BY GALA DANILOVA
The arrival of Arayik Harutyunyan in California this Thanksgiving is an opportunity for the people of Nagorno Karabakh to thank Armenian Americans for all the support you have shown us in recent years.
Those of you with relatives in Karabakh know how hard life has been since the war of 1992 – 1994. My family and I were forced to flee Baku in 1988 and spent five years camped out in a cramped refugee shelter in Stepanakert. We were among the lucky ones – my aunt escaped alive after she was trapped under a heavily bombed five-story building – but pain and death were part of our daily existence.
My people have lived with the legacy of the conflict long after the ceasefire. We are hugely dependent on agriculture, but the deadly presence of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines has driven many rural communities into deep poverty and caused terrible accidents. Indeed, we have one of the highest per capita rates of mine-caused injury or death in the world.
The US government recognized this and has dedicated funds to the organization I work for, the HALO Trust, since 2000. HALO’s mission is to get mines out of the ground and clear up the debris of war for good. Thanks in large part to the US Government we have now cleared 426 minefields in Karabakh and I am proud to be one of 140 Karabakhi Armenian men and women employed to do this. However, we are limited in the way that we can use our government funds: we cannot use them outside the Soviet boundary of Karabakh and the vast majority of minefields that remain are outside this territory. HALO refers to these as the “green areas.”
An anonymous private donor has recently transformed our capacity to work in the green areas with a pledge to match fund a project to clear the whole of Karabakh. This visionary donor wishes to help us clear all 526 acres of contaminated land in the green areas by 2020. It’s a tremendously exciting prospect for us, but we need to find a matching $4 million to get the job done.
That means that we first need people to understand the impact that landmines have on the lives of the people of Karabakh and, importantly, the transformative effect that mine clearance has on livelihoods and long term economic stability.
Working with HALO has taught me that mine clearance is a fundamental first step in recovering from war. Just two decades ago, our countryside was blighted with ruined farmhouses, overgrown fields and abandoned vineyards. Forests were impenetrable as footpaths disappeared under thick foliage. Today, thanks to mine clearance, our hills are quilted with crops and vineyards. New housing has replenished abandoned shacks, remote communities can be reached by roads, and villages have clean drinking water.
But in order to finally close this forgotten chapter of Karabakh’s painful history, we need to clear the remaining minefields and declare ourselves free of the impact of mines forever.
Our challenge is to make Karabakh mine free by 2020. The green areas are home to the very poorest people in Karabakh, who continue to risk their lives in everyday activities such as farming, woodcutting, foraging and hunting. For many of these people, the land is key to their existence: wood is still the main fuel for heating and cooking; farming and gardening the principal sources of food. Yet the very land they depend on for survival continues to endanger their lives.
Take the 40-acre minefield near Govshatly, which, due to its position on the border of the green area, HALO does not currently have the funds to clear. The nearby village is home to twenty families who occupy a cluster of severely dilapidated buildings and are forced to graze their livestock on the minefield. The farmers do their best to steer their cattle from wandering into the mined area, but admit they live in perpetual fear, particularly when young children are playing. Clearing the minefield would allow the landowners to cultivate wheat and families to relieve their poverty by growing fruit gardens and pomegranate trees. But until clearance has been completed, fertile land will lie fallow and life will remain arduous and fraught with danger.
I have experienced the warmth of the Armenian diaspora in America, and know that many will want to help end the suffering caused by landmines and unexploded ordnance. The generosity of HALO’s anonymous donor is incredible. It puts ‘mine free’ Karabakh within our reach but we need your help if we are to secure safe, prosperous livelihoods for future generations. As I look forward to the birth of my first child, I also look forward to the regeneration of Karabakh, in which the deadly legacy of its terrible war is gone for good. I hope you will join me and the HALO Trust this Thanksgiving in helping us achieve this vision.