Welcome! You’ve found the site of my new humble blog, following my overseas placement with Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. NPA is one of the world’s main actors in the campaign to band landmines and cluster munitions, active in landmine clearance, capacity-building, and advocacy work in many landmine-affected countries. In Tajikistan, which suffered a destructive but little known civil war in the 1990s, NPA has been operating a demining program since 2010. Most of this demining work is conducted in the southern region of the country along the Afghan-Tajik border, where Russian military forces laid thousands of landmines in the 1990s to prevent cross-border movement of various rebel groups.
Upon arriving in Tajikistan, physically and mentally discomfited by back-to-back red-eye flights, I was greeted in post-Soviet bureaucratic fashion – waiting for three and a half hours for my visa along with thirty or so other expats in an inexplicably small consular services waiting room. Patience prevailed, and I was soon reunited with my luggage and greeted by the NPA driver, Bahktiyor, who took me to my apartment downtown. Dushanbe immediately struck me as a highly agreeable place – plenty of green space, tree-lined avenues, and spectacular views of the northern Fan Mountains in plain sight from the streets. After sleeping the rest of the morning, I visited the NPA office that afternoon, where I met my supervisor, Resad, a demining veteran and NPA’s new country director in Tajikistan. The NPA headquarters itself occupies a modest compound which was formerly the office of the Swedish embassy in downtown Dushanbe, well-furnished with new furniture and IT equipment. My own desk shares a second-floor office with the HR administrator. After meeting the rest of the headquarters staff I eased into my workspace, starting to review the operational procedures and monthly reports of the organization in an effort to get up to speed. The following day there was a farewell reception in the courtyard for Jonas, the outgoing director (who is moving to become the NPA regional director in Amman, Jordan). The reception provided a chance to meet many of the key mine action players in Tajikistan, including representatives from UNDP, the Tajikistan Mine Action Centre, the Tajikistan Campaign to Ban Landmines / Cluster Munitions, and staff from various embassies.
Last week, I visited the site of NPA’s basic demining training course with Daler, the NPA operations manager, and Lars, a fellow intern from the Norwegian Embassy. The training site is located just north of Dushanbe, near a Tajik military base. The road trip offered pleasant views of the nearby Fan Mountains and the steep rolling hills at the edge of the city. Reaching the site requires a four-wheel drive vehicle to navigate the rough path through the hills, but the trip is short; only 15 minutes or so from the NPA head office downtown.
The training site is designed to replicate the conditions of a real demining operation; the entrance area is marked with a sign “control area” to mark the entrance to the simulated minefield. Everywhere that is safe to walk/drive over is demarcated with lines of plastic ribbon, including the parking/rest area where the team of medics are stationed (despite precautions, demining remains a risk-prone business, with several casualties among deminers recorded in Tajikistan in recent years). In this entrance area there are also demarcated paths leading to a rubbish pit and the latrines. There is also an area for testing the deminer’s equipment; one clear patch of ground (over which the sweeper should not detect anything), and one patch with pieces of metal (which, of course, the sweeper should be detecting). Every morning, before proceeding with demining activities, each team must test their equipment at this area.
From the entrance zone there is a path leading to the base of a steep bank of a hillside. Across the slope for a distance of approximately 100m, teams of deminers inch their way up the simulated minefield. There are 68 trainees in the course, many of which are young and in only their second year of military service. They work in pairs, each taking 30 minute shifts working in a flash jacket and head-visor while their partner oversees their work. The process is slow, repetitive, and requires total concentration. They work up the hill in a 1m wide lane, clearing 20cm of land at a time. First a visual inspection, then a search for tripwires with hands and a metal wire, then clearance of any tall grass or weeds, then the actual metal detector sweep. The training course is overseen by Ramiz, the NPA technical advisor. He shows me that there are even real ‘remnants of war’ located on the hillside, including old ammunition shells from the time when the area was used as a firing range by the Tajik army. Ramiz estimates that over 90% of the trainees should pass the written and operational testing at the end of the course next week, after which time they will be ready for deployment to real demining operations along the Tajik-Afghan border.
This upcoming week I’ll be travelling to the Rasht Valley in central Tajikistan to visit an ICBL training centre for landmine survivors. Stay tuned for more.