Waiting in pain; conflict b/w Armenia, Azerbaijan & MIA families

Waiting in pain

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has left families of missing
soldiers in agonies of uncertainty, reports Nick Paton Walsh

The Guardian
Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Gammadin Mamedov has endured nearly twelve years of pain, living with
the belief that his young conscript son, Ikhtiyar, who disappeared in
1993, is still alive.
Clutching a picture of him, he says: “I have seen a Red Cross list of
prisoners who are still alive, and he is on it.”

A decade after a fragile ceasefire was implemented, the uncertainty over
the destiny of people like Ikhtiyar is fuelling tensions in the
long-running conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Daily skirmishes
have haunted the border between the two countries, on the edge of a
disputed territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh.

When the open warfare that claimed 25,000 lives and uprooted 600,000
Azeris was at its peak, Ikhtiyar was 18 and serving in the relative
safety of the Baku unit 126, guarding the capital city’s key sites. Yet
suddenly, on February 13, he was drafted to the frontline. Six days
later, his unit found itself caught up in some of the fiercest fighting
of the war, at Agdara. Ikhtiyar, the unit’s radio operator, got
separated from the other soldiers. “They did what they could to find
him,” says Gammadin, “but they lost 13 men that day. It was messy.”

In the days after their disappearance, the parents of the 13 men
searched the battled-scarred hills for their sons to no avail. “We heard
nothing about him,” Gammadin says under the shady bows of a tree outside
his house in the border village of Shukubayli. “But a year later one of
the thirteen missing troops was released. He showed me photos of
Ikhtiyar, working at a bakery in the town of Shusha [in Nagorno-Karabakh].”

The appearance of Ikhtiyar’s name on the lists of prisoners from the
Azerbaijani state commission for the missing feeds Gammadin’s hopes.
“The Red Cross list was last updated in February,” he says. “I am just a
poor person, not a minister, and do not know if we should make war
again. Our wounds from the last war are still healing. I am just a
father who wants his son back.”

The fate of the so-called “NK missing” has helped keep the two
countries’ knives at each other’s throats. Azerbaijan claims there are
4,959 people “missing” since the war and charges that 783 are still
being held captive by Armenia. Armenia claims 600 are missing.
Azerbaijan says the Armenian claims they have only held 50 or 60
prisoners at a time are nonsense, as they released 1,086 people between
1993 and 2000.

International observers say that most of these people are dead. “It’s
pretty expensive and hard to conceal if an impoverished state keeps 800
people prisoner for twelve years,” says one. They accept there are a few
exceptions, although details are sketchy and often mired in the secrecy
that surrounds this sensitive issue. Arzu Abdullayeva, a human rights
worker from the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly who specialises in the
missing, says the last release was this year in January but does not
provide further details.

Armenia was the de facto victor in the war, Nagorno-Karabakh – a large
slice of former Azerbaijani territory – seized during two years of open
warfare. Armenia, a predominantly Christian state, considers
Nagorno-Karabakh within its ancient borders, first demarcated in 782BC.
Yet Azerbaijan, most of whose people are Shia Muslims, says the
territory was part of the old kingdom of Albania, from whose Alban
people Azerbaijan claims ancestry going back 10,000 years.

Fighting first began under the Soviets in 1988 and 11,000 extra Russian
troops could not stop the fighting from escalating a year after the two
states got independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Over 1.4 million
refugees were created by the conflict.

Azerbaijan labels the Armenian-backed government of Karabakh, whose
territory is not internationally recognised, as “terrorists”. Irascible,
they even threatened to take away the BBC’s right to broadcast their
Azeri language service in the country because of coverage of the
conflict they considered “biased”.

Inter-governmental bickering only sours Gammadin further. “This was not
a real war, but one of special interests: the poor died and the rich got
richer. I am ready to give my house up to buy him back, or my life.
Today would have been his 30th birthday,” he says, his silent rage
turning his wife Roza to tears.

Around the village, there are several families feeling the same sense of
bewilderment and loss as the Mamedovs. Yet, despite such raw wounds, the
new Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliev, said recently that, if
negotiations failed, he would retake the disputed territory “at any cost”.

Playing to those critics who feared he would use the conflict to unite
the impoverished and frustrated Azerbaijani people, he added: “Our army
is capable of freeing occupied territory at any moment. Azerbaijan is in
a condition of war.”

A few hundred metres down the road from Gammadin’s windowless house,
built for him by the Red Cross, this war is very real. A ramshackle
gaggle of conscripts mill around a dishevelled farmhouse that is about
300 metres from the front line, marked by a gaggle of white buildings in
the distance, off limits to reporters.

“You could get shot at any moment,” says the lieutenant in charge of the
unit. As well as the danger of snipers, there are the snakes. The grass
of the hot and dusty plains has been burned away around some key
buildings, the sooty, charred turf less hospitable to snakes whose venom
can only be treated in the central hospital, too often an expensive
drive away. The young men, many wearing only tatty flip-flops, chase the
water truck with their empty tin mugs as it drives up to the base.

A week ago today, the war claimed its last publicised casualty.
Azerbaijan announced that Private Elnur Aliyev, 19, died from a gunshot
wound in his chest at the village of Agdam, on the border. He was the
fourth soldier whose death was admitted by the ministry of defence.
Three civilians have also died from fighting and 11 from the landmines
that pepper the borders.

International monitors say the number of clashes along the border has
this year been at its highest since the ceasefire began. While most
observers say neither side is sufficiently well-equipped to want to
start a proper war, there are fears the clashes may spiral out of
control and a slow, open war of attrition may break out, specifically
over the water and hydroelectric interests in the disputed, dry region.

But to Vugar, a conscript who has moved his metal bed out of the parched
squalor of the barracks to set up a makeshift dormitory with three
friends beneath the endless blue sky on a nearby, arid hill, the clashes
are just something else to survive. “One of our friends was shot in the
head by a sniper last month,” he says. “And then they shot a shepherd
and his two sons as well. All I want to do is live.”