By Patrick Norén
CBNW Magazine Editor Patrick Norén discusses landmine and ERW contamination in the mountainous Central Asian republic of Tajikistan.
A decade of instability following independence from the Soviet Union has left the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan with a legacy of landmine and explosive remnant of war (ERW) contamination that persists to this day.
A civil war fought from 1992-1997 led to landmine and ERW contamination in the country’s central Rasht Valley region, during which time Russian forces fighting on the side of the newly formed Tajik government also placed landmines along the southern border with Afghanistan to prevent armed groups from entering the country. Then, between 1999 and 2001, Uzbek forces mined areas along its border with Tajikistan to prevent armed groups from entering their territory.
This is on top of a legacy of pre-independence contamination as Soviet authorities mined areas along the Afghan border to protect against armed militants and traffickers. Upon independence from the Soviet Union, Tajikistan also inherited large stockpiles of obsolete ammunition and small arms, almost 40 tons of which were destroyed over the course of 20 years by the Fondation Suisse de Déminage (FSD).
The origins of Tajikistan’s current battle with landmine and ERW contamination notwithstanding, the scale of the problem pales in comparison to the likes of Ukraine or Yemen. According to a BBC article published in April 2023, approximately 174,000km2 of Ukrainian territory are contaminated by landmines, and it is expected that demining the country will take decades. Tajik authorities meanwhile estimate that, as of the end of 2022, some 11.45km2 of their territory remains contaminated by landmines.
Sources dating back to 2018 put the total number of people killed and injured by landmines in Tajikistan in the 20 years prior at 374 and 485, respectively. Over the same period, 20 deminers had been wounded during demining work and two had been killed.
Demining at 3000m Above Sea Level
Despite the scale of contamination being comparatively small, relieving Tajikistan of the burden of landmines and ERWs comes with its own unique challenges that unfortunately mean that the country has no chance of becoming landmine-free by its current deadline of the end of 2025. Dushanbe will have to submit a further extension request under Article 5 of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (APMBC), of which it is a signatory.
Home to the Pamir and Alay mountain ranges – themselves extensions of the Himalayas – 93% of Tajikistan is mountainous and almost 50% is at or above 3000m altitude. At around 3700m, some of the highest and most inaccessible minefields in the world are to be found in Tajikistan. All four provinces of Tajikistan are contaminated with landmines, with the most badly affected being the southwestern Khatlon region bordering Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and its restive, remote, and highly mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region in the east. Tajik authorities believe that particularly its western regions are contaminated with PMN blast mines, POMZ-2M fragmentation mines, and OZM-72 and bounding mines.
While Tajikistan released an area of 1.13km2 through clearance, non-technical, and technical surveys in 2022 – more than double the area released in 2021 – more than half of this success was offset by the addition of 0.62km2 of suspected or confirmed contamination. Whether it be due to unresolved political disputes or more permanent geographical obstacles, suspected and confirmed minefields are often not accessible thus making Tajikistan not completely sure of the extent and location of landmine contamination on its territory. Each newly discovered minefield delays the date when Tajikistan can finally declare itself free of landmines.
Access to Minefields
In total, Tajikistan has some 130 confirmed hazardous areas (CHAs) measuring 6.95km2 and 78 suspected hazardous areas (SHAs) measuring 4.51 km2. 70% of these SHAs lie along the country’s western border with Uzbekistan, parts of which are neither demarcated or delineated, nor have been surveyed for landmine contamination. Although Uzbekistan announced in January 2020 that it had completed demining work on its side of the border, Tajikistan notes that landmines could have been dislodged by floods and landslides, and ended up in Tajik territory. Landmines shifting due to natural disasters is also a concern further inland. Furthermore, border delimitation talks between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were ongoing throughout 2023, and areas along the border remain hazardous.
Meanwhile, in Tajikistan’s Khatlon province during the instability of the 90s, mines were laid on hilltops overlooking the Panj river valley mostly by helicopter. Access to these contaminated areas remains limited due to the lack of roads or tracks across the rough terrain, making survey and decontamination extremely challenging. More generally, security concerns along the whole Tajik-Afghan border continue to impede access to some of Tajikistan’s most heavily contaminated areas.
Geography and politics are not the only impediments. The harsh weather conditions in Tajikistan’s most remote and mountainous areas permit only 40 operational days per year, and the rate of survey has been gradually slowing due to the remaining minefields being those that are most difficult to reach. Rockfalls, avalanches, landslides, dense vegetation, and a shortage of the necessary equipment to work in and demine the harshest of terrains continue to frustrate demining efforts in Tajikistan.
Despite these obstacles, Tajikistan stated that it planned to complete the survey and re-survey of all hazardous areas across the country by the end of 2023, with the hope to be able to finally declare the country free of landmines by its own target of 2030.
Funding and Capacity-Building
Although Tajikistan has made steady progress in increasing the number of deminers in the country from 90 in 2019 to 169 in 2022 – 11 short of their target of 180 – stakeholders often do not possess enough of the equipment necessary to conduct operations efficiently enough to be able to meet APMBC targets. As recently as June 2023 during Intersessional Meetings in Geneva, Tajikistan reiterated its need for more equipment, including cross-country vehicles, metal detectors, demining and EOD toolkits, protective equipment, spare parts, and medical supplies.
With regards to funding, the Tajikistan National Mine Action Center – the body responsible for coordinating mine action in cooperation with other stakeholders such as the Ministry of Defense, Union of Sappers of Tajikistan, and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) – has said that increased funding is “highly required” if it is to be able to increase capacity to desired levels.
In 2019, Tajikistan said it required US$3million per year to maintain the capacity it had at the time, but estimated the costs of manual clearance alone at US$33million to reach the 2025 deadline. In June 2023, Tajikistan said that an additional US$14million would be required on top of current funding if it were to rid itself of landmines by the same date. Additional funding has not been forthcoming, and TNMAC recognized again in June that it needs to attract other donors.
TNMAC remains heavily dependent on the U.S. Department of State, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and international operators. With five manual clearance teams totalling 43 deminers in 2022, NPA represents the largest international demining presence in Tajikistan. NPA shares one single Mini-MineWolf machine with the Humanitarian Demining Company of the Tajik Ministry of Defense. This critical piece of machinery has experienced technical issues in the past, limiting its deployment time and further slowing down operations.
FSD has also conducted landmine and EOD operations in Tajikistan since 2003, destroying larger items such as shells and grenades by controlled explosion, or by incineration for small ammunition and pyrotechnics. FSD resumed mine clearance activities in the country in summer 2023, and conducts environmental remediation of areas contaminated by toxic pesticides from the Soviet era, similar iterations of which are experienced across Central Asia.
All the above is not the full story. On top of the 11.45km2 contaminated by landmines, at least 4km2 of Tajikistan is contaminated by cluster munitions also originating from the civil war. These are predominantly Soviet-era AO 2.5RT/RTM type munitions, or SHOAB-0.5 submunitions.
There has been no nationwide survey of cluster munitions, and their use during the civil war was undocumented. NTS teams have therefore attempted to contact former military personnel and informants to help understand the extent and location of ERW contamination, but the concrete facts remain unknown. The clearance of these munitions, arguably more pernicious than anti-personnel landmines, suffers from much the same obstacles mentioned above.
A Mine-Free Future
Landmines are often referred to as the perfect soldiers because they “wait with limitless patience”, “never sleep” and “never miss”. The late South African President Nelson Mandela meanwhile said in November 2003 that landmines are “blind weapons that cannot distinguish between the footfall of a soldier and that of an old woman gathering firewood”.
Or, as I wrote in an op-ed marking the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action on April 4, 2023, landmines will not “magically disappear of their own accord. They will not evaporate into thin air. No matter how many years pass, they will continue to kill and injure innocent people until we decide that enough is enough, and that it is time to rid the world, once and for all, of this scourge.”
Whether it be on the scale of Ukraine or Tajikistan, the devastating effects of landmine and ERW contamination are painfully clear. Every square meter of land paralyzed by landmine contamination is a square meter that cannot be used for agriculture, industry, connectivity, or buildings, arresting the future of a country and its people for as long as they remain in the ground.
Tajikistan is only one of dozens of countries around the world affected by the scourge of landmines. With high altitudes, harsh weather, security concerns, and limited funding and capacity, Tajikistan faces a very real uphill battle in demining its mountains.
This article was written using information from Mine Action Review’s excellent “Cluster Munition Remnants” and “Clearing the Mines” reports. Click here to read the full 2023 reports on Tajikistan.
Patrick Norén is the Editor of CBNW Magazine. He has an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Leiden University, and a BA in Modern Languages and Cultures (German and Russian) from Durham University. He was formerly the Deputy Editor of commonspace.eu at LINKS Europe, and has also written articles for The Caspian Post.