Landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) have been putting the lives of people living in conflict-affected areas in Azerbaijan at risk. According to figures provided by the Mine Action Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan (ANAMA), 302 people were affected by incidents related to landmines and ERW in the country between November 2020 and May 2023. Sadly, the number of people impacted by explosive hazards continues to grow.
With the aim of reducing the risks associated with landmines and explosive remnants of war, the ICRC, along with the Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society (AzRCS), has been using creative ways to expand the audience base and improve the impact of awareness sessions. These innovative efforts include reaching school students through football clubs and matches, reaching shepherds at livestock markets and reaching men of the community at teahouses.
Football matches with a difference
The ICRC, together with Mine Action Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan (ANAMA), UNICEF and EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, partnered with the Football Development Foundation (FDF) to mark Mine and ERW Awareness Month in November 2022, beginning with an Azerbaijan Premier Football League match between Turan Tovuz and Qarabag FK clubs.
The match started with a symbolic kick off by 18-year-old Elgun Huseynov, survivor of a landmine incident, from Alibeyli village of Tovuz district. Huseynov lost his left leg when he stepped on an anti-personnel landmine while grazing cattle in his village.
The first time I saw him, we sat next to each other for 15 minutes before I could start a conversation. I wanted to talk about his trauma, but it was very hard and emotional, says Kamal Bayramov, captain of Turan Tovuz Football Club.
Bayramov and the other club members participated in awareness sessions organized as part of the project.
“When I first heard about the project, I thought it would be like one of the many that we involve with in our football career. But when I participated in the sessions and understood how people’s lives are at risk every day, I realized the importance of raising awareness,” he shares. Talking about how the project impacted him, Bayramov says, “It was no ordinary project. I used to even skip my football training sometimes to participate in the risk awareness and safer behaviour (RASB) sessions because of how important they were in the context of Azerbaijan. I have also started watching my step carefully and telling my family about the potential risks around us and what safer behaviour means.”
Explosive Ordnance disposal experts from the ICRC worked along with football players from Turan Tovuz Football Club to conduct awareness sessions in communities affected by conflict.
The sessions were followed by a Grassroot football festival marking International Mine Awareness Day on 4 April at the Tovuz city stadium. Eighty-five school students, aged between six and 17, got a chance to play football with the players of the Turan Tovuz Football Club in the pilot project.
“Based on the success of the pilot project in November, we plan to partner with other football clubs in the country to continue raising awareness through the sport,” says Tural Piriyev, acting director of Football Development Foundation.
Awareness sessions at 5.30 am
To reach the shepherds, who are at most risk as they move to the mountains in spring for greener pastures that are close to the contaminated areas, we conduct risk awareness sessions at livestock markets. Sessions focus on the risk of mines, unexploded ordnance, warning signs, safer behaviour in contaminated areas and how to help victims of explosive ordnance.
Chingiz Rahmanov, who works with the ICRC’s team addressing weapon contamination, says they reached over 500 shepherds through three awareness sessions organized at livestock markets in 2022. “We start early in the morning, around 5:30 am, to reach the most numbers because the busiest hours are between 5 am and 7 am. This is the only place where groups of shepherds come together at the same time,” says Rahmanov, adding that the teams also talk to people at teahouses in the market area, distribute leaflets and stick posters to raise awareness.
Landmine survivors speak from experience
To make the sessions at teahouses more impactful, the ICRC has also initiated a mine survivors integration programme through which landmine survivors, who have been trained as RASB trainers, join ICRC staff and volunteers of Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society to raise awareness. Arif, who lost his left leg following a landmine incident in Aghdam in April 2021, now actively raises awareness at teahouses and livestock markets so that others do not struggle like he did. “Raising awareness has become a way of life for me. Even when I see shepherds grazing cattle, I stop my car and explain to them the risks they may face,” says Arif.
He adds that the programme has in turn helped him overcome his struggle with isolation and low self-esteem. “Earlier I used to only wake up by noon but when I started taking sessions, I began getting up at 6 am and planning my day. I also feel excited about helping others avoid the mistake that I once made,” he says.
The ICRC is an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of people affected by armed conflict and other violence.
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