By Alin K. Gregorian
WATERTOWN — People in Karabakh, according to HALO Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine-clearing organization, are more likely to be the victims of landmines than the inhabitants of almost any other country. And a third of the victims have been children.
HALO Trust has been clearing landmines in Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) since 2000.
Now, the group, according to Andrew Moore, HALO’s regional director for the Caucasus and the Balkans, has launched a crowd funding campaign for the first time ever to clear the last minefield in the village of Myurishen, Martuni Region. The goal is to raise $30,000 for that one particular field which measures 1.8-acres and is land that can be used for grazing or gathering wood, near which 500 people live with their livestock and animals.
“This is the first year that there have been no fatalities in Karabakh,” Moore said. He cautioned, however, that fall planting is exactly when accidents can happen as farmers plow or move their livestock.
“We are aiming to make Nagorno Karabakh free of mines by 2020. It is heavily fortified,” he noted.
There have been at least five people injured in landmine accidents in Myurishen
since 1995. The HALO Trust cleared three minefields in the village between 2007 and 2011, removing 38 anti-personnel mines, two anti-tank mines and three other explosive items. The minefield being cleared through crowd funding is the only minefield remaining.
Moore, visiting the US from the group’s headquarters in Scotland, spoke at length recently about HALO’s legacy in Karabakh.
“We are confident that we know where all the minefields are,” Moore said.
So far, he said, the group has cleared more than 300 minefields in the republic, accounting for 90 percent of the mines. According to HALO, a total of 23,500 mines have been cleared in Artsakh.
Since the end of the war in 1994, there have been 370 civilian casualties from mines and unexploded ordnances.
The single largest donor to HALO in this effort is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), followed by the governments of the UK and Netherland.
There are three kinds of mines, Moore explained. The first is the anti-personnel blast mines, which blow off legs; the second is the anti-personnel mines, with scattered shrapnel fragments upon explosion and the third is anti-tank mines, which explode when a vehicle drives over them.
In Karabakh, an agrarian country, farmers driving their tractors have been killed or severely injured driving over those mines. According to the brochure, families living near minefields are some of the poorest and most food insecure, since they have to choose between cultivating land they know is mind and letting their children go hungry.
Moore added that HALO has the full cooperation of the Nagorno Karabakh government and that their work is contained to the interior and not the border with Azerbaijan, which is still fairly active.
The crowd-funding project is part of a larger campaign — Safe steps for the people of Karabakh — to clear all the landmines in Karabakh with an impact on civilians by 2020. An anonymous donor has pledged half of the $8 million required – if the HALO Trust can raise matching funds.
As part of this outreach effort, the group has produced a brochure, with stunning photos by photojournalist Scout Tufankjian. There will be an exhibition and auction of some of her pictures in 2017.
The total budget for Artsakh this year has been $2.3 million, with large private donations.
It is not only by demining that HALO is impacting Artsakh; the group employs 170 Armenian staff.
“We recruit and train local people. It creates employment,” he said. Notably, he added, HALO has two demining teams composed of women.
The employment, he said, is “transformative” for families, many of whom are heads of households.
Moore stressed that the level of poverty in the rural areas of Artsakh was remarkable. “They are as poor as any [country] we saw,” he said.
Globally, the group has a presence in 19 countries, with a total staff of around 6,000.
“We have overcome a lot of resistance,” he said. “It is one of the last countries in the world to employ deminers.”
In addition, HALO is developing projects with the Armenia Tree Project and the TUMO Center.
As of this writing, 77 percent of the amount sought for the village of Myurishen had been raised.
This year marks the 19th anniversary of the late Princess Diana’s visit to a HALO site in Angola, one of her most iconic pictures, in which she walked through a field wearing a HALO mask and body shield.
HALO, short for Hazardous Area Life-support Organization, was founded in 1988.
To donate toward demining Myurishen, visit https://www.halotrust.org/minefreenk/
For a video featuring Serj Tankian talking about HALO Trust, click on https://www.facebook.com/SerjTankian/videos/10154620606319798/?__mref=message_bubble