Commissioned Work: The HALO Trust: NKR
Nagorno-Karabakh is a beautiful country if you can get past the land mines and the fact that it technically doesn't exist.
An autonomous oblast within Azerbaijan SSR during the Soviet years, Karabakh, which had an ethnic Armenian majority, declared independence in 1991 and fought a long bloody war with Azerbaijan that ended - not in any sort of resolution – but in a stalemate that leaves its current status uncertain. Still legally part of Azerbaijan, but accessible only through Armenia and with years of hatred sporadically reigniting into active conflict, it can be hard for anyone to see it having a viable future.
Even today, almost twenty-five years since active warfare ended, the conflict has a daily impact on the people of Karabakh. The land itself has been poisoned by the years of fighting - seeded with landmines, cluster munitions, and unexploded ordinance. Per capita, the people of Karabakh are more likely to be victims of landmines and cluster bombs than almost anywhere in the world - and 25% of the victims are children.
Despite that, Karabakh is a place of great beauty and hope- with staggering mountain vistas and rolling fertile plains. For Armenians, Karabakh is more than just a place. It is a symbol of strength and perseverance, as well as a living example of what might have been if Armenians had not been driven from their homeland by the brutality of the 1915 Genocide.
As a result, many of the collective resources of the Armenian diaspora have been dedicated to improving Karabakh's future - from the homegrown Janapar trail, which aims to promote ecotourism in the region, to the Boston-based Armenia Tree Project, which plants fruit trees in an effort to help with reforestation and economic recovery, to the US-funded TUMO, which runs programs in the arts and sciences for schoolchildren. There are even organizations working to move Syrian-Armenian refugees into underpopulated parts of Karabakh.
All of these efforts, however, are a bit quixotic unless Karabakh's underlying problems are fixed. No matter how breathtaking the land is, it is difficult to attract ecotourists if you have to warn them about cluster munitions. Planting trees can only work if the farmers have access to their land – much of which is still uncleared minefields. And educating children is obviously important, but only if they can survive to adulthood.
And that is where the HALO Trust comes in.
Famously endorsed by the late Princess Diana, the international mine-clearance organization has been working in Karabakh for the past 16 years – running mine-clearance and mine risk education programs in an attempt to ensure the safety of Karabakh's citizens. Since 2000, they have cleared 88% of the region of mines, and are currently working on clearing the remaining 12%. Their work is the key to Karabakh's future, without it, all of these other efforts will fail.