On the outskirts of Martakert, one of the most heavily shelled urban areas in Nagorno Karabakh, Gayane Mangasaryan walks a HALO survey team through her apiary. Just across the way from her newly renovated home, the apiary is a source of great pride for Gayane. She carefully removes the cover of one of the hives and pulls out a slatted board to demonstrate how the honey bees form a cluster to keep warm in the winter.
Gayane, her husband Norik, and their two teenage children fled to Yerevan during the war. “On September 27, everything changed,” she recalls. Early in the morning, she and Norik were having coffee on their front porch. He was getting ready to go to work as a guard at the nearby precious metal mine. “We heard it, then turned and saw it over there in the distance,” says Gayane. “It was loud. And constant. My husband put down his cup. He knew. ‘The war is here,’ he said.
They returned on November 16, days before the HALO team began their survey in Martakert, to find their newly built roof damaged from the shelling and their beehives strewn about. “I was fixing the hives that had fallen over when suddenly I saw it there in grass,” says Gayane, pointing to a spot in the middle of the field where a latticed metal crate covers a ShOAB-0.5 submunition.
“It looked like a little ornament. My legs started trembling. I stopped fixing the hives and went back to the house. ‘That’s it,’ I said, ‘I won’t do anymore.’ And I didn’t set foot in here again until you came.”
During the conflict, HALO staff mapped the areas of explosives contamination, dividing them into polygons and recording any reported information about the whereabouts and types of munitions found in them. Now survey teams are being dispatched to these polygons, beginning with those in the most heavily populated areas, to collect and record data so that the EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) team may begin to clear them. In tandem, HALO is conducting risk education, handing out leaflets with information about M-85 cluster munitions and other deadly munitions that people returning home may encounter.
Gayane examines the leaflet and takes a few others to share with the children in the neighbourhood. “People are slowly returning,” she says. “Who knows what they will find in their backyards, in their homes.”
Story by Nyree Abrahamian and photography by Scout Tufankjian