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Meet the women who clear mines in Nagorno-Karabakh

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is one of the most complicated of our time. Blankspot's Reporter Rasmus Canbäck was denied entry to Nagorno-Karabakh. Therefore, this week he gives his space to a local journalist.

This is part 2 of the series of reports on Armenia’s new reality. Read the first part here.

Text and images: Siranush Sargsyan

Kissing her sleeping two-and-a-half-year-old daughter in the morning mist, putting on her vest and a helmet, leading to the minefield, clearing away blackberry bushes to detect cluster bomb remnants under scorching sun.

This is how the workday begins for deminer Lusine Asryan.

Lusine is a 38-year-old mother of three and one of nine women who have been working at the HALO Trust in Nagorno-Karabakh for seven years.

The HALO Trust is one of the few international organizations that has been working in Nagorno-Karabakh since 2000, when after the first Karabakh war, the whole area was covered in mines.

Lusine has worked as a deminer for seven years.

In the international media, more is discussed about the mining of Aghdam city and other settlements by Armenians during the first Karabakh war and the human casualties, while very little is said about how many mines were mined by the Azerbaijanis at the same timein cities such as Martakert. The city is located in the parts of Nagorno-Karabakh that is under control of Armenians.

The fatal accident after the 2020 war was one of the mines placed in the city of Martakert during the first war. The HALO Trust states that Nagorno- Karabakh tops the list of mine accidents per capita in the world.

A quarter of the victims of these accidents are children.

On September 27, 2020 Azerbaijan – backed by Turkey – launched a large-scale war against Nagorno-Karabakh. The 44-day war inflicted tens of thousands of casualties and missing on both sides, including civilians.

Because of the war, most of the Artsakh territory* is occupied by Azerbaijan, including Lusine’s village, Ughtasar.  Lusine, now an internally displaced person, lives in one of the suburbs of Stepanakert, where her family is building a new house.

Especially in the summer months, the bushes are tricky and difficult to get through

 Before the 2020 war, the HALO Trust’s operations in Nagorno- Karabakh, or Republic of Artsakh as people say here, consisted mainly of demining. But the nature of their work has changed during and after the war.

 The last war saw Azerbaijan use Israeli-produced M-095 cluster bombs not only on the battlefield, but according to Amnesty International, also in residential areas.  

 Cluster bombs are indiscriminate weapons by their nature and are capable of harming civilians even years after they are fired.  They are internationally banned by a treaty with more than 100 member states

However, Armenia and Azerbaijan are not on this list.

Lusine and Mariam take a break. ”It’s incredibly hot with the masks,” they say.

In the main office in Stepanakert Anahit Grigoryan, head of the Awareness Team of Mines and Unexploded Ordnance, shows a few photographs of their findings.

– We mainly deal with unexploded ordnance: ball aerial bombs, grenade launchers, mortars, 95 percent of which are Israeli made cluster bombs.  The main goal of our team is to warn and inform both adults and children to ensure their safety, says Anahit.

The team visits schools twice a year and provides vital information to students. Often Even adults are not aware of the scale of the danger, so Anahit’s team takes a holistic approach to informing the entire community.

Educating them is a matter of life and death. According to Anahit Grigoryan, there have been 24 cases of cluster bomb explosions from unexploded ordinance since the 2020 War, with one casualty.

Safety equipment is important to wear.

Demining teams consist of 8 people, including a commander, two paramedics and a driver. Apart from Lusine, the team includes another woman, Mariam, and six men. Lusine’s team is working in the area of ​​Nngi village, 20 km from Stepanakert.

Every inch of the village was severely bombed during the war. The village is surrounded by forests, rocks and woods, which also poses challenge for clearing operations.

They started assessment of the area and found unexploded ordinance – 73 cluster bombs. After clearing the areas near the village, the work continues in the gardens of the villagers. The villagers are happy and, moreover, they are jokingly asking deminers to do their cultivation works along with demining.  

Demining is stereotyped as a masculine profession, but Lusine confiently shrugs this off. She says that HALO needs strong women.  When adapting to the job, the main challenge for her was not physical labour, but perceptions and pressures from society. At first, she could not resist this pressure and started looking for another job.

But then she realized that she should break those stereotypes and went back to work.

–  It’s not difficult to work with men. On the contrary, we support each other, complement each other, as if we are a big family, says Lusine.

While she considers her colleagues family, she also has found literal family at the HALO Trust -Lusine met her husband there. Her brother, Mkhitar,also worked there. Before the war, her work at the HALO Trust was her happiest time. Her brother was killed and her husband was wounded in the last war.

Lusine rushes home from work every day to be with her daughter Arpy.

Lusine blissfully recalls their house in the village Ughtasar: the pomegranate gardens she planted with her own hands, the yard decorated with flowers.

When asked about longing for home, her eyes fills up.

– Of course I miss my home, my village, but after losing my brother, I have reevaluated and devalued material things. The most important thing is the loss of lives, the people we can’t bring back, while we can always build houses, says Lusine.

It also means she can go home to her daughter, Arpy. This means she can spend time with her family and take care of her garden. All this work she does contributes to maintaining life in Nagorno-Karabakh, she says.

Now she does not work with the same enthusiasm, but she treats her work very responsibly, especially since they work in civilian settlements., After finding and isolating each unexploded bomblet, she feels calm and senses the importance of her job.

Every non-detonated bomb they find mean that more people will be safe.

– When I get home today, I’ll look for my watermelons. This year the harvest will be good, she says.

There is good camaraderie at work, even if the wages are relatively low for the work they do.

Lusine’s teammate Mariam Matevosyan, 23, has been working in The HALO Trust since she was 19. Mariam is from a village outside of Martakert.

She says that it was difficult to find a job in the village and she decided to move to the city where after looking for a while, she ended up at the HALO Trust.

– Sure, she says, there’s a lot of talk about that the work is not for women. But I can actually be a woman and work here anyway. I put on make-up and make sure that I look pretty in that bomb suit.

Mariam is both a deminer and medic on site.

Of course, people around her are surprised when they find out about her job, but she proudly emphasizes what she does. In addition to demining, Mariam also works as a paramedic on the team.

During the war in 2020, she volunteered as a nurse in a military hospital. When the memories are awoken, she says that she does not want to talk about them, but that it is unavoidable to do so.

– Sometimes I am tormented; I am truly tormented by the memory of mutilated people who were injured. It’s terrible… The explosive power of cluster bombs is disgusting, and the damage that people get from white phosphorus…

Furthermore, she believes that the work has changed to become even more dangerous.

– Now the nature of our work has changed, now it is more dangerous. And after clearning the territory of every village or, settlement, I only feel proud of the importance of my work.

About the author: Siranush Sargsyan is a freelance journalist in Nagorno-Karabakh. She became active during the war in 2020 and has since written about Nagorno-Karabakh in mainly Armenian media.

– I am frustrated that the international media did not tell about what has happened. I am also frustrated that foreign journalists are not allowed to come here. That is why I am writing now – to take matters into my own hands.

**

*Note from the editorial board. The Republic of Artsakh is the Armenian name for the unrecognized state established after a bloody war in the 1990s between Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan. Artsakh makes a territorial claim to Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding area. Parts of the territory are not formally included in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. After the 2020 war, about two-thirds of control passed to Azerbaijan.

Part 3 of the series of reports from Armenia’s new reality will be published next week.

Read the first part here