Eva Clifford on female de-miners in NK

Eva Clifford is a writer and photographer from the UK, currently based in London. After graduating from Roehampton University with a degree in English Literature, Eva spent a year in Shanghai working primarily as a writer.

Eva also spent time in Laos volunteering for a sustainable development project. Later, Eva went on to do an MA in Photojournalism & Documentary Photography from the London College of Communication and is now working on a project about female de-miners in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Early in your travels, you spent time volunteering in Laos. Any advice for first-timers volunteering abroad?

Do your research in advance and find out as much as you can about the organization you’re volunteering with. For teaching positions, it’s always better to have a volunteer who can commit to a month or longer, so think about how serious you are about volunteering and what skills you can offer. Travel insurance is also important. In Laos, I got really unwell and had to cross the border into Thailand to get proper medical treatment. At the time I wasn’t insured, so I now make sure to get proper medical insurance every time I travel.

Marzili minefield, Nagorno-Karabakh.

As a freelance journalist, how do you pick your projects? Do you try to focus on particular issues?

I’m interested in projects that challenge people’s perceptions about particular topics, and stories that aren’t often spotlighted in the news. The internet and books are my main sources for finding stories. In 2016, I did a project about a group of blind women and girls taking ballet as a form of therapy in Mexico. I’m still not sure how I came across that story, but I’m glad I did!


Do you use fixers? If so, how do you find them?

I’d never used a fixer before Nagorno-Karabakh, but because of the challenges in the region, I emailed a couple of journalists who had worked in NK before for advice. I was given the contact of a local Yerevan fixer who I made arrangements with to collect me from the airport, drive me to the bus terminal and make sure I was on the right bus. This wasn’t totally necessary, but made me feel better about arriving in an unfamiliar place in the middle of the night.

Anti-aircraft cables in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Are you a member of any journalist organisations that promote freelancer safety?

I’m a member of the NUJ (National Union of Journalists).

Do you have any safety training?

I took a one-day emergency first aid training course with Remote Trauma back in August 2017. I think it’s important for everyone to know at least basic first aid.


You’ve just returned from covering a de-mining project in Nagorno-Karabakh. Please tell us about the project.

This project is about the landmine clearance work of the Halo Trust in Nagorno-Karabakh. NK, a landlocked and mountainous region in the South Caucasus, is regarded as one of the most heavily mined regions of the former Soviet Union. Mines were laid during the Nagorno-Karabakh War between 1991 and 1994 by both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces. I’m focusing on female de-miners as generally people don’t imagine women doing this kind of work. I shot the images using a medium-format camera, which was a challenge in itself – especially while wearing a visor (part of the safety gear provided by The Halo Trust).

The team discovers a PMN-2 mine. These antipersonnel mines were used heavily during the Nagorno-Karabakh War between 1991-1994 and they still remain a threat today. Manufactured in the Soviet Union, these small circular devices can be triggered by any form of pressure. Originally designed to disable an adult, a PMN-2 can kill a child.

Laos to NK

How did you find out about the project?

Ever since returning from Laos, I’ve been interested in this subject. I think part of the reason is that so often we hear about wars in the news, but rarely do we hear about the aftermath and how communities recover. I found out about the Halo Trust as I was researching and originally planned to go back to Laos to document Halo’s work there, but NK was a little closer to home.

The de-mining team at Aghavnatun minefield in the Lachin region of Nagorno-Karabakh. During the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the Lachin Corridor was strategically important as it was the only passage between Armenia and NK.                                                                                  

What are some of the challenges of working in a remote area that is also a disupted territory?

I’m used to travelling alone in remote areas so that wasn’t a problem for me, but I’ve never been to the Caucasus before, or a disputed territory. The main challenge for me was getting there. There are just two main roads into NK – one in the north and another in the south – and the journey takes around 7 hours by bus from Yerevan.

NK is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but most of the region is governed by the Republic of Artsakh, a de-facto independent state with Armenian ethnic majority. The fighting is contained to the line of contact, a militarized area formed after the May 1994 ceasefire that ended the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-94). There is a sense of uncertainty because it is a frozen conflict, but other than the heavy presence of soldiers in the streets it felt peaceful in NK.

The Aghavnatun minefield in the Lachin region of Nagorno-Karabakh. When the residents of a nearby village noticed a landmine they alerted The Halo Trust, who dispatched a team to survey and clear the area. The closest village, just 1.2km away, means children regularly come to play here. Each de-miner clears on average 10-11sqm per day. Once the work is complete, the land will be handed back to the local community so that it can be used safely again.

Russia 101

How did you communicate with people? Get around?

Before coming to NK, I taught myself how to read and write Russian. This didn’t help me communicate at all, but I could read road signs and maps, etc. (Russian is spoken almost everywhere in NK because of it being a former part of the Soviet Union). Communicating with people was a struggle when I was alone, because English is not so widely spoken and I don’t speak any Armenian. However, for most of my stay I was with The Halo Trust and there was always someone at hand to translate.

Any tips for young people interested in freelance journalism?

Carry on telling the stories you’re interested in. Even if it seems impossible, there’s always a way to make it work.