By Nargiz Zakirova in Dushanbe (RCA No. 180, 5-Feb-03)
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, will next week launch a new project to tackle Tajikistan's deadly landmine crisis.
The republic's cash-strapped government has been unable to clear the mine-strewn areas that are a legacy of the republic's disastrous civil war in the Nineties.
The deputy head of the OSCE mission in Tajikistan, Vadim Nazarov, said a meeting will be held next week with the officials from the defence ministry, the presidential office, several embassies and the Red Cross to put together an action plan for the de-mining operation.
The head of the mission, Marc Gilbert, says they have already set up a training project to instruct Tajik defense and emergency ministry staff in modern de-mining methods.
Gilbert said the state of Tajik minefield areas was extremely dangerous, "It is mainly women, children, and cattle who step on the mines. Sixty people were victims explosions last year alone."
The most recent victims, two villagers from the east of the country, died over the New Year when they stepped on mines near their homes.
Jonmukhamad Radjabov, head of the government's Commission on International Humanitarian Law Enforcement, said he believed more than 16,000 mines and other explosive devices remained scattered over an area of some 2,500 sq km.
The defence ministry drew maps of the minefields last year, he said. Most were on the border with Uzbekistan, but others lay deep inside the country, covering areas where clashes had occurred during the civil war.
The minefields were divided into four rough zones: Rasht valley, the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region, central Tajikistan and the Sogd area. The military have not counted the exact number of mines laid as not all have even been identified.
Defense ministry engineers have already de-activated and destroyed more than 3,000 mines, clearing 110 hectares and 700 km of roads for civilian use. As Gilbert pointed out, most remaining ones lie on farmland, preventing people from tilling the soil, which has a negative impact on the economy in these regions.
The residents of Voznavd, in the Gorno-Badakshan region, and of Panshanbeobod, in Vanch district, told IWPR that mine explosions had killed eight people and 20 cattle.
"There is very little arable land in our district and because of the mines 120 families have virtually nowhere to grow crops and pasture cattle," said Mokhinav Ruzadorova who lives in the Gorno-Badakhshan region. "The fields we used to sow are all mined, and have been for several years."
Shodi Boronov, of Sagirdasht, in Darvaz district, said his village had occupied an important strategic position in the civil war, as a result of which it was still surrounded with mines. Six years after the war ended, none had been cleared. "One of my neighbours recently lost his only cow to these mines," he said. "That cow was his family's livelihood."
Villagers in Panchshanbeobod say at least 10 people have stepped on mines littering four major gorges in the area, not to mention numerous domestic animals.
Tajik military analysts told IWPR that troops on both sides of the conflict planted the explosives. Abdukakhor Sattorov, head of the defence ministry engineers department, says de-mining operations have proceeded for six years, since the war ended in 1997, but given the magnitude of the task this is a short period. Clearing the Gorno-Badakhshan region alone will take Tajik engineers another five years at least.
It is difficult to clear mines several years after they were planted. Engineers say mudslides have shifted the location of some minefields, rendering existing maps unreliable. Lack of funds, modern equipment, and sufficient number of experts hampers the operation.
"Tajik field engineers put themselves at great risk during de-mining because their equipment is obsolete and the work is conducted by most basic methods," said Sattorov. "Often the engineers themselves are injured in mine blasts."
The defence ministry says it knows of at least 102 people who trod on mines in various parts of the country since 1992. But this figure does not reflect the true scale of the problem. International observers believe the number of casualties is far higher.
To express their concern, 32 non-governmental organisations, NGOs, based in Dushanbe sent an open letter to the leaders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan urging them to do more to protect citizens from mines planted on the Tajik-Uzbek border.
In January 2002, the Red Crescent Society of Tajikistan also launched a special programme, entitled Raising Awareness of Mines and Unexploded Ordnance. The coordinator, Kholmat Urunov, said their goal was to cut the number of casualties by teaching local people in affected areas some rules of safe conduct. Urunov said fewer people had stepped on mines since the project was launched.
In 1999, Tajikistan joined the Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of the Use of Anti-Personnel Mines and pledged to ban the planting and stockpiling of such explosive devices on its territory.
But as Abdukakhor Sattorov says, lack of funds makes it hard to implement. The military themselves hope international organisations will now step in, and bring Tajikistan much-needed foreign technical assistance.
Nargis Zakirova is a journalist with Vecherny Dushanbe in Tajikistan