Armenia has imposed upon Azerbaijan the most significant environmental disaster of the 21st century, worsened by ongoing casualties in Karabakh due to Armenian-laid mines. The prospects for displaced Azerbaijani individuals to return to their villages are impeded by the enduring legacy of explosive mines left behind by Armenia as a result of the regional conflict. Recognizing the urgency, Azerbaijan has prioritized demining efforts, as hundreds of thousands of former internally displaced people (IDPs) aspire to return to their homes and rebuild their devastated communities. International experts estimate that it will take nearly 30 years and $25 billion to solve issues related to demining.
In the aftermath of a devastating conflict in the early 1990s, the Karabakh region of the Republic of Azerbaijan endured three decades of Armenian occupation, resulting in the displacement of approximately one million ethnic Azerbaijanis from their homes. During this occupation, Armenian forces extensively mined thousands of square miles of Azerbaijani territory, isolating a small ethnic Armenian community connected to the Armenian Republic by a single road known as "Lachin-Khankandi." The Mine Action Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan has documented that over 30,000 Azerbaijanis were killed, and one million others expelled from those lands in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign carried out by Armenia since 1991.
The conclusion of the second Karabakh War in November 2020 was anticipated to result in the withdrawal of Armenian military forces and the demining of the Karabakh region. Unfortunately, since the war's end, the number of casualties from Armenian-laid mines has tragically increased, with over 350 individuals losing their lives, including two journalists.
Land Mine Blast Kills 2 Azerbaijani Journalists
On June 4, 2021, two Azerbaijani journalists and a local government official tragically lost their lives in a landmine explosion. The incident occurred in Azerbaijan's Kalbajar district when their vehicle ran over an anti-tank mine. Additionally, four individuals sustained injuries during the incident.
The journalists who lost their lives were identified as Siraj Abishov, affiliated with the state-run AzTV, and Maharram Ibrahimov, associated with the state news agency AzerTag. Azerbaijan's foreign ministry attributed the deaths to Armenia and alleged that Armenia had violated the Geneva Conventions by deploying landmines. As of the reported time, Armenia had not responded to these accusations.
Armenia's refusal to provide an accurate and comprehensive minefield map
Armenian paramilitaries residing in the Karabakh region of the Republic of Azerbaijan have continued to lay mines along the liberated territory's perimeter, as reported by Hikmet Hajiyev, an adviser to the President of Azerbaijan. This systematic campaign of terror is further underscored by Armenia's refusal to provide a comprehensive map of the minefields to Azerbaijan, exemplifying the Armenian use of ambiguous and hostile tactics.
Despite extensive efforts, demining operations faced many challenges due to Armenia’s refusal to hand over maps displaying the locations of the landmines. Azerbaijan obtained from Armenia minefield maps of the once-occupied Aghdam, Fuzuli, and Zangilan districts, which reportedly identify the coordinates of 189,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Armenia also provided the Azerbaijani side with mine maps of other liberated territories of Azerbaijan. However, ANAMA reported that the maps provided by Armenia were just 2 percent effective in mine action.
Following the 44-day war, Azerbaijan regained control over most of the previously occupied territories, and the Prime Minister of Armenia publicly acknowledged the country's territorial integrity. Consequently, Armenians living in the Karabakh region of the Republic of Azerbaijan have become full legal citizens of the Republic. However, the integration of ethnic Armenians into Azerbaijan's political, economic, and social life remains elusive as long as the Armenian side persists in its use of ambiguous and hostile tactics.
Regarding the most pressing global issue today, the US correspondent for Report asked the head of the UN General Assembly. The diplomat said: “The situation you describe is a serious concern. International law determines that certain weapons should not be used in conflicts. I call on all parties, wherever they may be, to respect international law for the humanitarian tragedies these weapons cause and the pain and suffering they inflict not only on combatants but also on civilians. I call on Armenia to fulfill its obligations within the framework of relevant international law,” he noted.
Armenia has brought Azerbaijan face to face with the biggest environmental disaster of the 21st century, Armenian-laid mines continue to kill people in Karabakh, well-known Colombian journalist, New York and Washington correspondent of one of the leading TV channels of her country Caracol Television and Canal 1, Paula Vargas, who recently returned from a trip to Azerbaijan, told the US bureau of Report.
“I wonder why the international institutions, which are active at the slightest incident, talking about “human rights”, remain silent regarding these crimes? As officials in Azerbaijan told us, after the war, more than 300 civilians became victims of mines, and hundreds were seriously injured. There are also journalists among them. We got acquainted with the process of explosives disposal by specialists in the Aghdam district, one of the most mine-contaminated areas in the region. I watched in horror at what was happening. Armenia left such a mark on the district, it seems that this war will continue forever. That’s because the Armenian side refuses to provide Azerbaijan with maps indicating the location of mines, which take many years to clear,” she noted.
Innovative solutions are on the way
ANAMA was set up with the support of UNDP at the request of the government of Azerbaijan in 1998. As of June 2020, UNDP continued to support ANAMA with capacity development. ANAMA is responsible for coordinating and monitoring mine action in the country and reports to the Deputy Prime Minister as head of the State Commission for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. Over the years, it has also been supported by the U.S. government. Today, the agency is training new volunteers from amongst IDPs.
Mine action is integrated into the Azerbaijan Socio-Economic Development Plan 2019–2023 and is considered a key contributor to meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
All clearance operations are carried out in line with the annual plan approved by the government of Azerbaijan and based on requests from landowners such as local executive authorities, farmers, and different state organizations involved in reconstruction and rehabilitation activities in mine/ERW-affected areas.
Furthermore, Azerbaijan has implemented a robust mine risk education program. Administered by the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA), this education initiative is seamlessly integrated into the school curriculum. It extends to community-level outreach efforts in areas affected by mines and explosive remnants of war (ERW). Additionally, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Emergency Situations operates a hotline that enables residents to report the presence of explosive ordnance, further enhancing safety.
Besides, Azerbaijan has enlisted the assistance of APOPO in its efforts to combat landmines. APOPO, a U.S.-registered non-profit organization headquartered in Tanzania, is renowned in the demining field for its innovative use of dogs and giant African pouched rats in the demining process. These animals possess highly sensitive noses that can be trained to detect traces of explosives. Interestingly, some APOPO rats have been trained not only for landmine detection, but also to identify tuberculosis in patients. Remarkably, these giant rats work for rewards in the form of peanuts.
Aghdam-Azerbaijan, 30.07.2023. Azerbaijan Mine Clearance Agency (ANAMA) continues to clear mines laid by Armenian forces in the Aghdam province of Azerbaijan, which was liberated from occupation
Photo : Vusala Abbasova