STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh – Like a child’s lost toy, an unexploded shell lies in the loft of an apartment block. This, and thousands more like it, are the lethal relics of cluster bombs that rained down on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh during last year’s war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Two deminers strap on body armour and prepare to remove the sensitive device without triggering it. In open ground, it could be safely destroyed; here in the regional capital, Stepanakert, with civilians living a floor below, that isn’t an option.
This one is the Israeli-made M095 — infamous for its pretty pink ribbon and known to be possessed by Azerbaijan. They look like party poppers, with confetti swapped for 44 grams of high explosive.
“Either the impact has not been hard enough, or it was at the wrong angle and that can stop it from functioning,” said Wesley Tomson, a technical advisor for the HALO Trust, a humanitarian organisation that clears landmines and other explosive debris, “That’s why we have to move it.”
Scanning the floor with head torches, Tomson and his colleague, Araik Bakhshian, lay out their tools for the job. They plan to extract the submunition with a hook and line, coating it with liquid foam that hardens after 30 minutes.
“Ready to go,” says Tomson, a 32-year-old Brit who specialises in explosive ordnance disposal.
From a safe distance, they slowly pull a line to lift up the shell, gently pull another to bring it towards a box filled with sand, then lower the device.
Wearing a face shield, Bakhshian collects the box and cautiously carries it downstairs, descending a rickety ladder and then a stairwell where children’s bikes are propped up against peeling walls.
Beneath shattered windows and colourful, zigzagging rows of laundry, he emerges from the five-storey building into a courtyard scarred by shrapnel. Bakhshian walks to his truck and passes the precarious package to Tomson who places it among sandbags. He moves away from the vehicle with a relieved grin.
But the job isn’t over yet. The shell must be destroyed at a designated site beyond the city limits – and that lies down miles of rough, potholed roads where one unlucky bump could trigger a deadly detonation.
For decades, landmines were the main risk in Nagorno-Karabakh — so much so that, following the first 1990s conflict, the war-ravaged territory gained the world’s highest accident rate per capita from these indiscriminate weapons. Whether powerful TM-62 anti-tank mines, the PMN “black widow” or the OZM-72 which jumps into the air to explode at waist height, both sides had drawn extensively on their nightmarish, Russian-made stockpiles.
As one of the most heavily mined regions in the former Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh continued to be blighted by hundreds of casualties in the years after that war had ended, However, while the impact was felt strongly among impoverished rural communities, whose desperation even forced some to plough areas known to contain mines, the risk was largely contained to the countryside.
2020’s six-week conflict changed that, adding new urban dangers to the threat of rural minefields.
Nagorno-Karabakh falls within Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognised borders but has been under the control of ethnic Armenians, backed by Armenia itself, since the first war ended in 1994, followed by years of deadlocked peace talks. However, as a consequence of last year’s hostilities, during which more than 6,000 people died, Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed forces regained control of seven districts around Nagorno-Karabakh which it had lost during the 1990s war, while Armenians cling onto a smaller chunk of the enclave.
During this recent fighting, both sides fired cluster munitions into civilian areas; Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities deny this despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. VICE World News journalists corroborated the use of banned cluster munitions in an attack that took place last October in Azerbaijan. Human Rights Watch has documented unlawful attacks on hospitals by both forces, while Amnesty International says notoriously inaccurate weapons killed scores of civilians and wounded hundreds more in violation of international humanitarian law.
Dangers linger beyond those initial deaths. Cluster bombs release hundreds of smaller submunitions over wide areas that spew high-velocity fragments on impact, yet some shells may fail to explode. Costly and laborious to locate and remove, HALO’s teams are finding between five and ten unexploded submunitions every day.
“This is very much a new threat for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Miles Hawthorn, the HALO Trust’s programme manager there. “It's imperative that we get in to clear these cluster munitions now. They're extremely dangerous – all the types we found here have the capacity to kill.”
Many civilians spent the war over the border in Armenia proper until the government, its troops at breaking point, capitulated into signing a punishing ceasefire deal brokered by Moscow last November. Since then, tens of thousands have returned to Stepanakert and other towns after their wartime exodus. In these urban centres, whether scattered along streets or buried beneath rubble, cluster submunitions and other unexploded items fired by Azerbaijan await their return.
HALO has mapped Stepanakert for unexploded ordnance (UXO), dividing the city into smaller sectors and noting the whereabouts and types of munitions. The result is staggering: one fifth of the city contains some kind of explosive item. It’s a similar stat for the eastern town of Martuni. In Martakert to the north, a third of that town is contaminated. Another HALO assessment of more than 100 different villages found that two thirds of them are reporting the presence of new UXO.
Elsewhere, deminers have come across a downed drone with unexploded missiles. New use of anti-vehicle mines has been reported. And unexploded incendiary munitions such as white phosphorus pose an ongoing risk. These cruel weapons produce intense heat and fire that inflict excruciating burns, damaging skin, muscle, even bone.
Invented by the Nazis, whose so-called “butterfly bombs” struck towns during Luftwaffe raids, cluster bombs were later dropped in their millions by the US during the Vietnam War. Since 2008, more than 100 countries have signed a global treaty banning their use, yet many others have not, including Armenia and Azerbaijan – as well as the US. Last year, the UN raised the alarm about the growing, worldwide use of these weapons, from Nagorno-Karabakh to Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Disposal teams have so far found three types in Nagorno-Karabakh. There are two Russian-made varieties – the 9N235, with its self-destruct mechanism that frequently fails to function, and the ShOAB, characterised by bomblets the size of tennis balls – and the Israeli-manufactured M095.
“People are tempted to pick these things up,” said Hawthorn. “Its distinctive pink ribbon is very attractive to children.”
Over the years, children have accounted for a quarter of all victims from UXO accidents in this contested enclave. Shelling and shooting have stopped for now, but the next chapter of this protracted crisis has just begun. With thousands of exploded items now littering the region, the urgency of the deminers’ task is matched by its magnitude.
Along with Russian peacekeepers and Nagorno-Karabakh’s rescue services – as well as Turkish sappers in Azerbaijani-held areas – HALO‘s 155-strong staff are tasked with cleaning up the horrific legacy of the autumn war. However, funding shortages are preventing the organisation from increasing its workforce to tackle the full extent of the crisis swiftly. Political sensitivities around Nagorno-Karabakh’s unrecognised status can put off potential donors, compounded by recent smear campaigns against HALO consisting of baseless disinformation, spread by Armenian Karabakhi officials.
Since the war, its personnel have cleared over 650,000 square metres of contaminated land, destroying more than 850 cluster submunitions and around 1,000 items of other unexploded ordnance and stray ammunition. But there is still much more, all exacerbating the challenges faced by Nagorno-Karabakh’s population. “The humanitarian crisis in the region remains dire,” said Janez Lenarčič who oversees the European Commission’s response to emergencies.
Among the deminers is Bakhshian who, having removed the shell from the apartment block, hits the road, driving behind Tomson who leads the way with extreme caution, loaded with his hazardous cargo.
Prior to joining the HALO Trust 21 years ago, Bakhshian studied civil engineering in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, before the outbreak of anti-Armenian pogroms there in the late 1980s ended such coexistence. Conscripted into the Soviet military and deployed to Mongolia and Siberia, his specialty in explosive ordnance disposal began during his army days and continued in Nagorno-Karabakh’s rescue service following the 1990s war.
Deeply knowledgeable and self-effacing, Bakhsian also ran Stepanakert’s chess school for years. Developing a tactical mind to anticipate any pitfall, his love of this strategic boardgame is one of the more unusual influences on his work.
“You always must think about every step,” said the 56-year-old, speaking in heavily-accented English. “You see ammunition you must decide, What is this? If you don't understand what it is, I don’t recommend touching it.
“How many explosives inside, can you remove this, or you must destroy in place? If you destroy in place, what you must do – you must all calculate. This is like when you play chess.”
Before war broke out last year, Bakhshian lived in nearby Shushi, a hilltop town that fell to Azerbaijani forces ahead of the ceasefire. Forced to start a new life in Stepanakert, the married father-of-one is now unable to return home.
“For me doesn’t matter,” he said with a stoic shrug. “A lot of young guys died, and I am still alive. I want to make safe our people – not killed after war. My motivation is only this.”
Back on the road, Bakhshian and Tomson leave Stepanakert and continue along an increasingly bumpy road. The occasional taxi speeds past, impatient and clueless of the bomb sandwiched between sandbags in Tomson’s truck, just a few feet away.
Bakhshian’s phone rings. “Hello?” he answers in Armenian. “Erik, mate, I’m busy. I’ll call you later. I don't even have time to wipe my nose.”
Finally, surrounded by rolling scrubland, they arrive at the demolition site. Tomson straps on his visor and carefully lifts the TNT box out of the vehicle and gently passes it over a fence to Bakhshian, who places it in a field for detonation.
Shortly before the controlled blast, Bakhshian and another deminer spot some locals near the explosion site.
“Go back, go back,” shouts his colleague.
“These people are crazy,” mutters Bakhshian.
The intruders back off and with the coast clear, Bakhsian sends a charge down the long detonation cord to a piece of TNT placed by the bomb.
A moment later, a stubby plume of black smoke shoots into the air, immediately followed by a succinct, punchy blast. This single submunition had the power to cause multiple deaths — a fraction of the horror that an entire cluster bomb packed with these shells could unleash.
The deminers gaze at the smoking aftermath.
“Good little crack,” says Tomson.
The UXO crisis is not confined to Armenian-controlled areas. These dangers span the contact line between the rival armies, threatening civilians on both sides.
When Armenian forces took over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts in 1994, more than 600,000 ethnic Azeris were displaced from their homes. Over the coming decades, as stalled peace talks denied a peaceful settlement, these people have lived in limbo.
The ceasefire deal returned these districts to Azerbaijani jurisdiction so, in theory, civilians can now return. However, these occupied territories faced extensive destruction during 26 years of Armenian occupation and remain strewn with a large but unknown number of landmines, reportedly up to 100,000 across 320 square miles.
The Azerbaijani government says the clean-up operation could take upwards of a decade. While some Armenian units had been trained to lay landmines in standardised patterns, volunteer fighters from irregular forces took a more haphazard approach, scattering these weapons which makes it harder to locate and remove them today.
“Landmines and UXO is the most urgent challenge at the moment,” Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan’s Ambassador to the US, told VICE News. “We can’t start any meaningful restoration or repatriation without this…Roads have been mined significantly. Mines have been spread randomly around fields.”
The Azerbaijani government has pledged a range of ambitious projects in retaken territories, from a six-lane highway to a new international airport while rebuilding hundreds of settlements and resettling hundreds of thousands of people. The cost will be vast, at a time when oil-exporting Azerbaijan faces falling crude production amid weak global markets.
“How can you have normalisation in the region without economic growth?” added Suleymanov. “Economic growth is key to this. And how can you have economic growth if all these areas are so contaminated.”
Azerbaijan’s government has appointed a new director to the country’s Mine Action Agency, restructuring it so foreign donors can give financial assistance. In addition to personnel and minesweeping machines from the Turkish army, Baku has lobbied Moscow for help in removing this deadly detritus.
With scores of casualties from landmines reported since the war ended, Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leadership is urging displaced civilians to stay put.
“I understand the wishes of those who have longed for their homeland for many years,” said President Ilham Aliyev in February. “Every former internally displaced person wants to return to his native village. But I must ask that they wait a bit longer until our work to clear the mines is completed.”
Back in Nagorno-Karabakh, close to where Bakhshian and Tomson destroyed the shell, their demining colleagues fan out through the nearby village of Aygestan where, in October, an Azerbaijani strike hit a munitions store. In addition to killing two military guards, the huge explosion scattered thousands of grenades, shells, rockets and rounds through the settlement and surrounding fields.
Among these horrifying weapons was a projectile packed with nails, often known to be coated with anti-coagulant chemicals to encourage blood loss among casualties.
Battered Ladas rumble through rutted streets as refugees return. Among them is Hayk Ghoulyan, a 28-year-old repairing his damaged home, helped by neighbours. His family have taken in a teenage boy whose father was killed on the frontline.
“The explosion was awful,” says Ghoulyan, father to a new-born baby. “We’re still in shock. We’re worried the children will find explosives in the yard. Once HALO finishes here, we’ll let them play again. For now, we can’t do anything but mourn our losses.”
All around him deminers painstakingly scour streets, hedgerows and homes for explosives. Handheld detectors are poked into mounds of rubble; crops of little red flags indicating the presence of shells are planted throughout surrounding fields. Following Georgia’s short war with Russia in 2008, it took HALO a whole year to clean up the fallout from just five days of clashes. In Nagorno-Karabakh, weeks of intense fighting means the contamination is far worse.
His community shattered, Ghoulyan turns to leave. “I hope things get better soon,” I tell him.
With a look of total, unnerving fatigue, he replies: “But when will it get better?”