By David Stenerud and Espen S. Røst (photo)
NorWatch (Iran / Oslo)
Translated into English by Stian Trogstad
In 2001, the Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA ) and the Norwegian petroluem giant Norsk Hydro signed a deal, contracting NPA to clear mines in the Anaran exploring block southwest in Iran. Seismic lines, roads and rig-areas were to be cleaned. They are now closing the job, Hydro Zargos have finished the seismic shooting – a search conducted with an echo-sounder to map oil in the rocky ground – and have started unsuccessfully drilled the first of five searching wells. Another is planned this year.
NorWatch went to Iran to learn how the locals have benefited from the mine clearance, and whether the area is as scarcely populated as the Norwegian People’s Aid claims.
– Everyone has lost somebody
We meet a group of Baktihari-nomades by the roadside in the historical town Shush, just outside Hydro’s exploring block Anaran. 75-year-old Baz-ali Alipur lives around here some three months every year. The woollen tent he is sharing with his family is grey from all the exhaust in the area.
Alipour has nine children, five sons and four daughters. In other words, he is a rich man. And fortunate, he considers: Only one of his children has ever been hurt from a land mine. It happened some years ago. Alipour can’t remember exactly. His oldest son lost a leg while herding the family’s sheep near the Iraqi boarder. That’s where he this afternoon: inside, or at least close to the Hydro block. A shepherd with one leg: so now there’s only half a chance he’ll make a wrong step.
– But why do you take your sheep out there? I ask. – That’s a minefield!
– It’s the only place we can go, there’s no food anywhere else. The sheep need to eat, the old man explains.
– We alone have lost hundreds of sheep since the war, says one of the other men in the small encampment.
– Every family who takes their sheep close to the border have seen a family member dead or injured, a third man says.
Crowded in the mine block
«There are few people near the Iraqi border.» That is the impression we had from the scarce contact we had NPA before they went completely silent and told us that our correspondence had to go through Hydro: A nomad passing by every now and then, but primarily quiet desert-land.
The truth, however, is quite different. Inside the block the density of nomad tents are even greater than in Shush. Additionally the pilgrims are coming, some by bus, but most of them on foot. Preferably by night, illegally. Most of them are led by locals, along presumed mine-free paths. Some, though, are taking the trip by themselves, all the way into Iraq, where cabs or acquaintances are awaiting, ready to bring them onwards to Kerbala, Najaf and Baghdad. A lot of them die out here in the desert. More than a hundred, only since April 2003, NPA and Hydro tell us. Most of them die from thirst or landmine explotions, but no one has any figures on the distribution between those causes.
Hardly any people there!
In a military area near the block NPA mine-cleaner, a Hydro worker and a male nurse come along, carrying an Italian antitank mine of the type VS1.6. They’ve been on a survey to find out if there’s any landmines in an area Hydro Zagro may want to drill.
– What’s the conclusion? Did you find a minefield? I ask them as they reach the road where we’re waiting.
– Yes, is the answer from People’s Aid-worker.
– What’s the status on the mines you’ve brought with you? Are they..?
– No, they’re empty, says the mine cleaner, - somebody has done some clearing in the area, the army, probably. And they’ve left these empty mines.
– Did you find un-detonated mines as well?
– Yes, we found one anti personnel mine, amongst others.
– What did you do with it?
– Nothing. What do you mean we were supposed to do?
– Well, I don’t know, detonate it or something!?
– No. There are hardly any people there. We saw no sheeps tracks.
While we stand there, talking, we gaze now and then towards the minefield behind the horizon. Looking in the direction where-from the mine clearance group came. And just half a kilometer away, towards the north, we spot a flock of sheep and shepherds heading directly in the direction of the minefield.
All the way from the airport in Ahvas, the city closest to the Anaran block, via the Hydro base in the small town of Dehloran, and out to the block, we’ve seen people with limps, but we don’t know if they are results of land mine injuries. According to Iranian officials 16 million land mines were left in Iran after the war against Iraq between 1980 and 1988. That’s one mine per Iranian household. The government recons there’s still more than seven million mines here in the border areas.
Landmine Monitor is the closest we get to an official number on injuries caused by land mines. This surveillance team reported 70 people killed by mines in 2001, based on random media reports. In May 2003, the last month accounted for before Landmine Monitor’s newest annual report was publicised, two kids and one grown-up was reported killed. Additionally, a lot of cases are never reported. Before we left Oslo, we contacted all the major organisations working with land mines: Land Mine Action (LMA), International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), the Red Cross. None of those could help us any further. Everyone asked us to seek contact with “NPA” – the Norwegian People’s Aid.
– We don’t clean for people
Norwegian People’s Aid is namely the only one of the NGOs working with the land mine issue in Iran. They’ve been doing so since 2001. Totally, the organisation has spent 27 man-labour years cleaning roads, seismic lines and drilling areas for Hydro.
– Do you clean mines for Norsk Hydro only, or for the people as well? NorWatch asks the People’s Aid’s mine-clearing delegate, who asks us to keep his anonymity.
– No. That’s not our task here. If we were supposed to do that, we’d need a lot more money and personnel, the former marine-officer tells us.
– Do you wish that you could?
– Of course!
– Bad economy made us
In 2000 Norway’s largest member-based organisation had a 1,5 million dollar deficit. Norwegian People’s Aid was in a deep crisis.
– We had been involved in 33 countries, and that’s far too much for an NGO from a small country as Norway. We’ve simply gaped too high, sitting chairman Reiulf Steen told the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen in 2001.
At that time, the economical catastrophe was already a fact, and a cleaning process had been started. 50 man-labour years had been cut, and the organisation had signed its first commercial deal.
The Norwegian People’s Aid was going to clean mines for Hydro’s branch in Iran, Hydro Zagros, in the southwestern Anaran block.
But the deal did not go through without internal fights.
– The labour-club was against it
– This was discussed both amongst the employees and between the leadership. A minority was against, but the leadership finally unanimously agreed to take on the commercial mission, said Halle Jørn Hansen, who was NPA’s secretary general at that time.
– Why did some oppose?
– It was a question of ethical and political standards, Hansen answered, unwilling to go any further to explain.
– But my view was that if we didn’t increase our incomes, we would have to cut our activity drastically. Our decision was based on that the arguments concerning the business economy were weightier than the ethical and political arguments.
– Did you discuss separating the commercial activity from the NGO, in order to avoid confusion?
– Yes, we did. But we decided to keep the organisation together, so that we’d be sure that the money went where they were supposed to go, Hansen explained.
Unwilling to speak
Kirsti Knutsen was convener for the employees in early 2001, during the period of the discussions of whether or not they should take accept Hydro job. She does not want to enter a public discussion with the former secretary-general, but she makes one thing clear:
– What Halle Jørn Hansen told you is incorrect. Together with a few other people the trade union club voted against the Hydro project.
– For example, we didn’t agree with the way the issue had been handled prior of the central board meeting. But I have no wish to continue this discussion any further.
Needed to wash their hands
Head of Information in NPA isn’t exactly eager to speak either. He used nine days to answer NorWatch’s seven questions. His answers matches up with the information we’ve got from Kirsti Knutsen and Halle Jørgensen.
– Prior to the signing of the contract both the administration and the board debated whether or not to take on commercial missions, and the human rights situation in Iran. Norwegian People’s Aids proprietary capital was an important argument, Christensen said.
A wider debate made the national board meeting in 2001 reach the following conclusion: “Norwegian People’s Aid can not be made liable for or used to legitimise the decisions collaboration partners make based on their politics or business.”
– Not people’s aid.
When asked whether it’s really people’s aid Norwegian People’s Aid are conducting in Iran, the Head of Information says:
– The answer on this depends on how you define “people’s aid”. This is not the traditional people’s aid, but the mission definitely helps raising awareness about the land mine-problem in the area.
Christensen doesn’t deny the possibility that NPA may take on more commercial missions in the future.
In NorWatchs understanding, that all depends on the economical situation in the organisation.
Fact box: Hydro Zagros and the Norwegian People’s Aid
1999: Hydro Zagros Oil & Gas opens an office in Teheran
2000: Hydro Zagros makes an analysis of the potential in the Anaran and Abdan areas in southwestern Iran on behalf of the state owned oil company National Iranian Oil Co (NIOC)
2001: Norwegian People’s Aid is engaged to clear mines in the Anaran block
2002: Hydro Zagros and the French seismic company CGG start mapping field for oil potentials.
2003: Russian Lukoil buys off 25% of Hydro's share in the Anaran block
2003: Hydro Zagros starts test drilling in the first exploring well, Azar, in the northern part of the field. The company hires assistance from amongst others Halliburton and GeoServices.
2004: Norwegian People’s Aid have used 27 man-labour years, and profited more than 4 million dollars from the mission.