Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Efforts to Find Karabakh Missing

Council of Europe joins in search for those who disappeared during the Karabakh war.
By Ashot Beglarian
Efforts to establish the fate of thousands of people still listed as missing-in-action in the 1991-4 Nagorny Karabakh conflict have been given a much-needed boost.



The new impetus came from a visit to the region last week by Dutch senator Leo Platvoet, rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, on the issue. He visited Nagorny Karabakh itself as well as Yerevan and Baku and Tbilisi, where he is engaged in similar work with regard to the Abkhazia conflict.



In Karabakh, Platvoet said he was planning to present a report on missing-in-action at the winter session of PACE, “In writing the report we will focus our attention only on the humanitarian aspect of the problem.”



He met officials from the de facto Karabakh government, who promised support. “We hold the opinion that some issues, including the issue of missing-in-action can be resolved before the signing of a peace agreement,” said deputy foreign minister Masis Mailian.



Platvoet was appointed to his position by the parliamentary assembly last December. Collaboration on the issue has decreased in the last few years, although the tri-partite International Working Group - led by Bernhard Clasen of Germany, Russia's Svetlana Gannushkina and Paata Zakareishvili of Georgia - continues to investigate the problem.



Albert Voskanian, who is coordinator in Karabakh of the International Working Group, welcomed the parliamentary assembly’s new-found interest in the issue.



“Work on this problem at such a high level can extend the possibilities of looking for missing- in-action, systematise the efforts of people who work on this problem to improve the technology of identification of remains that have been found,” said Voskanian. “Moreover PACE can compel the parties to cooperate on this humanitarian issue and develop concrete mechanisms for all sides in the conflict to work together.”



Several thousand people are still listed as missing, more than 12 years after the ceasefire that halted the Nagorny Karabakh war in 1994. Many of them are believed to be dead and most of the work on the issue concentrates on checking lists, searching for burial sites and working on identifying remains.



Platvoet told journalists he was hopeful that the issue could be de-politicised and methods elaborated by the Red Cross to search lists and check the remains of the dead could be deployed successfully.



However, many relatives of those who have disappeared complain that very little has actually been done to trace their missing loved ones.



“What can we expect from them?” said 80-year-old Garasim, whose son went missing 14 years ago during the war. “Nothing. How many years have I been crossing the thresholds of all possible offices and without result.”



Vera Grigorian, head of the Union of Relatives of Warriors Missing in Action in the Nagorny Karabakh Republic, says that journalists should be more active in covering the problem.



“We have to use all levers and any possibilities to discover the fates of people, to find and extract our compatriots from captivity,” she said. “But unfortunately I can feel there is an information vacuum in this sphere.”



There are recurring reports on both sides of missing soldiers apparently still being held in captivity but these are almost never confirmed as true.



“The search for missing-in-action is an exclusively humanitarian, complex and delicate problem,” said Karen Ohanjanian of the human rights organisation Helsinki Initiative-92. “It is very important to check all rumours very scrupulously and without emotion, we must not agitate the wounded souls of the relatives of the missing.”



Voskanian says that all Azerbaijani prisoners-of-war were returned home in the two years that followed the 1994 ceasefire. “Personally, in collaboration with the Azerbaijani state commission of that time, several hundred captives, dozens of corpses and remains were exchanged or handed over to the Azerbaijani side.”



The Red Cross has lists of the disappeared, numbering 4,132 people. Karabakh Armenians argue that many of the latter were Azerbaijani deserters or that they are now migrants in Russia.



In July this year, an international conference was held in Karabakh to come up with new initiatives on locating the missing, whether living or dead. Afterwards, Karen Ohanjanian, one of the organisers, said, “The parliaments of the region ought to adopt legislation on missing-in-action to force the state to begin serious work on solving this problem.”



Arzu Abdullayeva, coordinator of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly in Azerbaijan, said, “We have developed a good working relationship with Mr Platvoet, whom we met in Holland. He is interested in a whole range of issues in the sphere of missing-in-action and that is encouraging. On the other hand, we are working to combine the efforts of the relatives of the missing so they can help people from both sides. We have to understand both the positions and the desires of each other to come to an agreement that suits both sides.”



Ashot Beglarian is a freelance journalist and IWPR contributor in Stepanakert, Nagorny Karabakh.