Azerbaijan’s Landmine Challenge
Landmines continue to be a major problem for Azerbaijan in post-occupation Karabakh, but the country’s mine action agency is striving to overcome the challenge, and pave the way for the reconstruction of the region in full.
Images by ANAMA
The fighting may be over, but the legacy of conflict still haunts Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region. As Baku tries to redevelop the now de-occupied territory and resettle hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs), landmines remain a significant obstacle.
The problem made international news back in June 2021 after an explosion killed two Azerbaijani journalists and a local official in Karabakh’s Kalbajar district.
Stepping up to this challenge is the Mine Action Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan (ANAMA). The agency was originally set up in 1998 as an official body called the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action. Its purpose was to clear away leftover landmines and explosives from the country’s First Karabakh War with neighbouring Armenia.
However, the body was restructured in 2021 after a second major escalation the previous year triggered the withdrawal of Armenia’s forces from much of the region as part of a ceasefire arrangement. The agency now operates under its current name with an expanded remit as Azerbaijan’s main body for conducting and coordinating humanitarian demining activity within Karabakh and elsewhere in the country.
The agency’s work has increased massively. While their survey of the territory is ongoing, initial estimates say Armenian forces laid over a million landmines in Karabakh during their occupation.
Regrettably, the casualties have been many. According to ANAMA data, between November 2020 and December 2023, 340 people have been killed or injured in 200 incidents caused by mines and other unexploded ordnance—such as cluster munitions—both in Karabakh and even beyond. Figures say 161 of those affected were civilians (50 killed, 111 injured), with the most recent injury at the time of writing having occurred on 7 December. Sadly, a woman and three children are among the civilian dead; another six children and young people have been injured.
A further 179 military (15 killed, 164 injured) are also among the casualties. One of the fifteen military personnel to lose their lives was a young man aged just nineteen. Novruz Niftaliyev was killed by a landmine in the Tartar district last April. To this day, a total of 3,419 people have fallen victim to mines and unexploded munitions in Azerbaijan since 1991.
It is not only people who have been affected by the landmines either. Last month, footage of an injured bear and photos of a dead bear cub surfaced on social media, showing how the mines are harming the region’s fauna.
“We are deeply concerned about the impact of mines on wildlife,” the Director of Azerbaijan’s Center for Biological Diversity Public Union, Tavakkul Iskenerov, told the Caspian Post. Karabakh is a habitat for many wild animals, he explains, “including rare ones protected by law, such as the brown bear and Central Asian leopard.” He also warned that even if animals survive an explosion, they can be maimed, left unable to hunt and starve to death as a consequence.
In response to the ongoing problem, the center has raised an international appeal, inviting the leaders of notable global wildlife-protection organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Animal Defenders International, and the Wild Animal Initiative, among others, to condemn the laying of the mines, and in doing so put pressure on Yerevan to release mine maps.
The human and animal losses have been devastating, but Azerbaijanis have not lost their resolve. IDPs have volunteered to help clear the mines and have been receiving training from ANAMA. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s amputee football team, which recently qualified for the 2024 European Championship, is largely made up of landmine blast survivors.
The effort has galvanized many people, and several female de-miners are on active duty. Last month, the UN Development Program’s Resident Representative announced the certifying of two new all-female mine clearance teams in the country.
Since the ceasefire, ANAMA has said some 30,836 anti-personnel mines, 18,601 anti-tank mines, and 61,258 other pieces of explosive ordnance have been identified and safely neutralized. The agency also puts the current area of land cleared of these devices at a total of 114,658 hectares as of 9 December 2023, attributing this to the joint efforts of all mine action operators currently working in Azerbaijan.