the value of our work and been engaged with us for several years.” The Halo Trust applauds the passage of the bipartisan Speier-Cox-Krishnamoorthi amendment appropriating $1.4 million to continue demining in Artsakh, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on July 23, 2020. “This is a very positive first step along the process that may lead to renewed U.S. Government funding, and we are grateful to all our supporters in the United States who made their voices heard in recent months.”