Special Report: Karabakh: Missing in Action – Alive or Dead?

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
May 12 2004

Special Report: Karabakh: Missing in Action – Alive or Dead?

Ten years after the Nagorny Karabakh ceasefire agreement, hundreds of
Armenians and Azerbaijanis are still missing, presumed dead.

By Karine Ohanian in Stepanakert and Zarema Velikhanova in Baku (CRS
No. 233, 12-May-04)

On December 9, 1994, a meeting took place on the Karabakh ceasefire
line and an unusual transaction was made.

Two young captive soldiers – Azerbaijani Rauf Budagov and Karabakh
Armenian Levon Babayan, both aged 23 – were exchanged for one another
and allowed to go home.

The two men shook hands, each finding the other’s – like his own –
chafed rough by the cold and coated in dirt. Both trembled with

“I’ve become a different person, quite different,” said Levon. “I
don’t sleep a wink all night,” said Rauf. “And even now I don’t
believe I’m going home. It’s like being born a second time, like
coming back to life from my coffin. Basically, you’ve given me back
your life and I’ve given you yours.”

Levon replied, “And what a life, 100 years long…. I wouldn’t wish
what I’ve been through on my enemies.” Then each man moved on and
returned home.

Sadly, the return from the dead of these two men, seven months after
the Nagorny Karabakh ceasefire agreement of May 12 1994, was a rare
happy ending in what is one of the most ignored and tragic aspects of
the unresolved conflict.

As the tenth anniversary of the truce is observed, thousands of
people are still reported missing and their fate remains a mystery.

Most independent observers believe that all those still missing are
in fact dead. But many relatives refuse to give up hope – and they
will be encouraged by occasional cases where captives are traded for
money through Georgia.

>>From the very beginning of the Karabakh dispute in 1988, both sides
took hostages.

At the beginning of 1993, a year into the full-blown war, Azerbaijan
and Nagorny Karabakh – the latter still unrecognised as a state –
formed government commissions to deal with prisoners of war and
hostages. Armenia later set up its own commission.

As the fighting raged, the Azerbaijan and Karabakh Armenian sides
kept up a constant dialogue and continued to exchange prisoners.

“There were several corridors along the front-line, where meetings,
negotiations and exchanges took place,” said Albert Voskanian, deputy
head of the Karabakh commission from 1993 to 1997. “It all helped us
to work realistically and fruitfully. Several hundred people from
both sides were sought out and exchanged.”

The formal end of hostilities with the 1994 ceasefire, which sealed a
de facto victory for the Armenians, resulted in a sharp decrease in
captive numbers, but the fate of thousands remained uncertain.

In 1997, the Azerbaijanis stopped working directly with the Karabakh
commission. After that, the Karabakh Armenians engaged with Baku
mainly through the Red Cross.

Since 1995, an International Working Group – led by Bernhard Clasen
of Germany, Russia’s Svetlana Gannushkina and Paata Zakareishvili of
Georgia – has worked with all sides, going back and forth to visit
sites where prisoners might be detained.

The Azerbaijani State Commission says 4,959 Azerbaijanis are still
missing in action from the Karabakh conflict, a figure that includes
71 children, 320 women and 358 elderly people. Furthermore, the
Azerbaijanis say they have information that 783 people, again
including civilians as well as combatants, were taken captive by the
Armenians and have not been released.

On the Armenian side, the Karabakh State Commission lists around 600
people as missing, 400 of them civilians.

The vast majority of these missing people have not been heard of for
more than a decade, and it is presumed they are dead, buried in
graves whose location is known only to a few people or to no one at

But every year, a few soldiers still go missing across the front
line, generally in places where the trenches of the two opposing
militaries run closest to one another. Some of the men may simply
have got lost and blundered into enemy lines, others may have got
caught on reconnaissance missions, and others still may have been
trying to desert.

Each side alleges that the other is hiding captives – and each
strongly denies this charge.

The Azerbaijani commission says it does not trust the Armenians. In a
statement to IWPR, it said that between 1993 and 1999, the Armenian
side consistently said it was holding no more than 50 or 60 captives,
yet from 1992 to 2000 the far higher figure of 1,086 Azerbaijanis was

“There is information about a few possible burial sites of
Azerbaijani soldiers after certain battles,” Viktor Kocharian, head
of the Karabakh commission, told IWPR. “From time to time we hand
over remains which are discovered in the searches we carry out. But
the figure of 5,000 is ridiculous! It should be obvious that it’s
simply impossible to secretly hold this number of prisoners of war or
even human remains within Karabakh.”

It has mainly fallen to a partnership of non-government organisations
on either side, together with the International Working Group, to
investigate the allegations that captives are still being detained.

“To debunk myths, we’ve had to climb into quarries in Azerbaijan and
check out information we’d received that hundreds of Armenian
prisoners were working there,” Svetlana Gannushkina told IWPR. “We
didn’t find a single Armenian.” To investigate similar allegations
about the other side, the Helsinki Initiative 92 group organised a
trip by a group of Azerbaijan women to Karabakh last August. Carrying
a list of 50 soldiers missing in action, the women were allowed to
visit Karabakh’s two prisons, one in Shusha (which the Armenians call
Shushi) and one in Stepanakert (which the Azerbaijanis call
Khankendi) – and found no one.

The three international investigators point out that for purely
practical reasons, it is difficult and expensive to keep prisoners
over a long period and hide them from prying eyes.

This is not enough to satisfy all the relatives. After the trip to
Karabakh, one Azerbaijani mother, Tamara Eyubova, told IWPR, “We are
not entirely certain that there are no Azerbaijani prisoners in
Karabakh. We were shown one prison and one detention centre, but
where’s the guarantee that they are not being held in other prisons?”
Vera Grigorian, an Armenian mother whose son is missing in action,
told IWPR, “We have definite information that there are Armenian
prisoners of war and hostages in Azerbaijan. We receive various kinds
of information through different channels about this or that person.
Former prisoners come to us and identify one and the same person with
whom they shared their captivity.”

The most explosive allegation made by both sides is that prisoners
are being traded for money via their common neighbour Georgia.

Arzu Abdullayeva, a well-known human rights activist who is head of
Azerbaijan’s Helsinki Committee, spent a long time in the early
Nineties investigating this trade, particularly at the market in
Sadakhlo in Georgia. In 1994, Abdullayeva personally paid 1,000
dollars that she had been awarded with the Olof Palme peace prize,
allowing Azerbaijani father Fikret Mamedov to buy back his son. She
said the decision to pay the ransom was made because it was feared
that the criminals said to be holding the boy would kill him before
normal channels could be made to work.

“People are bought for cash,” said Donara Mnatsakanian, whose son
Nelson went missing in 1996, two years after the ceasefire. “Today no
one makes a secret of that. But I won’t name any names because the
problem still exists and unfortunately money is just about the only
way of freeing hostages.”

Donara said that her son was found through the efforts of relatives
in Kiev and acquaintances in Azerbaijan. Nelson had grown so
desperate in captivity that he tried to commit suicide by jumping out
of a window – but he survived. He was finally freed for a cash
payment in Georgia four years after he went missing, and after an
initial attempt to free him in Tashkent had failed.

Donara refused to answer IWPR’s questions as to who was the
intermediary, what sum was paid and how Nelson was finally freed,
because she didn’t want to wreck the chances of a similar transaction
helping someone else.

“It’s easier to come out with fine slogans about how people mustn’t
be bought and sold – until your own son is over there,” said another
Karabakh mother, Vera Grigorian. “The thing is that money,
unfortunately, is the last thread that connects relatives on either
side of the border.”

One desperate Azerbaijani, Hamlet Badalov, has gone to great lengths
to secure the release of his son Vugar, who he is convinced is still
alive after vanishing in 1993. Badalov paid over some money in return
for some news about his son, and then bought a fax machine and waited
all night for the promised information.

But as Russian investigator Gannushkina reports, “Eventually a fax
came through with a Moscow address and the surname of a man
supposedly holding Vugar. I checked – that address in Moscow is the
Stanislavsky Theatre, and no one by that name works there.”

The experts believe Badalov is the victim of a cruel hoax.

All the relatives of the missing agree that what they want more than
anything else is certainty. Not knowing what happened to their loved
ones, they say, is worse than knowing for sure that someone is dead.

“We want real help in the search for our relatives,” said mother
Svetlana Martirosian. “We want to know for sure whether a person has
or hasn’t died. We need just one thing – true information.”

Sadly, ten years after the Karabakh ceasefire, hundreds of families
are still waiting to find out the truth.

Karine Ohanian is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert,
Nagorny Karabakh. Zarema Velikhanova is a freelance journalist based
in Baku.

Editor’s Note: This article is a unique collaboration by two
journalists from the opposing sides in the Karabakh conflict. The
terminology used to refer to aspects of the conflict was chosen in
London in an attempt to achieve neutrality. It may not necessarily
reflect the original wording.