On February 27, 2020, the Tajik-Afghan border was closed due to COVID-19. The Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) faced an unexpected cut-off of their cross-border project operations. Extensive negotiations with authorities and new hygiene concepts made it possible to safely continue with project activities by the end of June.
On February 27, 2020, Tajik authorities announced the closure of border entries from Afghanistan. PATRIP’s longstanding partner, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), was one of many NGOs operating in the field who suddenly found themselves unable to carry on with scheduled project activities. In FSD’s case, the plan had been to deploy necessary equipment for their de-mining teams from their headquarters in Khalai Khum, Tajikistan, to the Afghan Badakhshan province, and to begin clearing 20,000 square metres of mine fields per month. The Afghan de-mining teams were ready and waiting to be deployed. Under normal circumstances, the mine awareness sessions with communities surrounding the risk areas would have started as well. With the border suddenly being closed and social distancing measures necessary, it became very unclear whether and how the project could continue.
To respond to the crisis, FSD immediately picked up negotiations on both sides of the border. It was crucial to figure out how to move large amounts of essential equipment, including several vehicles, from the Tajik to the Afghan side. A solution had to be found as quickly as possible, since the de-mining teams in Afghanistan were not able to continue with the work they had been counting on. “This has been quite a trying episode for us”, Head of Operations Matt Wilson admits. During the following weeks and months, Matt and his team spent discussing and brainstorming safe ways to continue project activities with regional governors in Darwaz (Afghanistan), local and national border guard officers in Darwaz, as well as Khorog and Dushanbe (Tajikistan).
With negotiations still underway, FSD’s Afghan leadership team re-designed the so-called “refresher training” to include COVID-19 prevention measures. The hope was that with the reworked hygiene concept, de-mining teams could be safely briefed on how to carry out their activities in a way that would not endanger them or the communities with whom they came into contact.
The new guidelines were put together based on several sources, including UN OCHA COVID-19 Strategic Situation Reports, United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) and Afghan Directorate of Mine Action (DMAC) guidelines for mine action during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as valuable information obtained from Afghan locals. The result was a “COVID-19 prevention guide”, which contains two parts: (1) general rules, which cover topics such as how to behave when engaging community members, during travel, the role of medics and the proper use of face masks, and (2) rules for community-based and door-to-door EORE (explosive ordnance risk education). In order to be accessible, these guidelines were translated into Dari, and then communicated and handed out to all members of FSD’s Afghan staff.
Eventually, FSD’s tireless lobbying paid off: on June 26, negotiations had reached a point that made it possible to drive a convoy of ten land cruisers and one truck filled with not only de-mining equipment, but also staples of face masks, disinfectant and other hygiene items to the border crossing at Darwazbala (Afghanistan). After a three-hour drive along the Pamir Highway, the patience of the present staff was once again tested: it took another three days of waiting and negotiating at the border before the convoy was finally allowed to move onto the bridge spanning the Panj River, which marks the border between the two countries. Halfway across the bridge, in no-man’s land, the Tajik drivers disinfected the vehicles and walked back to the Tajik side of the border. Meanwhile, their Afghan colleagues took over and drove the vehicles to FSD’s demining teams in Afghanistan.
A lot of effort has gone into conquering that small distance between countries. The fact that the project now safely continues is an impressive example of endurance, skill, and determination by FSD. PATRIP places significant emphasis on the close cooperation between partner NGOs and local authorities on both sides of the border. The trust our partners have managed to build over many years in this region remains an invaluable factor for project resilience in times of crisis.