Most Americans have by this point grown used to images of the violence of war, usually associated with the Middle Eastern countries of Syria and Iraq that are stuck in the throes of ISIS. Unknown to most is the small region sandwiched between the Eastern European nations of Azerbaijan and Armenia known as Nagorno-Karabakh—a sparsely populated, separatist republic in the middle of a deadly fight to save and rebuild itself.
Considering itself an independent state but not recognized as such by much of the world, the two former Soviet Republics are fighting over control of the region. The population, forced to live amongst remnants of war, face deadly consequences at every turn.
The signs are hard to detect driving through the picturesque, almost ancient-looking region. But the peaceful mountains and farmland hide two-decade-old remnants of war in the form of landmines, cluster bombs, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
A small group of highly trained women, who make up roughly 20 percent of the region’s demining crew, bear a heavy responsibility for clearing these dangerous objects, one by one, in order to bring the region back to life.
One of them is 31-year-old Vartanush.* When you first glimpse her, one of the first things you notice is her weary smile. Her tired but engaging eyes show worry about the long, monotonous work in the landmine fields that lies ahead.
Quiet and shy, Vartanush is known as a “secret weapon” on the field thanks to her accuracy and swiftness in detecting and removing mines. Her program director at The HALO Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to removing landmines, describes her as “unstoppable.”
When she speaks, it’s about her children. Like the other 10 women on her team, she can only see her family, including her husband, on the weekend—a separation that’s hard on all of them.
Ironically, Vartanush’s family is the reason she accepts the danger and time away from home. She is the primary source of income for her family; her husband only has “casual” employment working in forestry and on their land, the region’s poor economy being another byproduct of the conflict. When she found out that the HALO team was recruiting, she signed up because it meant a chance for a better life. She is now the only one of her six-person, two-bedroom household with a full-time job, which has allowed the family to progress from subsistence to opening a savings account.
Speaking in Armenian through an interpreter, she tells us, “Between my weekends, I talk to my daughters and son via Skype to hear about their day, just like they do mine.”
Another HALO deminer, 37-year-old Christina, has a similar story. Like Vartanush, she stays at HALO-sanctioned housing, located about 35 km from her house, Monday through Friday. The day starts at 6:30 a.m. and ends with dinner with the other female bomb removers. Like Vartanush, she finds it painful to leave her kids during the week.
Though she was initially hesitant about signing up for a job considered “man’s work,” Christina says the job has changed her life, providing her family with a stable source of income and giving her a new sense of confidence and purpose.
Vartanush echoes this sentiment: “I believe my place is doing this work.”
The gravity of the ethnic war that began in the late Soviet period between Armenians and Azerbaijanis has taken a toll on people that used to live peaceably together. The conflict has claimed more than 30,000 lives and displaced one million, Reuters reports.
Fighting renewed in the area in April of 2016 after a long period of uneasy peace that began with a 1994 ceasefire, according to the New York Times. As it stands now, the 1994 truce agreement is still intact. But the tenuous agreement has left the region and its people subject to sporadic bouts of violence. Longtime residents find it difficult or even impossible to leave their homes during these episodes.
Not to mention the fear of stepping on the mines. The HALO Trust, which works to remove mines and ordnance all over the world, reports: “Karabakh has one of the highest per capita incidences of landmine accidents in the world—a third of the victims are children.”
On the upside, the organization has overseen the clearing of 24 minefields in the region of about 5,000 residents since 2000, or 90 percent. In 2016 alone, this included 159 mines, 165 cluster munitions, and 79 other explosive items, including aircraft bombs, it reports. It recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign to clear the remaining mines and educate the community.
There are no magic solutions to the crises that are tearing apart nations and creating refugees all over the world. But for hope that a danger zone can once again become a place for children to run and play, to grow new crops and raise livestock, one need only look to the hardworking women of Nogorno-Karabakh.
*The HALO Trust asked that the women interviewed be referred to by first name only.