When I first moved to Azerbaijan to take up my new assignment, I knew the country had gone through a lot, but I never suspected tens of thousands of unrecorded landmines were still making vast swathes of land dangerous and unusable.
With my humanitarian background, I am deeply familiar with the horrendous legacy of landmines in crisis and post-crisis settings.
The mines – some of them no bigger than a can of tuna - have been there since Azerbaijan’s 1988 territorial dispute with Armenia over the autonomous region of Nagorno Karabakh. Today, farmers still can’t access their fields. Families are being warned against venturing too far into the woods, and parents have to watch their children closely.
Twenty years ago, the government set up the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA), a non-military organisation mandated to conduct humanitarian demining in areas posing the greatest threats.
Initially, UNDP brought in international experts to train ANAMA staff on all aspects of mine action—such as carrying out surveys to identify mine locations, removing explosives and supporting survivors when accidents occurred.
It only took five years for ANAMA to become autonomous. Twenty years on, the agency has cleared over 520 million square metres of Azerbaijani land; destroyed around 800,000 mines and other explosive weapons; and created safe conditions for the resettlement of more than 160,000 displaced Azerbaijani.
For over two years, I have been deeply touched and impressed by ANAMA’s leadership and staff. Because it is dealing with such deeply human issues, the agency has had to develop incredible communication skills. Its information campaigns reach over 50,000 schoolchildren every year. Deminers clear one square meter at a time while community outreach personnel knock on every door.
But there’s much more to it. Intensely aware of the development fallout from landmines, ANAMA also manages a micro-credit scheme to protect the livelihoods of victims and their families. They organize carpet-weaving workshops in former war zones and other programmes that not only keep communities afloat, but also give them a chance to look ahead.
Survivors of mine accidents receive medical care and physical rehabilitation. Recently I visited a village in the Jabrayil region, which was regained by Azerbaijani forces in April 2016. The area had since been fully cleared by ANAMA, resulting in further resettlements.
In the eyes of people I met and spoke with there, I saw a spark of hope and sense of comfort, after having endured 25 years of hardship.
But what fascinated me most of all was that in one of the darkest chapters of their life, people found relief in ANAMA and the broad spectrum of assistance programmes it had to offer. One of the mine survivors I met, Javid Mehraliyev, told us he had to overcome severe depression and social exclusion, due to his disability and various health impediments. Twenty years on, Javid is head of operations for ANAMA’s regional office in Fuzuli.
This is for me the ultimate meaning of “Leaving no one behind”. Actions bring together the humanitarian and development fields to make sure people suffering multiple levels of exclusion – many of them traumatised by conflict - are able to get back on their feet.
Today, ANAMA cooperates with a variety of international institutions. With the assistance of UNDP, the agency has secured connections to organisations including the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Bank.
Collaboration with the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining has focused on developing a new generation of information management systems for mine action and testing new mine action technology. ANAMA has also begun extending aid and providing guidance to foreign national mine action programmes, conducting trainings in Georgia, Turkey and my own country, Afghanistan.
Landmines can cripple communities and local economies for decades. That’s why we need to double our resolve to rid the world of this terrible evil and help people not only recover, but thrive again. The Sustainable Development Goals depend on it