Minefields cover some 2,500 square kilometers of Tajikistan's territory. They are a legacy of the country's 1992-97 civil war, when the mines were laid by both government forces and guerrillas from the United Opposition movement. The problem was compounded three years ago, when neighboring Uzbekistan laid its own mines along the Uzbek-Tajik border. Until now, Dushanbe has lacked the funds and specialists needed to clear its territory of the mines, which have claimed dozens of lives. But a new project by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, together with nongovernmental organizations like the Red Crescent Society, may offer some relief.
Prague, 17 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After several months as an underpaid migrant laborer in Russia, Ikhtiyor Akramov, a 19-year-old Tajik, was returning last autumn to his home in the northern town of Kanibadam. It was a long journey home. Akramov, who was his family's only breadwinner, could not afford a plane ticket. He spent nearly two months traveling from Russia to Tajikistan -- sometimes by train, but mostly by foot. On a cold October evening, Akramov stepped on a land mine while crossing the Uzbek-Tajik border, just kilometers away from his home. "It was very dark. I couldn't see where I was going. I felt like I had touched something, like a wire or a piece of metal. It exploded. I felt dizzy and lost consciousness, maybe for about two hours. Then I crawled a few meters, but fainted again," Akramov said.
Akramov is still being treated for extensive injuries to his stomach, liver, arms, and shoulders.
He is not the only victim of landmines along the Uzbek-Tajik border. More than 60 residents of Tajikistan's Northern Sughd region have been killed, and at least 100 more injured, by antipersonnel mines laid by Uzbekistan in 2000.
Tashkent defended the move as a defense against cross-border terrorism, saying it wanted to prevent members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militant group from entering the country. So far, however, the mines have claimed only civilian casualties. The most recent victim is Ne'mat Ashurov, a 20-year-old Tajik shepherd, who is receiving treatment in a hospital after stepping on a mine in the Asht district earlier this month.
The Uzbek-Tajik border is not the only danger. Tajikistan has several of its own minefields left over from the civil war of the 1990s. Tajik officials say both government troops and United Opposition forces were responsible for laying the mines in the eastern and central regions of the country.
Compared to the countries most affected by landmines -- like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Iraq, Kosovo, and Somalia -- Tajikistan's problem is relatively small. But Dushanbe is still unable to find sufficient funds to clear its mined territory. It also faces a shortage of trained demining specialists and modern equipment.
The Tajik Defense Ministry has so far cleared 110 hectares of land and approximately 700 kilometers of roads, using basic demining methods. At this rate, it could take more than a decade to clear all of Tajikistan's minefields.
But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says the rising casualty count and lost revenue from untilled farmland means the country can't afford to wait that long. Moreover, the passage of time makes existing minefield maps less and less reliable, as rainfall and other shifts in the weather displace the mines and make them more difficult to detect.
The OSCE, which has announced a 200,000-euro ($215,000) plan to help Tajikistan clear its minefields, says it is not even clear how many mines remain on Tajik soil and has asked the government and members of the former United Opposition to provide it with maps of the mine zones. They have also asked Uzbekistan for maps of its mined border region with Tajikistan.
Erkin Qosimov is Tajikistan's ambassador to the OSCE. He told RFE/RL that according to official figures, there are an estimated 16,000 landmines covering an area of approximately 2,500 square kilometers. But he said it is difficult to know with any certainty how many mines were laid and where. "Mines were laid during clashes, during the war. Some [minefields] have maps, some don't. This is a problem. We need to find out where mines are lying and draw a new map. It's believed that there are more than 16,000 mines and other explosive devices remaining in an area of 2,500 square kilometers. But again, it is an estimated figure, which needs to be clarified," Qosimov said.
Officials of the former United Opposition forces deny ever using antipersonnel mines during the civil war. But Muhammadsharif Himmatzoda, a deputy head of the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, said opposition troops did use a limited number of antitank mines. Himmatzoda told RFE/RL the opposition is ready to cooperate with the OSCE's mine-clearing operation to the best of its abilities. "We have always been ready to cooperate with the OSCE in every aspect: in the process of democratization of society, as well as in this new project that helps Tajikistan to be free of mines. It is for the benefit of our country. But I would like to point out that the opposition forces did not have antipersonnel mines. However, we are ready for cooperation [with the OSCE]," Himmatzoda said.
Residents along the Tajik-Uzbek border complain that there are no clear signs indicating areas where mines have been laid. The Tajik Red Crescent Society is responding by launching a project to raise awareness about the landmine problem among residents of mine-affected areas. The Red Crescent Society, together with 30 other NGOs, sent an open letter urging the Tajik and Uzbek governments to do more to solve the mine crisis in the region.
Marc Gilbert, the OSCE ambassador to Tajikistan, said that the two governments have discussed the issue and that Tashkent has agreed to stop mining along the border. Gilbert said he is confident that, with time and the help of international community, Tajikistan will be free of landmines. "There is no doubt that the OSCE and all participating countries are firmly determined to eliminate all mines in Tajikistan. It is a long-term issue; this problem cannot be solved in one year. It takes much longer," Gilbert said.
In the meantime, the country's landmines continue to claim the lives and limbs of innocent residents. Akramov is still struggling to overcome the severe liver injuries he sustained in last October's explosion. The money he earned from his work in Russia is long gone, he said, and it is unlikely he will work again anytime soon. "My parents took to me to the hospital. The doctors said that shrapnel from the landmine went through my stomach. It damaged my liver. My left arm and shoulders were also wounded. Doctors suspected that there might have been more shrapnel in my stomach. They X-rayed me. But their equipment was old and the X-ray pictures were dark. They opted for surgery. I was on a life-support machine for four or five days. My parents sold our garden to pay for my medical treatment."
But Akramov still counts himself among the lucky ones, he said, because at least he is alive.