New Hope for Relatives of Karabakh Missing

Azeris and Armenians set aside differences to trace thousands of soldiers who went missing in the war of the early Nineties.

New Hope for Relatives of Karabakh Missing

Azeris and Armenians set aside differences to trace thousands of soldiers who went missing in the war of the early Nineties.

Azeris and Armenians are as divided over Nagorno-Karabakh as they were at the ceasefire 14 years ago, but cooperation has started in an unexpected quarter – among those who are still searching for lost sons, fathers and husbands.

Over 4,000 people are still listed as missing on both sides of the conflict over the South Caucasus region, which is majority Armenian-inhabited but internationally considered to be part of Azerbaijan.

Joint efforts to locate them ended in the late 1990s as political differences between Karabakh’s Armenians, who have declared independence, and Baku became insuperable.

But last April, the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, gave new hope to mothers and wives by agreeing with Azerbaijan’s government to spearhead efforts to uncover the fates of the missing men. The agreement was followed in October by one with the Armenian government, increasing the likelihood that this will become a genuinely cross-border effort.

Lyatifa Mamedova has visited the ICRC office in Baku every year on October 31 – the birthday of her son, Mamed, who would have been 41 this year but who has been missing since June 1993 – but never with much hope before.

“This year I was cooking in the kitchen, and while laying the table I felt his presence very strongly. I felt as if he was near, behind my back or coming from a neighbouring room, as if I could turn round and see him,” said the 72-year-old.

“One of the first organisations we appealed to was the International Committee of the Red Cross. And I must say that, for 15 years already the Red Cross staff members are the only ones who still remember us.”

After the ICRC and the government in Baku agreed, a series of adverts were made appealing for information to help resolve the fate of the more than 3,000 Azerbaijanis still missing.

"Fourteen years have gone by since the ceasefire was announced between Armenia and Azerbaijan, yet it remains unclear what happened to over 4,000 people who are still missing," said the head of the ICRC's delegation in Azerbaijan, Martin Amacher.

"Without news about the fate of their loved ones, these families will continue to remain stuck between hope and despair. It's a source of endless pain for them."

Hundreds of people have called a special hot line, including Mamedova. The Azerbaijan Red Crescent has already collected 700 detailed questionnaires about their missing relative’s characteristics.

“We live in hope,” Mamedova said. “I don’t want to die without seeing my son.”

Her hopes are repeated by families in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The region has its own de-facto government, but Azerbaijan refuses to deal with it and the ICRC provides a crucial intermediary for talks.

In November, it arranged for the handover of the remains of an Azerbaijani soldier in the Agdam region, which borders the breakaway province, and in May it organised the return of a captured soldier to Azerbaijan.

ICRC plans to take the 200-question, 36-page questionnaire around Karabakh’s villages in a quest to find as much information about those people still missing as they can.

“I think this and all such plans are very good, because every time we gain new hope that we will hear just one bit of news, which can bring us some kind of certainty,” said Vera Grigorian, chairwoman of the committee of relatives of missing Karabakh soldiers.

But most officials in Karabakh are under no illusions that the search will primarily revolve around identifying bodies, rather than living people. Both sides have declared that they are holding no more prisoners of war.

Viktor Kocharian, chairman of the Karabakh government’s commission for prisoners of war, hostages and missing people, said the ICRC had already sent some state officials on special courses in Yerevan for the hard work ahead.

“There are of course expectations from this project, but it is not now connected with a search, but with identification of body parts, considered to belong to missing people, from both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani sides,” he said.

Television adverts also went out in Armenia, after it agreed to work with the ICRC in October, with viewers being asked to “help resolve the fate of these people”. The information gathered will be stored in a central database, and then used to check against any remains found.

“This initiative allows us to create a detailed information base, which will help in confirming the identities of the missing and to give final details to their families: the relatives of the missing must in the first place know if they are alive or not,” said Dzyunik Aghajanian, head of the foreign ministry’s department for international organisations.

In the past, relatives hunting for their missing loved ones have relied on word of mouth, photographs, or chance video clips for evidence. Manvel Eghiazarian, commander of Karabakh’s Arabo division, said that he had seen a video on the popular website YouTube which showed that 79 fighters of the Zeitun division, who are now listed as among the missing people, had been killed and buried in a common grave on June 29, 1992.

“Now for unknown reasons we can no longer find this clip on youtube: but we are working on it, and many of us have other video clips. But some people don’t want to put them on the internet, because it is upsetting for the lads,” he told IWPR.

But, upsetting or not, such videos often provide the only contact that relatives have with their missing sons or husbands. Samara Grigorian. 68, is convinced that her son Vrezh – who went missing from the Arabo division – is shown on a video she managed to obtain.

“Look, you can’t see his face, but that’s Vrezh’s hair, his shape, his shoulders and his height,” she said, her voice trailing off. She carefully put the tape back in a cupboard already containing Vrezh’s photographs and possessions when she finished watching.

With such traumatised relatives waiting for news, some human rights activists worry that the ICRC’s programme to collect information on the missing men could serve only to re-open old mental wounds, for little real gain.

They say Karabakh and Azerbaijani groups have already been unofficially gathering and sharing information for years, while a system of prisoner exchange has come into being through necessity since a handful of prisoners are still taken every year. This means the ICRC initiative will not do anything knew.

“I think questionnaires are just an additional trauma for the relatives of the missing, and will just raise new hopes. These questionnaires have been filled in several times already and there are many documents in different archives already,” said Karen Ohanjanian, chairman of the Nagorno-Karabakh Helsinki committee.

“I think that good results are only possible after a final resolution of the Karabakh problem, because only then can Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan really start searching for mass graves, and we can only talk about getting real results through identification via DNA analysis,” he said.

The ICRC is forging ahead despite such objections, however. In February, it wants to move into areas closer to the frontlines and it expects to have completed the questionnaires of Azerbaijani families in Baku, Sumgait and in the Apsheron region by the summer. It expects to finish the collection of information in 2010, and is conscious that as time passes, it will become ever harder for surviving relatives to remember exact information.

“We are working with all families, among whom some have learned to live with their loss and do not want to stir up the past. But even in this case we do not close the case. The problem remains,” said Suzana Spasojevic, the ICRC’s regional tracking delegate.

Psychologists say that people waiting for the return of their relatives often suffer from insomnia, depression, a sense of hopelessness and struggle to take an interest in life.

The ICRC has to work to overcome these problems in their quest to gain the information they need.

“Every time the [ICRC] call me, I think that they will have some news about my husband, but they don’t tell me anything, probably because their information hasn’t been confirmed yet,” said Susanna Voskanian, a 53-year-old in Yerevan.

“My heart almost bursts when I speak about this. It opens the old wounds. I start explaining it all over again, and my husband still isn’t here.”

Zarema Velikhanova is a freelance journalist. Karine Ohanian is member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network Project. Gita Elibekian is a journalist from Public Radio's Radiolur News programme.
Support our journalists