From a distance, the three deminers all look the same – high boots, trousers with deep pockets, a special helmet, protective visor and gloves. Many locals in Nagorno Karabakh, a relatively traditional society, assume they are men. But these are women, and, like men, when they head into potential minefields, they are doing so to help their families survive.
“I’m doing it for my family, to provide my children with a safe and better future,” explains 38-year-old deminer Kristine Khachatryan, the married mother of three boys, ages six to 18.
For years after its conflict with Azerbaijani forces in the early 1990s, Nagorno Karabakh routinely posted 20 or more annual civilian casualties from landmines and unexploded ordnance. The Halo Trust, a British mine-clearing organization which has operated here for the last 18 years, now declares Karabakh is 90-percent mine-free, but the potential threat remains. Just this March, a mine explosion in the Martakert region took the lives of three deminers and wounded two deminers.
Taking on demining is no easy decision. But three years ago, when Halo Trust began to recruit its first women deminers, Khachatryan, a village-council accountant from Artashavi, 80 kilometers to the southwest of Karabakh’s main town, Stepanakert, decided to apply.
She did so “out of curiosity” – in 2013, two mine explosions near Artashavi had wounded several locals -- but also out of financial necessity. Khachatryan’s husband, Garik Ohanjanyan, a former school teacher, was unemployed. Work as a deminer, which pays 225,000 drams (about $464) a month and comes with insurance, roughly quadrupled her income.
Once certified, though, she did not expect to stay on the job for long. She accepted the post since the first demining field was close to Artashavi, within easy reach of her family.
“Of course, I was worried in the beginning,” she recounts, “but later I understood that there is no bad work. There are just bad people. And now I’m proud that I’m doing a big and important humanitarian job.”