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June 20, 2013

Nagorno Karabakh Cleans Up Old Conflict, Fears New One

by James Brooke

At this week’s G8 summit, the leaders of France, Russia and the United States called for a peaceful resolution to the long running dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.
 
Almost 20 years after fighting stopped over Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh province, this mountainous land still holds its deadly secrets - anti-tank mines, anti-personnel mines and cluster bombs.

Nick Smart, Nagorno-Karabakh program manager for Halo Trust, leads a team of 190 men demining this remote province, an area controlled for almost a quarter century by ethnic Armenians.

"We are still 20 years on and finding perfectly functioning mines that are still killing people," Smart said of his work that is largely supported by money from USAID. "The ones that we are finding that are in good order are in very good order, you know, and probably will remain so for another 10 years."

Since the year 2000, Halo has cleared 75 percent of known minefield and cluster bomb areas in Nagorno-Karabakh. Experts have discovered and detonated about 66,000 bombs.

But the walls of Halo’s office display photos of villagers who are amputees.

With only 160,000 inhabitants, Nagorno-Karabakh still has one of the world’s highest per capita rates for mine accidents.

"The biggest problem remains in these green areas, these areas outside of traditional Karabakh," said Smart. "Now this is fertile farmland, strategically important during the war, but now remains very attractive farm land to the rural communities."

In Nagorno-Karabakh, lowland farming fields inevitably stretch toward security zones, where armed Azeris and armed Armenians face each other across trench lines.

On Tuesday at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, the leaders of Russia, France, and the United States urged Armenia and Azerbaijan to abstain from war and to find a peaceful solution. But also on Tuesday, Russia’s Vedemosti newspaper reported that Russia is selling $1 billion in tanks, artillery and rocket launchers to Azerbaijan.

In Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, Richard Giragosian directs the Regional Studies Center, a think tank. He worries about the fragile peace.
 
"We have our own arms race in this region, where both sides are compelled to keep pace with increasing defense budgets, as well as procurement of more offensive weapons," he said.

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