The return home remains a distant hope for hundreds of thousands of displaced Azerbaijanis, whose villages were reclaimed from Armenian control after the Second Karabakh War (2020). The challenge of removing mines and explosive remnants of war remains a major obstacle facing authorities before the regained territories can be repopulated and developed.
At the end of the Second Karabakh War (2020), Azerbaijan reclaimed most of the territory it had lost to Armenia in the First Karabakh War (1991-1994), namely a significant portion of the Karabakh region and the seven occupied regions surrounding it. The November 10 tripartite agreement which marked the end of the war included, as its seventh article, the provision that “Internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees shall return to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the control of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” This return is still impacted by the widepsread minefields and explosive remants of war (ERW) which have prevented the re-building and reconstruction of the war-affected territories, and pose a threat to both deminers and residents.
Hopes for the ‘great return’ promised by Azerbaijani authorities ran high following the ceasefire, but today, based on a report by the International Crisis Group, over 650,000 people are still displaced by the conflict (Shiriyev, Z. 2023). Before citizens could be allowed to return to their villages, however, thousands of hectares of land would need to be cleared of mines and ERW, and essential civilian infrastructure, including houses, schools, and healthcare, would need to be rebuilt – a challenge which is still ongoing to this day.
According to an April 2023 report by Azerbaijan’s National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA), between November 10, 2020 and March 31, 2023 ANAMA and their partners cleared 74,644 hectares from mines and ERW – only 9.06% of the total contaminated territories. 147,988 hectares are still classed as highly contaminated areas, while 675,570 hectares are considered medium and low threat areas. Some of the contaminated areas are under the control of Armenian forces, further complicating measures to estimate the full extent of contamination. Currently, according to the International Crisis Group, government officials and outside experts estimate that over a million mines could still be in place (Shiriyev, Z., 2023).
Throughout the conflict, mine fields were neither marked nor mapped by the armed forces. The ensuing lack of data on the locations of minefields magnifies the challenge and cost of locating and defusing the explosives, and increases the risk of death and injury for both deminers and residents (Shiriyev, Z., 2023).
In 2019, the Red Cross mission in Karabakh reported that it had registered 747 casualties from landmines since the early 1990s, 59% of whom were civilians. Since the ceasefire in November 2020 and up to March 31, 2023, ANAMA has recorded 288 casualties in the regained territories, including at least nine children. While the war and occupation may be over, they have continued to claim lives – but their impact is not limited to the immediate threat of bodily harm. Beyond the direct danger of death or injury, most Karabakhis living in mined areas are dependent on agricultural land or woodland to support their families – lands which have been heavily degraded by mines and ERW for decades: wherever they are scattered, mines outlive their legitimate military objective and continue to contaminate the environment for decades to come, with large tracts of land becoming uncultivatable and uninhabitable. In a region largely dependent on agriculture, the loss of arable lands has a significant detrimental effect on food security and livelihoods. Life in the regained territories remains both hard and dangerous for those who have been lucky enough to return.
Development and the internally displaced
Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there has been a growing awareness of, and agreement on, the need for a comprehensive approach to displacement which goes beyond addressing immediate humanitarian needs and reduces vulnerabilities over time, all the while being anchored in a country’s national development plans. In Azerbaijan, displacement and vulnerability are intimately linked with mine contamination, and the return of IDPs is central to the economic and social reintegration of the regained areas. Demining is therefore a core instrument to promote long-term development in the country, and Azerbaijan correspondingly frames both resettlement and mine clearance as essential drivers of sustainable development, recognising the immediate links between humanitarian demining and the SDGs. To this end, the government created a new SDG on the national level, enshrining demining and resettlement as core components of Azerbaijan’s development goals.
Azerbaijan’s ‘First State Program on the Great Return to Azerbaijan’s regained territories,’ or Great Return program, which was endorsed in November 2022, aims to re-settle 34,500 families between 2022 and 2026 in three stages. The first phase encompasses the rebuilding of social infrastructure in 227 cities, towns, and villages in the regained areas, contingent on the clearance of 14,713 hectares for residential areas by 2024, as well as the clearance of additional land for agriculture and infrastructure to support residential areas.
Indeed, rebuilding their lives in the regained territories goes beyond being able to access the rubble of their homes: Azerbaijanis must have access to functioning and safe civilian infrastructure, such as clean water and healthcare; to land or other livelihoods which they can use to support themselves and their families; and to social capital and education opportunities to generate social and economic development. Most of all, displaced Azerbaijanis must have a voice in generating the development of their homeland: the previously cited report by ANAMA emphasises the goal of voluntary and dignified return of IDPs. Their voices must consequently be made central to the design and implementation of a sustainable repopulation and development process. In a 2022 survey of 590 internally displaced women, the overwhelming majority (87.55%) of respondents highlighted the necessity of being free from danger as a decisive factor behind their desire to relocate. Correspondingly, the full-scale clearance of landmines and ERW, making the land safe for agriculture and development activities, remains a key factor for IDPs’ return home. The government of Azerbaijan will need the dedicated support of the international community if they are to safely clear the regained territories of explosive ordnance, negotiate the full cessation of armed hostilities, and create a productive environment conducive to resettlement and development.
*This article was edited on June 27 to better reflect UN- and internationally-recognised nomenclature, as well as update citations.
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