By Alin K. Gregorian
WINCHESTER, Mass. (Armenian Mirror-Spectator)—A dinner party on June 10, at the home of Raffi and Nina Festekjian, raised $220,000 for HALO Trust’s Safe Steps for the People of Karabagh Campaign, surpassing expectations by the organizers. The goal is to demine the entirety of Artsakh by 2020.
The Festekjians are the co-chairs of the campaign.
Raffi Festekjian said the safety of the nation was paramount in order for its economy to thrive. “To create a better infrastructure, you need safety,” he said.
With safer lands, more jobs are created, he noted, adding that HALO itself is the second largest employee in the republic, and that 90 percent of funds raised for HALO go back to Artsakh.
A vigorous auction of Scout Tufankjian’s photographs and wine from Karabakh, as well as donations, brought the total raised to $110,000, which will be doubled by an anonymous donor.
Several representatives of Halo Trust were present, including the organization’s CEO, Maj. Gen. James Cowan.
Cowan, when addressing the assembled, said many remember the iconic picture of the late Princess Diana when she walked through an Angolan minefield that had been cleared, mere months before her untimely death. He lamented that she could not live to see that 122 countries signed the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines.
So far, he said, Halo has destroyed 1.5 million landmines. “Each one of the landmines came out of the ground at huge personal risk,” he said.
The advantage of Halo’s work, he said, is that “it is a finite problem that can be solved. We are extremely close to finishing the job in Karabagh.”
Until that evening, he said, $1 million had been raised for the effort, which with an anonymous donor’s agreement to double donations up to $4 million, stands at $2 million. The project needs to raise a total of $3 million more to reach its goal of $8 million.
Adam Jasinski, the Executive Director of HALO Trust in the U.S., said “there has been an amazing level of support in Boston and Los Angeles” for the demining efforts in Karabagh (Artsakh).
“It is hugely inspiring,” he said.
Also present was Tony Halpin, a British journalist who was formerly a writer and editor for the now-defunct Armenian International Magazine (AIM). He is currently the government editor for Russia and former Soviet republics at Bloomberg.
Halpin said that he had heard of HALO’s work when it originally started demining Artsakh, in 2002, when he was living in Armenia. “I went out with a colleague to see how they were working and they took me to a field,” he recalled. “The area was littered with mines. It was really impressive to see how they work. They went square meter by square meter.”
Robert Avetisyan, the Permanent Representative of the Artsakh Republic to the U.S., stressed his government’s continued support for HALO, noting that the group’s work is “very important for the safety and economy of Artsakh. They also create jobs.”
He added, “They free Artsakh land from mines and create arable land. They make agricultural land in Artsakh much safer. They save lives, first and foremost.”
Tufankjian also attended the reception. She expressed her love for the tiny republic and praised the work of HALO Trust to make it safer.
“The work that HALO is doing is integral to every aspect” of life there, she said, including “eco-tourism, farming, schools, etc. The people are working incredibly hard, now even planting coffee and avocados.” For all that, she said, they need lands that are safe from mines.
“The people there are truly extraordinary,” she said.
In his comments, HALO regional director Andrew Moore noted that HALO Trust is working with the mayor’s office in Stepanakert to create a monument to everyone injured or killed by landmines in Karabagh.
Gala Danilova, the finance director for HALO in Stepanakert, was also present at the fundraiser.
She told the story of a farmer with nine children, one of whom, a 16-year-old boy, died on an unexploded mine. The family, she explained, needs firewood and that is why the boy was walking toward the forest to collect wood, not only for personal need but to sell. She also said that often people walk on the lands with mines to collect herbs or to graze their cattle.
Every day, she said, for many families in Karabagh there is the need to find bread and water and thus survive one more day.
“We have to provide them with a better life and together, we can do that,” she said.
This article was first published in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator on June 22.