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Hobbling Along

Tajikistan says it could clean up its mined areas if it could just get some money. From EurasiaNet. by Joanna Lillis 14 December 2006 As Tajikistan approaches the 10th anniversary of the end of its civil war, the countryside remains strewn with landmines. Some experts believe that this small Central Asian state can handle its landmine problem relatively quickly, provided sufficient international support.

Approximately 25 million square meters of Tajikistan contains landmines, William Lawrence, chief technical advisor at the Tajikistan Mine Action Center, told EurasiaNet. Lawrence helps TMAC coordinate information gathering and clearance. All mine clearance work in Tajikistan is carried out by the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD). Three years into the program, there are an estimated 100,000 landmines still concealed in the ground.

With 93 percent of Tajikistan made up of mountainous terrain and only 5.2 percent comprising arable land, landmines tend to be found in areas with heavy population concentrations, Lawrence said. “Every small area of contaminated ground … is really important,” he said. “Our vision is to make Tajikistan safe from the negative humanitarian and economic impact of landmines.” The landmine issue has the potential to impede large-scale economic development projects, including the construction of hydro-electric dams, roads and bridges, Lawrence maintained.

Mine-clearance efforts in 2007 will focus on areas of central Tajikistan worst affected by the civil war. “What we are aiming for is an end state so that the international community can hand over responsibility for mine action to the Tajik government by April 2010,” says Lawrence. He acknowledged that this is ambitious: “There is a very long way to go.”

Other hazardous areas are found along the Tajik-Afghan border. These mines date back to the 1980s, during the former Soviet Union’s 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, when, as a security measure, Communist authorities had portions of Tajikistan’s frontier sown with anti-personnel devices.

There are also landmines along Tajikistan’s frontier with Uzbekistan. Clearance there is hampered by the fact that the border area is not demarcated. “The Uzbeks won’t permit us to clear mines or work there, so we’ve marked them,” says Lawrence. “We can’t do anything else.”

Uzbekistan laid the landmines in 2000 as part of government efforts to combat Islamic militants. “Uzbekistan reported in November and December 2005 [that it was] clearing landmines on the Tajik-Uzbek border. No details were reported and there was no international oversight. … No evidence of mine clearance on that border was found by our survey team,” Lawrence said.

CASH AND CLIMATE

Mine clearance is a painstaking process, hampered by changes in climate and geographic difficulties, on top of the usual ebb and flow of donor funds, FSD representatives said. “We are very dependent on the weather,” Abdusaloh Rasulov, FSD program manager, told EurasiaNet. “We start our operations sometimes in May, sometimes early April if the weather permits and if we have funding in time – these are the two significant factors in our operations. … At the end of November usually we cease operations because of the weather.”

In 2005 and 2006, according to Rasulov, the late arrival of funding forced FSD to curtail deployment of survey teams that conduct assessments prior to clearance. “[Donors] don’t pledge enough, and what they do pledge does not flow as quickly as it is needed,” he said. Tajikistan has one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world, with an estimated two-thirds of the population living below the poverty line, according to the Asian Development Bank.

In 2006, donors pledged $2.5 million to Tajikistan for mine clearance, but Dushanbe ended up receiving only $1.8 million. This year Tajikistan’s mine action program appealed for $3.2 million to cover 2007 activities. To date, donors – including the OSCE, the United Nations Development Program and foreign governments – have delivered $2.5 million.

Despite the existing problems, Tajikistan’s landmine problem is manageable, Lawrence maintained: “Tajikistan’s problem is solvable. Problems in other countries … will go on for generations – hundreds of years. In Tajikistan we can solve our problem if we get some money.”

The appearance of manageability is a mixed blessing, Lawrence added. Donors seem less likely to fund mine-clearance if they believe the problem can be quickly contained, he suggested. “We are seen as [having] small problems. Often this means we are overlooked by donors,” Lawrence said.

Since clearance started in 2004, mines have been removed from 450,598 square meters of land – or just about 2 percent of the overall territory affected. A mine awareness program also has been implemented. The program’s components include mine-risk education, the posting of hazard signs and victim assistance.

So far in 2006, five people have been killed in landmine accidents in Tajikistan and 17 wounded. Overall, an estimated 500 families have suffered from the killing or maiming of loved ones by mines. Most victims are poor and from rural areas. Many who have lost limbs to mines have undergone treatment at the Orthopedic Center in Dushanbe. The center – run and financed by the International Committee of the Red Cross – fits 500-550 prosthetic limbs per year free of charge for those who have lost an arm or a leg through landmine or other accidents. “When they receive a prosthesis, they are not handicapped [anymore],” Menhem Arab, the chief ICRC administrator at the center, told EurasiaNet. The Tajik government is expected to assume responsibility for running the Orthopedic Center in 2007.

The Tajik government’s commitment to eradicating landmines, along with their lingering effects, is a reason for optimism that the issue can be successfully tackled, Lawrence indicated. “Tajikistan is the only Central Asian state to have a structured mine action plan,” he said.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs. This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.
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