Landmines: The Ghost Bombs that Haunt Children, Women, and Refugees from Syria to NKR

Special for the Armenian Weekly

When I came across the joint crowdfunding campaign by The HALO Trust and ONE Armenia (1A) to remove landmines from 31,839m² of land in the Lachin corridor, the first image that crossed my mind was not Princess Diana’s 1997 walk through the minefields of Angola, but my encounter with “Selma,” her daughter “Mariam,” and the dozens of Syrian refugees that were fleeing ISIS’s invasion of Kobani, in 2014, only to fall victim to landmines at the Turkish-Syrian border.

Landmines, the ghost bombs, are “explosive devices designed to be detonated by the presence, proximity or contact of a person [a soldier or a child]. Placed under or on the ground, they can lie dormant for years and even decades until a person or animal triggers their detonating mechanism,” according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Co-Laureate.

In the age of drone-strikes, barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and ISIS beheadings, victims of landmines are often overlooked (except on International Mine Awareness Day-April 4) because the weapons that kill them are not sexy enough to capture people’s imagination. But for the unfortunate 15,000–20,000 people who are killed or maimed by landmines every year, these weapons are not a figment of their imagination — they are very real, very deadly, and life altering.

Selma and the Landmines

I met “Selma,” a 35-year-old lady farmer from the village of Zakariah (approximately 32–35 kilometers west of Kobani city), at the State Hospital in Suruç. Selma and her 7-year-old daughter “Mariam” were two of the dozens of people who fell victim to Turkey’s mine belt at the Tel Shair corridor with Syria during ISIS’s invasion of Kobani.

“I was carrying my 1-year-old-son, while my 7-year-old daughter was holding onto my dress. I stepped on a landmine and it exploded,” said Selma, whose leg was amputated a few days before I met her at the hospital. “My son fell to the ground, while my daughter suffered first degree burns on her face.”

A camp near Suruç for Syrian refugees that fled Kobani. © 2014 Sarkis Balkhian

Human Rights Watch’s careful examination of reports, photographs, remnants of exploded landmines, and satellite images revealed that the landmines that maimed Selma and Mariam, and killed several others fleeing Kobani, were not laid out during the ongoing conflict in Syria, but were a part of a reported 615,419 antipersonnel mines planted along the border with Syria, by the Turkish forces, between 1957 and 1998, “to prevent illegal border crossings.”

Turkey, as a signatory of the Mine Ban (Ottawa) Treaty since 2003, had failed to properly perimeter-mark, monitor, and fence all mined areas at the Tel Shair corridor with Syria “to ensure the effective exclusion of civilians” from those danger zones. Its failure constituted a violation of international law. But more importantly, Turkey’s failure to remove mines it had laid out decades earlier cost the lives of Syrians escaping ISIS’s barbarism and altered the life of Selma and her family forever.

First imagine being a Syrian refugee in the current global, political climate, then imagine being a Syrian refugee with an amputated leg.

Ladmines in Lachin, Nagorno-Karabagh

In Nagorno Karabakh, another conflict zone not too far away from Syria, hundreds of civilians continue to fall victim to landmines and unexploded ordnance left behind by a brutal six-year war that claimed the lives of thousands of Armenians and Azeris.

Similar to landmines, with so many active conflicts that kill hundreds every day — Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Liberia, Somalia to name a few — the “frozen” conflict of Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NK), in the remote region (the South Caucasus) that links Asia with Europe, seldom gets a mention in the news. While cross border shootings is a daily occurrence, the last mainstream media coverage of the conflict was during the “Four Day War” or “the April War of 2016,” which marked the most significant escalation since the ceasefire of 1994.

Lachin, Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh). © 2014 Sarkis Balkhian

The fervor demonstrated by the Armenians and Azeris during the April 2016 war was a reminder that after two decades of diplomatic negotiations, sponsored by the OSCE Minsk Group (Chaired by the United States, Russia, and France), a full-scale conflict between NKR and Azerbaijan remains a very likely possibility.

In the Lachin corridor, the buffer zone that connects Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) with Armenia, life (human and animal) is not only threatened by the potential of renewed hostilities, but is at constant risk of the ghost bombs that continue to haunt women, children, livestock and wild-animals decades after the war of 1988–1994.

The skeptics on the Armenian side claim that in the absence of a lasting peace agreement, the removal of landmines from Lachin, which may be transferred back to Azerbaijan through war or a negotiated peace settlement, is counterintuitive. Considering the Azeri celebrations upon the extradition of convicted criminal Ramil Safarov and his designation as a national hero, it is likely that every civilian death in Nagorno Karabakh, including by landmines, is cheered by the Azerbaijani public. Despite this hostile environment, The HALO Trust, a global non-profit committed to clearing landmines, has already removed more than 88 percent of mines in Nagorno Karabakh since 2000. The organization is committed to making Nagorno Karabakh (Artsakh) landmine free by 2020.

Whether you believe in human rights, animal rights or are just a junkie of international law, this year, on International Mine Awareness Day, you have an opportunity to save lives and uphold the law by contributing to the joint crowdfunding campaign by The HALO Trust and ONE Armenia (1A).

Twenty years after the signing of the Ottawa Treaty in December 1997, the regional security dilemma continues to restrain the three governments (Armenia, NKR, Azerbaijan) from joining the 162 other states that have ratified or acceded to the treaty, but that should not stop us, humans who have a moral authority over our governments, from being compelled and propelled to confront the ghosts of our past and putting an end to human suffering resultant from landmines.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of any organization he is associated with or has referenced in this piece.

*Due to safety concerns, names of victims have been replaced by pseudonyms

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