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Armenia spent $300M planting landmines, refuses to share tracking map so they can be neutralized

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A sign warns travelers of landmines in Suarassy, Kashatagh Region, Nagorno Karabakh, 2006 (Photo: Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia)

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu once proclaimed, “The devastation wreaked by landmines is not only horrendous but immoral.” According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 5,554 people perished due to landmines in 55 different countries in 2019.

“Millions of landmines still remain buried, waiting to kill,” former US Secretary of State Colin Powell once stated. “Men and women and children in many countries still cannot go about their daily lives without risk to life and limb. Casualties still occur at a terrible rate and hundreds of thousands of landmine survivors still need help.” 

This grave international human rights problem is further exasperated because there are some other countries, who have demonstrated that they seek to utilize the wanton placing of landmines not as a means of defense, but rather to destroy their neighbors. In the Nagorno-Karabakh region, we are witnessing the horrific effects of that. 

The Daily Sabbah reported that the Swedish Azerbaijani Association held a photo exhibition in Stockholm of Azerbaijanis maimed by landmines planted by the Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh Region. “We want people in Sweden to see the massacres and atrocities committed by Armenia during its 30-year-occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Sevda Dadasheva, president of the SAF, told the Anadolu Agency.

Recently, the Republic Underground and Timberwolf-Phoenix LLC hosted a webinar, which highlighted the humanitarian toll that the Azerbaijani people are enduring from landmines in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Esmira Jafarova, Board Member of the Center of Analysis and International Relations, stated in the webinar: “Everyone observed what happened last fall during the Second Karabakh War and the liberation of Azerbaijani territories. This was a historic event that ended the occupation of Azerbaijani territories that lasted a few decades.”

“Now, Azerbaijan is focused on rebuilding these territories and demining these territories,” she added, although this is a very difficult task that could take up to ten years, if not more, in some places. “Armenia has spent 300 million dollars in planting landmines in these territories. It is a staggering amount. One must question the motives in this spending, as Armenia is not a rich country.”  

Jafarova condemned Armenia for not handing over the maps that detail where these landmines were planted, stressing that it demonstrates bad intentions: “Currently, there are talks of cooperation and creating a space in the Caucasus, which never existed before. There are talks of Zangidor Corridor, which will open up transport between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey. There are works being carried to this end.  We have returned over 1,000 bodies of dead soldiers to Armenia. We have returned over 70 detainees to Armenia. We allow Armenia to use Azerbaijani highways. We have allowed the transportation of Russian gas and humanitarian aid to Armenia through Azerbaijan.”

“We are trying to be cooperative,” she stressed. “We are trying to make this work. The only way now is to make this work and that is to forget the horrors of the past. We need a helping hand from Armenia and this means the map of the landmines that they themselves planted. If we want this to work and to have normalcy, it is a two-way street.”

Benjamin Minick, Timberwolf Phoenix President, claimed that the landmines that Armenia selected to use should not have been utilized to begin with – comparing them to the cluster bombs that Armenia used during the Second Karabakh War: “From a US military perspective, we are limited in what we can used based on the Geneva Conventions. It is not just one gradient of a weapon. They got mines from wherever they could get it and then they dispersed it. These are designed to take out vehicles for the most part. They help to secure the perimeter. They work against people. They are limited where it could be placed and there are rules in war. Armenia does not prescribe to that. Mines that are designed to harm vehicles were mixed with anti-personnel mines and then they mixed it together to make maximum damage.”

According to Minick, “It is very bad for the peace agreement that Armenia has not handed over the maps highlighting where the landmines were planted. They want this to continue to happen and for people to get hurt and killed.” 

“Until you have maps, you run this risk of setting one off and then setting off multiple ones in sequence. These landmines are poisonous. They got contaminants. The landscape would not be viable for humans to live if too many go off. Everyone deserves a good place to live. This is just horrible. They were designed to kill. There was no consideration given to human rights.  It was not even a security measure. They were placed in a position to inflict maximum damage.  It is not like being shot with a gun. If you survive a mine, you are lucky. The toll it takes on your body is a punishment that you should never have to endure. They are designed to impact the body and to tear it apart. You cannot step on it and run away from it. It will get triggered. You cannot patch up mine injuries. You will need amputations and multiple surgeries.”

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Amirli Farahim survived a landmine set off in the Nagorno-Karabakh region: “When we were taking out our wounded soldier from the battlefield, I was wounded by a landmine. Consequently, one third of my leg was amputated, I got multiple shrapnel wounds to my right leg, second degree burns to my right arm, and an injury in part of my arm.  My pain was indescribable.” 

Ilkanaq Goja, a trauma specialist, explained that “Treating the victim is not just a simple matter. Someone has lost a leg. It takes months to create one leg for one patient.” 

Aside from the physical injuries, she noted that landmines cause long-lasting psychological damage: “My relative is a victim of a landmine during the First Karabakh War. For 20 years, he has been dealing with complex PTSD. I am seeing that it has an impact on not only the veterans lives but also their wives and their children and their family members. Also the neighbors and relatives who witness their loved ones lose a limb get PTSD. They feel a loss over the person and the way it was.”

Lala Mustafazade, co-founder of the Mine Mark Foundation, seeks to help children avoid getting targeted by these landmines in conflict zones around the world: “We are trying to approach them in different ways. We use games and videos to raise awareness about landmines among children. We help them adjust to a dangerous situation. Children like to go and find something and to bring it home.” For this reason, “We see casualties every day.” 

She added, “It is extremely expensive and time consuming to remove landmines.  To remove a landmine costs hundreds of dollars.  It will take years.” 

Nevertheless, the civilians suffer in the meantime: “Of course, children want to play. They want to play outside. Of course, the landmines and explosives disrupt economic activity. Around the world, not only in Azerbaijan, funding to clear it is decreasing.” Nevertheless, the Mine Mark Foundation is continuing to do everything to raise awareness about landmines among children: “These kind of awareness sessions make them learn more and not to fall asleep.”  

Lawyer Irina Tsukerman has compared the danger from landmines to innocent Azerbaijanis with Israel at “Sderot with the constant missiles, rockets, and stress.”

International human rights lawyer Irina Tsukerman proclaimed: “It is not just fixing a problem but it is giving hope and giving a way to deal with a complicated situation, which children should not have to deal with at all.  In addition to having to suffer from dealing with living in a conflict zone, they have to suffer even after the conflict is over. We saw that in other conflicts around the world. It reminds me of Sderot with the constant missiles, rockets, and stress. These landmines create the same kind of tension. Children can be a specific target. They can be hidden in rocks, toys and other things that the children find fascinating.” 

Tsukerman visited Nagorno-Karabakh and was shocked by what she saw: “I have been to other war zones and have not seen that level of destruction. Homes were destroyed. Mosques were burned down or turned into pig pens. And then, there were landmines everywhere. Everything is in such a complete mess.”  

Namik Aghayev, Vice President of the North American Azerbaijani Youth Association, emphasized the human toll being taken: “What is scary is not what we know but we don’t know. Since the end of the war, 85 were killed by landmines. Even one person is too much. They also slow down the process of building infrastructure, impeding the thousands of people waiting to go to their homes. After thirty years of occupation, the people still cannot go home due to the landmines. It is not clear how long it will take. It is important that we spread awareness and demand that Armenia releases the map. Not doing so would be a severe crime. Hopefully, sooner rather than later we would be able to return to our homes.”

In conclusion, Jafarova complained that the international community has not taken a strong enough stance on this issue: “We have been raising this issue for a couple of months now and our death toll from landmines has been increasing daily. We have been raising this issue with almost everyone.  We expect the powers to exert some pressure on Armenia. Without the maps, the cleaning process will take longer and the causalities will be much higher and it will be one of the most polluted areas in the world. What a terrible thing it will be for civilians to witness something like that.” 

Until Armenia hands over the maps, she said, they are sentencing civilians to death and therefore Armenia handing over the maps is not up for negotiation.  

The Talmud proclaims, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed the world entire.  And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved the world entire.” Whenever a nation plants a landmine without clearly marking them as a warning to civilians, they are indiscriminately taking away souls. When a nation refuses to cooperate with demining efforts post-conflict, they are similarly destroying souls. Conversely, when a nation cooperates with demining efforts, they are saving lives and making entire regions of the world relivable again. Thus, any nation that values morality should never plant landmines indiscriminately and should cooperate with demining efforts post-conflict. 

The international community should demand that Armenia cooperate with demining efforts by handing over their landmine maps immediately.      

Rachel Avraham is a political analyst working at the Safadi Center for International Diplomacy, Research, Public Relations and Human Rights.  She is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings at the American, Israeli and Arab Media.”  

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