in Armored Vehicles - The HALO Trust in the Caucasus
demise of the Soviet Union and the resultant rush to establish claims
over disputed areas and to assert ethnic identity led to a widespread
call to arms. Nowhere was this more the case than in the Caucasus. The
former southern Caucasian "soviets" of Azerbaijan, Armenia and
Georgia have all asserted their independence from Russia and all have
witnessed bloodshed resulting from inter-ethnic fighting.
of the HALO teams. Photo c/o HALO Trust
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In the north
Caucasus there has been fighting in Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia and
most notably in Chechnya. The virtual abandonment of former weapons stockpiles
accompanied by some very definite mischief by the departing Russian troops
has led to munitions, including mines falling into the hands of almost every
potential warring faction. To no one's surprise the region has been troubled
ever since Soviet domination ceased.
The roots of
the problems in the Caucasus pre-date the beginning of this century, but Stalin
in his role as "People's Commissar for the Affairs of Nationalities"
made some decisions which he would have known would fuel long term strife.
His policy of divide and rule worked for his tenure in office, but even before
the collapse of communism there were signs of impending trouble; by 1989 the
dispute over Nagorno Karabakh had re-emerged and Abkhazia had asked to leave
Georgia. Although fighting has recommenced in Chechnya, most of the inter-ethnic
fighting took place in the period 1990-95 and the borders of the Caucasus
are by and large the same as those of five years ago.
Ten years after
the Soviet Union was disbanded, some semblance of order is now emerging in
the region and the process of mine clearance is well under way. The HALO Trust
began its mine clearance work in January 1995 with a training program in Nagorno
Karabakh. The program, which had an initial expatriate presence for eighteen
months, aimed to establish an indigenous mine action capacity that could carry
on the work once international support was withdrawn. This was then followed
by mine clearance programs in Abkhazia (Georgia) and in Chechnya. In each
of these places in the Caucasus, HALO has been the sole mine clearance operator
which has led to HALO taking the lead in other areas such as mines awareness
and in establishing mine information centers.
Each of the programs
is now described in some detail to give the reader a broader perspective of
the particular challenges and rewards that the Caucasus present.
standing historical claims and being largely populated by Armenian speaking
Christians, in 1923 Stalin decreed that Nagorno Karabakh would become a part
of Muslim Azerbaijan. The Armenians contested this resolution throughout the
65 years of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast's existence. In 1988 following
the submission of an 80,000 name petition, the Oblast Soviet of the NKAO appealed
to the Supreme Soviets of the USSR, Azerbaijan and Armenia to allow them to
secede from Azerbaijan and be attached to Armenia. Baku rejected the appeal
and shortly afterwards violence broke out, initially in the form of a riot
on the streets of an Azeri town, but the deaths of two Azeris in the riot
led to a pogrom. The situation deteriorated until on July 12, 1988 when the
NKAO Oblast Soviet took the decision to leave Azerbaijan and join Armenia.
Soviet troops were deployed to Karabakh to suppress nationalist sentiments,
which they managed to achieve until 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up. Azerbaijan,
Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh all declared their independence and held elections.
At this point the Azeri Soviet began its attempt to re-establish control over
Karabakh and between 1992 and May 1994 fierce fighting claimed around 40,000
lives. The fighting involved extensive use of armour, artillery and aircraft,
as well as the laying of many barrier minefields. Aerial sub-munitions were
dropped across the entire region and are still uncovered on a regular basis.
May 1994, a cease fire was brokered which was confirmed in writing by
Armenia and Azerbaijan in July 1994, six months later The HALO Trust commenced
its mine clearance program in Karabakh. HALO opted to work with the Karabakhi
military Engineering Service as they were already engaged in mine clearance
work. This department provided the best hope of the work continuing after
FAB air-dropped bomb in Abkhazia. The locals had attempted to destroy
the bomb by shooting it. Photo c/o HALO Trust
the Karabkhis HALO set out to achieve the following:
a complete mine clearance organization that can be used as the basis for expansion
by the authorities.
competence in the technical disciplines of mine clearance , EOD, mine field
data base management, reconnaissance, survey and marking, public education
and the running of a telephone emergency service.
a local management structure.
conditions and systems that are sustainable by the authorities.
team had the experience of other HALO mine clearance and survey work in Afghanistan,
Cambodia, Mozambique and Bosnia. The team achieved its set aims within twelve
months of commencing work, and for the last six months of the program the
expatriates adopted a watching brief. The team left Karabakh on June 30, 1996.
In 1999, HALO
personnel returned to Karabakh to assess the performance of the local capacity
and to seek out weak areas where HALO might be of renewed assistance. The
monitoring team was delighted to see that despite no outside support whatsoever,
mine clearance was still taking place on a daily basis and that almost all
of the structures originally established by HALO continued to operate in the
manner originally intended. Of course, the team did find requirements for
support, principally in the refurbishment and replacement of some very tired
(through good use) demining equipment, but by and large the results of the
monitoring mission were extremely pleasing.
HALO is now injecting
some additional support to the Mine Action Center in Stepankert. The provision
of new powerful computers and mapping software will greatly enhance the capacity
of the center to disseminate clear information. Protective visors that have
seen daily use for more than four years are in need of replacement, and broken
electronic items such as radios and detectors are being returned to their
manufacturers for repairs which were beyond the capacity of the Karabakhi
personnel. The Nagorno Karabakh Mine Action Center will continue to collate
and disseminate information, to provide equipment and technical support and
to direct and coordinate mine clearance and UXO work in much the same fashion
as any other MAC aims to do, the difference in Karabakh is that it all happens
at rates which the host government has been able to sustain.
Abkhazia is a
secessionist republic that lies along the eastern shore of the Black Sea.
The Abkhaz fought an eighteen month war with Georgia in 1992-23, that saw
heavy fighting and the widespread use of mines. Since the conventional fighting
ended, limited partisan activity has continued especially in the southernmost
Abkhaz region of Gali. Mines can be found throughout southern and central
Abkhazia but the major concentrations were laid in Sukhumi (the modern day
Abkhaz capital) along the south bank of the Gumista River (the Georgian forces'
northen front throughout mostof the war). Mines were also placed on the north
bank of the Inguri River (the present de-facto frontier and Abkhaz
forces southern front since the end of the fighting) and along the M27 corridor,
the Main Supply Route for the Georgians during the war. The HALO Trust began
its clearance program in Abkhazia in November 1997. This was achieved only
after many months of negotiations with both parties to the conflict and only
after an agreement was made which pledged clearance activities would be split
on an equal basis to support both Georgian and Abkhaz interests. The clearance
was originally supported by the British and German governments and by Foundation
Pro Victimis of Geneva, but since then the program has further been supported
by the Dutch and Japanese governments. Additional support has been pledged
by both the American and Canadian governments, which will enable HALO to expand
its program to employ around 300 Abkhaz/Georgian personnel.
The program in
Abkhazia addresses all aspects of the mine problem. HALO has established the
Abkhaz Mines Action Center (AMAC), which produces high quality maps of the
mined areas and conducts Mines Awareness training in the Russian, Georgian
and Abkhaz languages. AMAC also coordinates clearance activities and acts
as a conduit for all requests for clearance and survey work. Mine clearance
is conducted by both manual and mechanical means. The mechanical clearance
is being conducted using specially modified Medium Wheeled Loaders which were
a gift from the British Government's Ministry of Defence. HALO's specialist
instructors have trained local EOD personnel in the use of relatively sophisticated
tools such as rocket wrenches and de-armers which have allowed them to deal
with all items of ordnance used in the Abkahz conflict, the largest of which
were 500kg air-dropped bombs. The team have now been asked by the Abkhaz authorities
to deal with a stock of SA2 missiles and the disposal of these large items
will commence shortly.
Abkhazia has benefited enormously through the provision of maps made at the
time of the conflict which have been given to HALO by the former combatants.
Many of these maps are of exceptionally good quality and give a very clear
indication of where to start looking and what to expect to find. The maps
also give a very good indication as to the scale of the problem throughout
the country. For example, the maps indicate that only around 5,500 mines were
laid along the main Georgian front line, and overall indicate that the total
figure for mines used lies somewhere in the range of 15 - 30,000. This is
still a lot of mines, but a long way short of the figure of 1 million that
was proclaimed by several leading international agencies in the mid 1990s.
The mine clearance
teams in Abkhazia have so far concentrated on the clearance of the mine concentrations
in Sukhumi and Gali. HALO expects to finish the Sukhumi (Gumista River) clearance
work this year, but the occasional use of anti-vehicle mines on routes away
from the major highways has hindered clearance in Gali. HALO is planning to
commence a new US government funded clearance program in the Ochamchire region
of Abkhazia. HALO believes that all the mines in peaceful Abkhazia can be
cleared within five years, but the full clearance of the Gali region will
not take place until a lasting peace settlement has been agreed.
Recently in the
forefront of the news, Chechnya had been home to a HALO Trust mine clearance
program since 1996. By the time of the recent Russian invasion, HALO had established
both manual and mechanical mine clearance teams, trained a UXO capacity and
had conducted a full survey of the entire republic. HALO had based its operation
in the southwest of Chechnya, scene to much of the fighting and relatively
far more secure than Grozny. HALO was in the final steps of the hand over
of full management responsibility to Chechen personnel when the present fighting
The recent fighting
has caused HALO to suspend its activities but should the Chechens achieve
a settlement, there is every likelihood that HALO will return immediately
to carry out the much need emergency work. Indeed, HALO kept personnel in
Chechnya for as long as was thought reasonably safe to do so, with the last
clearance work of hazardous ordnance taking place as recently as December
For most of 1998
and the first half of 1999 HALO was the only international agency with a permanent
presence in Chechnya and so became a much valued employer. The respect for
the nature of the work undertaken afforded some measure of security for the
expatriate personnel. HALO found far fewer mines in Chechnya than in other
regions in the Caucasus, the typical Russian unit would post a couple of OZM
72 bounding fragmentation mines around a road checkpoint to deter would-be
aggressors, but very few barrier mine fields were laid. As for the Chechens,
they were too poorly equipped to lay major mine fields but they did make good
use of the resources they had and mines very much played a part in their tactics.
Despite low mine numbers overall, the perceived threat of mines, based largely
on a history of accidents across Chechnya, did deny vast tracts of agricultural
land and destroy a significant proportion of the working tractors that still
operated in Chechnya. To help address this problem of low mine numbers over
vast areas, HALO deployed Pearson rollers pushed by a Belarus (locally manufactured)
tractor, which HALO had armoured in the United Kingdom. The tractor/roller
combination proved a great success and large tracts of agricultural land were
quickly returned to productive use. HALO also deployed Volvo Medium Wheeled
Loaders to Chechnya to clear the unexploded ordnance that lay buried in the
rubble of former housing.
The recent conflict
has almost certainly seen the deployment of additional mines, and unexploded
ordnance. Just how the Russians have deployed their mines is yet to be seen,
however they did drop PFM-1 over the Georgian border area of Omalo last summer,
so there is little doubt that they will have shown much reserve in Chechnya
In the Caucasus,
HALO has shown that wherever there is a well educated, computer literate local
population, it is possible to quickly and efficiently establish an effective
and appropriate Mines Action Center at costs that can be sustained by the
governments of mine-affected countries.
The HALO Trust
10 Storey's Gate
London SWIP 3AY
- Tel: +44 (0)20 7222 7177
Fax: +44 (0)20 7222 7178
- Tel: +44 (0)1848 33 1100
Fax: +44 (0)1848 33 1122