Landmines in Georgia are a legacy primarily of the late Soviet era and the Georgian-Abkhaz War. UXO contamination occured more recently during the Georgian-Russian conflict of 2008.
ABKHAZIA WAS DECLARED MINE FREE ON 3RD NOVEMBER 2011
Both Georgian and Abkhaz forces used landmines extensively during the war of 1992-93, and mines were also used by individuals and small groups between the May 1994 cease-fire and the mid-2000s.
Landmines laid during the war were concentrated in areas where afterwards they had a very high impact upon the population: in the plain between the capital Sukhumi and the Gumista river, in the hills overlooking Sukhumi, in and around the agricultural villages of Ochamchira and Gali regions, and on roads, tracks and paths. Land for cultivation and construction was denied to the local people and movement in many areas was dangerous.
Despite Abkhazia now being mine free the mountainous terrain in Abkhazia means it is still possible that small, currently unknown minefields will be discovered: indeed between 2012 and 2014 ten previously unknown small minefields were discovered and cleared by HALO. In addition, significant quantities of unexploded and abandoned ordnance continue to be found, and these items need to be dealt with promptly to minimise threat to members of the public.
Capacity therefore needs to be retained to deal with future finds and with unexploded and abandoned ordnance.
Soviet Legacy Minefields
Between 2010 and 2013 HALO cleared minefields around five former-Soviet military bases now in civilian use. These minefields were laid as the Soviet Union collapsed and had caused civilian accidents since the departure of Russian troops from Georgia, which began in the 1990s. Although there remain a small number of mountain minefields in Georgia, the principal clearance challenge remaining is the 7km-long barrier minefield on the border with Azerbaijan at the Red Bridge border crossing. This dense minefield contains both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines and it is fully open to the civilian population; it passes just 100m from the village of Kirach-Mughanlo.
Shida Kartli Region
(August 2008 conflict – HALO clearance completed in December 2009)
For four days in 2008 the Russian military fought with the Georgian Army around the South Ossetian city of Tskhinvali. Although minefields were not laid during this conflict, the heavy use of aircraft bombing, artillery and mortars resulted in widespread Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) and cluster munition contamination of this area. This contamination spread with the retreat of Georgian forces from Tskhinvali to the town of Gori in Georgia.
HALO has been able to adapt to the different challenges posed by minefields in Abkhazia, the Soviet-legacy minefields, and the Georgian-Russian conflict of 2008.
Between 1998 and 2011 HALO completed the clearance of 336 minefields and battle areas, covering an area of over 1,500 hectares, with 9,788 mines and 48,998 items of explosive ordnance found and safely destroyed.
This was achieved by running a large-scale, fully-integrated mineclearance programme employing up to 530 manual deminers, recruited from both Abkhaz and ethnic Georgian communities, and supported by armoured mechanical assets.
With access opened to the mountainous Upper Kodori region in 2008 we identified a further 36 minefields in need of clearance, and our programme was extended. Our clearance of bombed ammunition stores in Kodori resulted in the location and safe destruction of more than 25,000 items of explosive ordnance.
As the end of clearance approached we carried out a “mine free” survey with Abkhazia’s 118 Village Administrations and Regional Authorities. The survey involved extensive consultation with every community, officially recording their satisfaction that no further clearance was required in their area.
The last known minefield in Abkhazia was cleared in October 2011, the final Village Administration declared “mine free” later that month and the whole of Abkhazia was formally declared Mine Free on 3rd November 2011. This declaration was made in accordance with the standards of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty: every effort was made to identify all mined areas and all known minefields were cleared.
Guy Willoughby, former Director of the HALO Trust, speaking in Abkhazia said “It is great news that after 14 years we can announce the complete clearance of all 336 known mined areas in Abkhazia, in line with Article 5 of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty. It is a testament to the hard work of our local deminers, and to the financial support of our international donors, that total mineclearance can be achieved after a full scale war where mines had been widely laid. The HALO Trust will support the Abkhazia Mine Action Office to assist with any emergency call-out facilities for the disposal of single items of unexploded ordnance (UXO) that may be found by farmers. The office will also maintain the database and detailed maps of all the districts, to help advise agricultural and tourism developers who may seek information in the years ahead.”
Soviet Legacy Minefields
We completed the clearance of five of Georgia’s Soviet legacy minefields between 2009 and 2013. Those around former-Soviet military installations were technically challenging, time consuming and costly to clear because of the presence of derelict buildings, rubble and scrap metal. In these environments our experience in mechanical mineclearance was invaluable, efficiently clearing such sites using adapted civil engineering plant including armoured excavators, front-loading shovels, rock crushers, vegetation cutters and processing buckets.
One such site was the minefield around the former-Soviet landmine storage base at Sagaredjo, the principal Soviet Army landmine store for the southern Caucasus. As the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s the perimeter of the base was heavily mined and following the Russian Army’s withdrawal from Sagaredjo in 2004, the base was left derelict and open to the public who began to use it to collect scrap metal, to graze their cattle and to forage for firewood and berries. Despite some mineclearance by the military, numerous human and animal accidents occurred.
HALO began clearance at Sagaredjo in January 2010, and we cleared 3,201 anti-personnel mines from an area of 19 hectares between then and the completion in June 2012.
We have a core of trained, experienced Georgian personnel who have been involved in the clearance of landmines and UXO in Georgia since 2008. They continue to supervise HALO’s clearance of the remaining minefields and, wherever possible, additional demining staff are recruited from the villages close to the minefields.
The clearance of the five Soviet legacy minefields completed by HALO has been funded jointly by the United States, Department of State and the Government of Japan, Grassroots Grant Programme.
Shida Kartli Region
Between August 2008 and December 2009 HALO recruited, trained and deployed 280 local staff to clear cluster munition contaminated areas, using both surface and sub-surface clearance techniques. Mobile explosive ordnance disposal teams dealt with abandoned ammunition or individual items of unexploded ordnance and we also provided risk education teams carried out a school-based programme and a public information campaign in affected areas.
Clearance of this region was completed on 5th December 2009 and it was funded by The United States Department of State, The European Commission (through ECHO), The UK Government (through DFID) and The Federal Government of Germany. The programme cleared and returned to productive use a total of 3,402 hectares of land across 22 communities. 1,706 cluster munitions and 2,031 other items of ordnance were located and safely destroyed.
The American NGO CNFA partnered with HALO to target the delivery of agricultural assistance to the farmers of Shida Kartli which resulted in the region’s best ever apple and wheat harvests. We also worked with UNHCR, Danish Refugee Council and GTZ to assess and clear land for house building for internally displaced people, and we worked with the Red Cross on assessing land for water supply projects.
Requirement for Continued Clearance
Although HALO has made great progress in Georgia, several ongoing and potential projects remain active concerns.
While Abkhazia is mine free, as defined by Article 5 of the Mine Ban Treaty, unexploded ordnance continues to be identified in significant quantities by local people who report its location to HALO. We are therefore committed to running a small, sustainable local capacity for a number of years to respond quickly and safely whenever ordnance is discovered. HALO’s EOD teams are typically called out every working day to deal with finds of abandoned or unexploded ordnance.
The HALO-run Abkhazia Mine Action Office (AMAO) will also maintain maps and other records of all HALO clearance and these will be available as a public resource for everyone living in Abkhazia.
Soviet Legacy Minefields
HALO will continue to address mine and ordnance problems in Georgia while pressing for access to clear Red Bridge minefield, clearance of which can be carried out only by large-scale demining forces.
Abkhazia Roads Project
During our 14 year mineclearance programme in Abkhazia it was necessary to repair rural roads and bridges in order to gain access to mined areas. These roads had not been maintained since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Abkhazia’s heavy spring melt waters and rains had taken their toll.
With the completion of mineclearance in Abkhazia it became apparent that many of the benefits of our clearance, such as land made available for agriculture and roads opened for safe access, had the potential to be undermined by roads to fields and villages becoming unusable.
There is a need for HALO to retain plant machinery on standby in Abkhazia for EOD work and, having identified the need for minor road repairs, we have decided to put this machinery to productive use throughout the year by conducting repairs to minor roads. The repairs include the rebuilding of culverts and bridges and the installation of stream bank protection to prevent the erosion or roads and the flooding of villages. All works are conducted to western standards and they are designed to last for decades. Of the works completed to date one head of a village administration in Gali region said “for the first time in twenty years someone has built us something that will last.”