HALO Trust Saving Lives In Artsakh

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WASHINGTON — One year after the 2020 Karabakh (Artsakh) War, there is only one international NGO with a presence in what is left of the historic territory of Artsakh: the landmine clearance organization HALO (Hazardous Area Life-support Organization) Trust, which is at work removing cluster munitions in the region.

HALO Trust is a registered British charity with an American affiliate nonprofit. Founded in 1988, originally to remove landmines in Afghanistan, the organization was propelled to international prominence in the 1990s by Princess Diana’s visit to a minefield in Angola and her espousal of the humanitarian issue. In fact, for its work, the group won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

On November 4, HALO held a webinar to discuss their latest efforts in the Karabakh region, update their supporters, and issue a call to action. HALO’s US Executive Director, Chris Whatley, moderated the call from Washington DC. Dr. Christina Maranci of Tufts University gave a brief presentation on Artsakh history, and Miles Hawthorn, HALO’s program manager for Nagorno Karabakh stationed in Yerevan, gave an overview and update of the work that has been done in clearing Artsakh of hazardous explosives.

A Broader Picture

The webinar began with Dr. Maranci’s presentation on several beautiful and architecturally/historically important sites in the region. Maranci pointed out the buildings and monuments at Amaras, Gandzasar, Tsitsernavank, Dadivank and elsewhere. Amaras, which houses the 4th-century tomb of St. Grigoris (grandson of Gregory the Illuminator), is unique from an art historical perspective as one of the few early Christian churches built with the door to the East, a feature it shares with the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Tsitsernavank, a remarkable survival of a beautiful 4th-5th century basilica, has the odd addition of a second floor gallery directly above the apse (altar area). The lengthy Armenian inscriptions on the outside walls of Dadivank, and the sheer beauty of Gandzasar also drew attention. Maranci stressed time and again that proper study of these sites is impossible without going to them in person, and the layperson can easily see why.

Whatley, in turn, in an effort to put the Karabakh issue in context for his largely American audience, stressed the historic importance and cultural value of the region that these monuments attest to. Touching on all angles of the issue, he stressed that helping Karabakh’s people was reflective of American values, and that donors have included not only members of the Armenian Diaspora, but Americans of all backgrounds.

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Humanitarian Commitment

The main component of the webinar was a presentation by Hawthorn on the situation on the ground in Karabakh, followed by a question-and-answer period. Hawthorn, a British native, is the program director for HALO Trust’s operations in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia. Currently residing in Yerevan, he along with the other four members of the international team, two of whom are in Stepanakert, oversee teams predominantly made up of locals whom HALO has recruited and trained. Hawthorn noted during the question and answer phase, that HALO has been working in Karabakh since the first war and that they have developed a deep level of trust with locals. When residents see the HALO logo, Hawthorn says, they know they can trust the work that the organization does.

Since the last war, HALO has again been at work removing explosives in Nagorno-Karabakh. These are predominantly cluster munitions, rather than landmines, which were a problem in the 1990s. According to Human Rights Watch: “Cluster munitions pose an immediate threat to civilians during conflict by randomly scattering submunitions or bomblets over a wide area. They continue to pose a threat post-conflict by leaving remnants, including submunitions that fail to explode upon impact becoming de facto landmines.”

Since the Armenian side didn’t gain any territory in which the Azerbaijanis could have left behind landmines, the cluster munitions fired or dropped from the enemy side are the real problem today.

Hawthorn shared some startling slides depicting how many places in Artsakh have been riddled with these explosives have been found. But his numbers also painted a picture of tireless work on behalf of the organization and its predominantly local team members. The organization has four main tasks: to survey residents as to the whereabouts of known explosives, to comb the urban and rural areas, to destroy explosives when found, and to educate local residents about how to remain safe under these conditions. Hawthorn also shared that HALO has been doing other work, like bringing needed supplies into the region, often partnering with Armenians in the Diaspora to do so.

An interesting facet of HALO’s work is its hiring primarily women. HALO has been involved in empowering women in this regard, who further take on protecting their homeland. The role of women as expert de-miners goes back before the latest war.

The webinar ended with a question-and-answer session. There was also a call to action by Whatley for viewers to contact their congressional representatives. According to Whatley, HALO is looking to get an allocation for $2 million toward Karabakh demining efforts added to the US federal budget. Whatley, who was formerly the executive director of the United Nations Association of the United States, and prior to that was with the International Republican Institute, said if federal funding is allocated, he would like to see the American flag patch on the HALO uniform, to show that the US is just as committed to the region as Russia.

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