Karabagh Mine Clearing Specialist Visits San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO–Bay Area Armenian-Americans learned about efforts underway in Mountainous Karabagh Republic (MKR) to rid the country of dangerous landmines. Kurt Chesko–the Program Officer for the demining agency HALO–gave a presentation to the Bay Area community recently about the magnitude of landmine problems in Karabagh–and efforts to clear them. The event was hosted by the Bay Area Armenian National Committee at San Francisco’s Vaspouragan Hall.

HALO has been working in MKR since 1995–when it conducted an 18-month program surveying the region and equipping and training deminers. By 1999–deminers had successfully cleared hundreds of mines. HALO returned to MKR in 2000 with a fresh project to re-equip–provide additional training–and establish a "mine action center," to collect and maintain information about the mines–safe routes–etc. In addition to landmines–unexploded ordnance is also cleared.

In Karabagh–where both Azeri and Armenian forces laid minefields–access to prime agricultural land in many areas is denied; many farmers and villagers have been wounded by accidental detonation of the hidden mines. In the first quarter of 2004 alone–mines were responsible for 8 deaths and 10 injuries in Karabagh. Aid organizations in the region have also been forced to restrict their operations due to fears of landmines on or just beside roads and the presence of unexploded ordnance.

Chesko–who spent two months in Karabagh this past fall–explained there are several kinds of mines in Karabagh. The most common is the "Osean 72," which explodes when stepped on–throwing shrapnel in all directions. The worst–however–are the extremely destructive anti-tank mines–carrying 10 pounds of explosive–and are not easily detected by mine clearing equipment.

HALO employs a team of 186 local Armenian men and women in Karabagh including mine clearers–medics–drivers–and teachers who educate communities on how to protect themselves against the landmines. The deminers are organized into units of 8; many are former soldiers. The deminers typically receive two to four weeks training; medics or those needing training to clear other types of ordinances–like grenades and small rockets–get longer training.

"We’re not clearing the mines they need for defense," said Chesko. "Those on the front lines are not touched. Those areas are not a priority for us." He also said that neighboring Azerbaijan which has a similar or worse mine problem has refused HALO’s offer of demining and has expressed strong opposition to the ongoing demining efforts in Karabagh.

Chesko’s photo slides reveal the damage caused by exploded mines: a farmers flock of sheep killed–villagers without limbs–damaged farm equipment.

The deminers are able to clear approximately 18,000 square meters per day. To date–11,000 acres in have been cleared in Karabagh. HALO projects an additional four to six years of demining to rid the problem in Karabagh.

The HALO Trust (Hazardous Area Life Support Organization) is a not-for-profit NGO with over 5,500 mine clearers in 9 countries in Central and Southeast–Africa–the Caucasus–and Balkans. HALO’s 2004 budget for Karabagh is financed by the Dutch government ($574,000)–USAID ($450,000) and the Cafesjian Fund ($60,000). Of these funds–HALO allocates 7% to administrative expenses–and 93% goes directly to clearance efforts. Karabagh’s deminers are paid $175 per month.

Chesko plans to return to Karabagh next year.

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