With its rolling plains of prime farmland, the Fuzuli district of Azerbaijan is one of the choicest chunks of turf recaptured from Armenia during last year’s war.

As state TV is fond of proclaiming, the "liberated lands" of the disputed Karabakh frontier are now to be repopulated, breathing life into villages that have lain empty for decades.

It is not, however, going to be quite that simple. During their separatist war in the 1990s, Armenian forces sowed Fuzuli and other districts with land mines, creating a defensive buffer-zone hundreds of miles long.

Fuzuli’s long-untended vineyards and olive groves are now picturesque death-traps, as many returning Azerbaijani villagers have already discovered too late.

Azerbaijan's National Agency for Mine Action
has pulled more than 1,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines from a single half-mile strip of land since January


"They have been coming back, eager to reclaim their old homes, and then been killed or injured by mines," said Madat Mamadov, part of Azerbaijan’s National Agency for Mine Action.

His team has pulled 1,156 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines from a single half-mile strip of Fuzuli since starting in January.

Already, 16 civilians have been killed and more than 100 injured in the reclaimed lands. Yet such is the bitterness of the long-running ethnic feud that even the humanitarian task of demining has become bogged down in politics.

Refusal to hand over maps ‘makes our job harder’

Mine clearing workers on the former front line near Fuzuli

Credit: TASS

Armenian forces possess so-called "mine maps" that show where the mine fields are laid, which can help the Azerbaijani mine clearers work efficiently and safely.

But so far, only two small batches of maps have been handed over – each time in exchange for Armenian prisoners of war captured by Azerbaijan last year.

Rebuilding near the Yukhari Govhar Agha Mosque, part of the restoration work being carried put across the the territories of Karabakh

Credit: Gavriil Grigorov/Getty Images

"Refusing to provide any maps should be regarded as a war crime," said Mr Mamadov, who believes the mine clearance task will take at least a decade.

"It makes our job even harder – most of the casualties are just civilians who want to return to their land."

Brokered by Russian mediators, the "maps for prisoners" exchanges began last month, with a batch of maps showing 97,000 land mines around Azerbaijan’s Agdam district exchanged for 15 Armenian PoWs. 

A second batch, showing 92,000 land mines around Fuzuli, took place last week, in return for 15 more PoWs.

Armenia_Azerbaijan conflict

Armenia says it handed over the maps as a "goodwill gesture", although they still represent just a fraction of the entire mined buffer zone. Armenian officials appear to be withholding the other maps as bargaining chips to ensure the return of their remaining PoWs, whose fate has become a national priority.

An estimated 140 Armenian PoWs are still thought to be in Azerbaijani custody, despite calls from human rights groups for them to be released. Last month, Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, even offered to swap his own 21-year-old son, Ashot, as part of an exchange.

Immense task to clear explosives

Yet even if all the maps are handed over, the scale of the mine clearance task ahead is immense.

The Karabakh area is one of the most-densely mined in the world, according to Samir Poladov, the deputy chair of Azerbaijan’s mine clearance agency. And the "mine maps" themselves, he warns, are not always accurate.

"They are not maps as such, but military records of where the mines were laid, sometimes using hand-made drawings with landmarks noted on them," he said. 

"Their quality depends very much on the commanders who produced them, and while some of the records assist us in our work, others are useless."

Tayyip Recep Erdogan, the president of Turkey, meets Ilham Aliyev, the Azerbaijani president in the Karabakh region, in June. Turkey supported Azerbaijan iduring the conflict, including weapons supply

Credit: Reuters

The British Government has funded mine clearance operations and education programs in both the Azerbaijani and Armenian-controlled areas of Karabakh. The Halo Trust, the charity championed by the late Diana, Princess of Wales, operates in the Armenian areas, although even they have struggled to steer clear of local politics.

The Azerbaijani government objects to the charity’s presence there, arguing that the land is illegally occupied by Armenian separatists. The trust contends that Karabakh is the world’s most dangerous area in terms of land mine accidents per capita, with children accounting for a quarter of the victims.

Similar risks now loom large in the reclaimed areas around Fuzuli, where mine warning signs and bans on entering the area have not prevented several tragedies involving youngsters.

For example, two brothers who were grazing cattle when one of them stepped on a mine, killing him. A second mine hit his sibling as he ran to his aid, and a third struck a mine clearance agency worker who came to the rescue.

"He was trying to create an access lane through the minefield, and perhaps because of the pressure in his own mind to save these people, he stepped on an anti-personnel mine and lost his leg," said Mr Poladov. "It shows the seriousness of the threat we face."