Poisoned Earth: The Futile Curse of Land Mines
“Today, on land that Azerbaijan regained after the 2020 Second Karabakh War, there are an evil pick-n-mix of landmines, pink-ribboned cluster bombs, grenades, and all. But Armenia is in no mood to give up the locations of this fearful harvest.”
A sign reads "Dangerous - mines" in the Terter district of Azerbaijan, during a de-mining operation on April 22, 2021. Image: Azertag News
Our family doctor was a military surgeon in the Canadian Army. When I asked, he recalled case after case: “Mines, mostly. Terrible amputations”.
During the First World War, troops defended their trenches with thickets of barbed wire. In the Second World War, a new weapon became the dread of foot soldiers, the land mine. The designers were ingenious. Some popped into the air, spraying ball bearings in wide arcs. There were bigger mines for vehicles, especially tanks. Escaping their crippled vehicles, survivors often landed on the smaller mines waiting for them. Mines were also supposed to undermine morale, so they were planted in patterns to wound or kill rescuers.
Mines, discarded munitions, grenades, and booby traps do not evaporate when peace is declared. Cambodian dictator Pol Pot called them the perfect soldiers: forever on guard, requiring no logistical support, and always deadly. These perfect little soldiers lurk out of sight, punishing anyone who trespasses. The list is long: Cambodia, Balkan states, the Falklands, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan. Post-conflict, mines and munitions become a “humanitarian” problem – a problem for peacekeepers. Canadian soldiers have met them almost everywhere they served, and some have paid with their lives trying to get rid of them.
Given their experiences, Canadians have played a leading role in sponsoring the 1997 “Ottawa Treaty” (Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction), a ban on land mines initially signed by 164 member nations of the UN. Canadians take a great deal of pride in this. Cynics sniff that 33 countries, including members of the Security Council not wanting to tie their own hands, have withheld signatures. Others offer financial support to demining, especially the United States. The task is herculean and immensely costly.
Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan have since signed the Ottawa Treaty. After the 1991-1994 conflict, Azerbaijan resisted demining, which HALO, a Scottish-based demining NGO, had begun. Azerbaijan was worried that HALO’s demining would enable Armenia (which occupied Nagorno-Karabakh and other territories) to keep the land taken in the first war. Since then, however, mine-laying has continued.
Today, on land that Azerbaijan regained after the 2020 Second Karabakh War, there are an evil pick-n-mix of landmines, pink-ribboned cluster bombs, grenades, and all
Today, on land that Azerbaijan regained after the 2020 Second Karabakh War, there are an evil pick-n-mix of landmines, pink-ribboned cluster bombs, grenades, and all. But Armenia is in no mood to give up the locations of this fearful harvest. And providing maps of the minefields would only solve part of the problem: there are also a wide range of assorted munitions and unexploded bombs still lying around.
ANAMA workers manually clear military debris from de-occupied Karabakh on January 20, 2021. Image: ANAMA
It all is so predictable: The educators going to schools and teaching the children to recognize and report. The technical surveys. The mine detectors. The dogs - who also detect tripwires. And the slow, meter by meter probing, sifting and exposing. At this pace, and at the expense of some brave people, a country can be liberated. But not before dozens of others, farmers on their tractors, people walking on the side of the road, children at play, livestock, and the elderly all make their own deadly discoveries.
Russian peacekeepers are taking a leading role in demining Azerbaijan, joined by newly trained Azerbaijani soldiers and their dogs, the Turks, and the once spurned HALO. Some new equipment is in use: heavy flail and earth-moving vehicles, remote-controlled and operated from a distance. Detection of mines since the 1990s has become a blend of art, biology, and science. Animals such as pouch rats in Africa, mongoose in Sri Lanka, even honeybees, any species light enough and with senses capable of sniffing out the scent of explosives are being tried. Super-science techniques are emerging, from heat-sensing and ground-penetrating radar to satellite imagery and readings taken by the ubiquitous drones.
Wars will still happen. But can they be waged without mines? When peace breaks out, they are instantly out of place. The mines, whether laid by Azerbaijan or Armenia, have no allegiance. They cannot recognize friend or foe. They live for themselves. The large ones disintegrate vehicles. Many kill farmers who dare to expand areas of cultivation onto lands that have yet to be inspected - and should have been left alone.
The mines are contaminants: they deny the land, render it unsafe to work, enjoy, or play on. Perhaps they exist to remind occupants that the enemy can return. They are a curse on those who come back -- and a savage threat to children.
An ANAMA (Mine Action Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan) service man works to clear mines in the Terter district of Azerbaijan on April 22, 2021. Image: Azertag News
Estimates suggest that between six and ten years are needed to clear up this “humanitarian problem” in what now might be one of the most heavily mined zones on earth. In the meantime, despite warnings from political leaders, Azerbaijanis yearning to see and re-populate their old homes continue to filter into uncleared sectors, which now include rural and urban areas. They, along with the deminers, risk mutilation or death.
Some are calling on the United States to pressure Armenia to give out the locations of the minefields. After all, Armenia owes President Biden a tremendous diplomatic favour.
Perhaps it would be helpful to begin with asking Azerbaijan and Armenia to sign the Ottawa Treaty and prohibit the use of land mines in the region.
On the other hand, no nation responds well to pressure. The word itself is a volatile term in an increasingly nationalistic world. Canada, as the host of Ottawa convention in 1997, can play a role. Perhaps it would be helpful to begin with asking Azerbaijan and Armenia to sign the Ottawa Treaty and prohibit the use of land mines in the region. Then might be the time for President Biden to request that the mine locations be passed over from Armenia to Azerbaijan. Only after this will it be possible to remove this curse on the people and those who risk their lives to free them from it.
Because that is what “humanitarian” mine problems are: a futile curse.