In 1994 a ceasefire was declared in the Nagorno-Karabagh war which provided a much needed respite to the killing that had taken place in the region over the previous 6 years. The politicians have continued to talk since the cessation of activities to bring this conflict to a final resolution. However, a final peace agreement is not substantially closer, with both sides spending large proportions of their public budgets on military equipment and manpower as a show of strength. Over the last 17 years the 150,000+ people of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic have slowly re-built the infrastructure of their major cities, and returned to some semblance of normality in their daily lives.
War brings death and each one is a personal tragedy for the families involved, and forever thereafter they will remember the proud family member who went to fight for their country. The act of remembrance never fades, helped by the closure of mourning, and the knowledge of the location of the resting place; a prescence, somewhere, for the survivors to address their thoughts and emotions.
Modern war is usually covered by international conventions and post-conflict procedures deal with the return of prisoners of war. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was not perfect, or conventional, and both sides were involved in the exchanging and trafficking of personnel to secure the release of their soldiers, dead or alive. This turned the theatre of war into a bazaar for trading commodities.
The Grigoryan family of Stepanakert suffered, like many fellow citizens, the constant bombing and sniping from the Azeri troops in their small back-street house. All around them, buildings and lives were being destroyed; neighbours were receiving news from the military of the sad loss of their menfolk ; bodies were being re-patriated and funerals were taking place.
In 1994, their son Felix, was a young man of 23, an accomplished musician, with great prospects. They were looking forward to their old age, and their son, they knew, would be there to look after them. He was part of a 7 man unit carrying out an operation near Fizuli ( part of occupied Azerbaijan) when, one day, he disappeared without trace. The limited investigation was not able to confirm whether he had been killed, or captured; there was no evidence, only the fact that he never returned home.
Whilst their neighbours have re-built their lives, theirs remain, forever empty, but hopeful. Every conceivable possibility of what may have happened to him represents an opportunity for a return. On one occasion they received a mysterious call from a man who announced that he would visit them shortly, and that he would be known to them – cruelly the whole episode turned out to be a mistake. Their dreams are regularly punctuated by scenarios where he returns home, only to be snatched away, and for reality to surface and darken their day. The monochrome picture of their handsome son, is always present, frozen, for his proud parents to remember his, and their, sacrifice, but there is nowhere to place the flowers, or to visit.
There are over 700 more stories like the Grigoryan’s, and it is quite likely that a proportion of these men will be dead, however more sinister possibilities are a reality. Evidence exists ( I have seen the original of one letter) that people are being held in Azerbaijan, against their will, and that ransoms are being requested for their release. There are also views that the Armenian men, captured in Azerbaijan, have had to take action to save themselves, and integrate within Azeri life, now feel too ashamed to return. Lack of correct identity papers would also mean that obtaining a passport, or finance, would be impossible, thus neutralising the key ingredients for a return to Armenia.
The NKR Government have not had the time or resources to investigate these cases, and whilst there is a Centre for Missing Persons in Stepanakert, this is not adequately funded or resourced and is more of a museum than a centre for serious investigation.
The trafficking and exchanging of soldiers during and after the war, was a reality, and the good work of Albert Voskanyan who I met in Stepanakert secured the release of 500 men and 150 bodies by working directly with the Azeris. In such a chaotic environment that this war precipitated, clear accounting of all personnel seemed to be a casualty, and the tragic consequence of some being inevitably missed, a reality.
Whilst the Grigoryan’s continue to wait, hope and pray for their son’s return, another 700 families are suffering the same torment and the “needle” of quality information in the “haystack” of confusion gets more difficult to find as each year passes.
Categories: War and its Legacy