After the war in Karabakh: chaos and secrecy about missing soldiers

Probably thousands of Azerbaijani and Armenians were killed during the six weeks that the battle for Nagorno-Karabakh lasted. President Putin spoke of 5.000 casualties. Officials in Armenia have reported 2.400 dead and hundreds of missing persons. The victorious Azerbaijani government, however, remains silent, while the anguished families are scrambling for news about their missing loved ones. But no one outside the halls of power knows for sure what happened to them, reports Andy Heil of Radio Free Europe.

alijev vAzerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev greeting soldiers in recaptured territory. Photo Presidential officie Azerbaijan

by Andy Heil

Two weeks after a Moscow-brokered truce and with returnees and evacuees still flowing to and from Nagorno-Karabakh -- the center of a conflict abruptly ‘unfrozen’ two months ago -- the anguished families of missing Azerbaijani soldiers are scrambling for news of their loved ones.

‘I was told by the [Defense Ministry] hotline that he wasn't among the injured,’ a cousin of Yahya Abdinov, a 21-year-old soldier from the eastern Azerbaijani city of Shirvan, said on November 18.

[There are estimates of possibly thousands of Azerbaijani dead. But no one outside the halls of power...knows for sure.]

‘Everyone says different things,’ the cousin, Saday Tagiyev, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service. ‘One person says he's alive and doing his service, another says he's somewhere where there's no [mobile-phone] network so he can't make a call. We're lost. We can't get accurate information.’

screen shot 11 30 20 at 02.30 pmThe coffin of an Azerbaijani soldier is opened
for preliminary identification. Photo ICRC

This week, the family still had no idea what had happened to Abdinov or whether he was even alive.

As fresh graves are dug and filled, and coffins are lain in ‘martyrs' alleys’ in Baku and other cities as bodies are returned from the battlefields in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, there are estimates of possibly thousands of Azerbaijani dead.

But no one outside the halls of power of this strategically located Caucasus nation that has been locked in a ‘frozen conflict’ with neighboring Armenia for decades knows for sure.

'We don't have protests'

Authoritarian Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's already secretive government remains silent about overall casualty figures from six weeks of intense fighting after it kicked off an offensive on September 27.

Officials refuse to answer journalists' questions about specific cases, too.

So parents and cousins still regularly crowd lists of the wounded hung outside hospitals in the capital, Baku. Multiple accounts suggest the Defense Ministry hotlines mostly take down information and urge patience.

The problem exists to a lesser degree in Armenia, where officials have reported more than 2,400 war dead and hundreds of others either missing or still to be identified.

In the capital, Yerevan, there are scenes showing throngs of angry Armenians outside official buildings.

karabach protesten in jerevanAngry protesters in Yerevan demand the dismissal of PM Pashinyan

There, desperate family members have demanded answers from a government under political siege since the weapons went silent with Azerbaijan back in control of about two-thirds of the Azerbaijani territory held since 1994 by ethnic Armenians.

But in the streets of Baku, despite unofficial suggestions that at least hundreds of troops are still unaccounted for, there are seemingly no public signs of anger.

‘We don't have protests against the government regarding this issue,’ a journalist in Baku said bluntly.

History Repeating Itself?

Aliyev has kept a tight lid on state-dominated media since taking over from his ailing father in 2003, and his administration has been accused of routinely jailing its critics.

It already ranked 168th out of 180 countries on watchdog Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) press freedom index earlier this year.

But martial law declared on September 28 has allowed authorities to impose even stricter limits on what people can say or report about the conflict.

‘The Azerbaijani public will be informed of it after the completion of the active phase of military operations,’ Aliyev told Russian television at its height.

Information remains scarce since the November 10 cease-fire that was widely seen as a victory for Baku in the region's most intense fighting since the first war ended in 1994, however.

Legacy Of Missing Fighters

Many Azerbaijanis are acutely aware, from the 1988-94 conflict that killed as many as 30,000 people, of the confusion that can accompany the fight for a sliver of land that went from heavily Azeri to almost exclusively ethnic Armenian.

Hundreds of thousands of Azeris who fled that violence were displaced after the shaky cease-fire of 1994 left nearly all of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts in the hands of ethnic Armenians.

Thousands more -- troops and civilians -- remained unaccounted for after that truce.

An Azerbaijani state working group on prisoners of war, hostages, and missing persons established by then-President Heydar Aliyev -- Ilham Aliyev's father -- concluded in 2008 that the whereabouts of more than 4,200 people were still unknown.

While Azerbaijan's fighting forces were generally better equipped and trained and made ample use of unmanned attack drones in the most recent campaign, attacking and dislodging entrenched forces tends to incur higher casualties than defending territory.

Through A Looking Glass

The Armenian side has been more forthcoming about its casualties.

But many of the ethnic Armenians still missing are in districts that fell into the hands of Azerbaijani forces before the November 19 cease-fire, suggesting that some are still being held prisoner.

The comparative openness of the Armenian government, which is already under tremendous political pressure from Armenians who regard the loss of territory and cease-fire as humiliating national defeats, has not insulated it from criticism.

screen shot 11 30 20 at 02.22 pmRelatives of captured and missing soldiers in a meeting with the Armenian PM Pashinyan. Photo government Armenia

In Yerevan, the families of dozens of Armenian men still missing have gathered almost nightly in front of the Defense Ministry building to appeal for news of their whereabouts.

Armenian officials from Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on down have publicly addressed demands for more information about the missing, including meeting with family members protesting outside state buildings.

On November 23, relatives congregated outside the Russian Embassy in Yerevan to appeal for help from Moscow -- and its 2,000 or so peacekeepers deployed in the area -- to help find survivors and identify casualties.

The Armenian Defense Ministry claimed on October 23 that it believed Azerbaijani military casualties were nearing the 10,000 mark, although there is no way of corroborating that figure.

Both Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian representatives continue to work with international humanitarian groups like the Red Cross on prisoner swaps and to find the missing, including scouring the frequently scorched theaters of particularly brutal battles for remains.

Dashed Hopes

Underscoring the ongoing challenges of retrieving battlefield casualties two weeks after the cease-fire, a land mine exploded as a local and international contingent was searching for the bodies of missing Azerbaijani and Armenian soldiers near the Tartar district northeast of Nagorno-Karabakh on November 23.

The blast killed one Azerbaijani officer and injured four ethnic Armenian representatives and a Russian peacekeeper.

That is roughy the same area where a 21-year-old conscript, Rovshan Ismayilov, went missing in a nighttime battle around Agdara (known in Armenian as Martakert) in mid-October.

Weeks after the end of the fighting, in mid-November, Ismayilov's family in Baku still had not heard anything since last talking to him on October 12. His military unit confirmed only that he had been sent to the front, according to a friend.

His aunt, Khadija Ismayilova, one of Azerbaijan's best-known investigative reporters and a former RFE/RL employee, was as helpless as the rest of the family.

She spent a month trying to help her brother find his son. Ismayilova crowdsourced an image of troops in the area where they suspected Rovshan was deployed in hopes of identifying him among the green-helmeted young men. Others shared images and fragmentary information suggesting the bodies of others serving alongside Ismayilov had been found.

The confirmation of his death came on November 18.

‘Our boy, Rovshan, was listed as missing because bodies were left on the battlefield in territory occupied by Armenia and attempts to get them resulted in more casualties,’ Ismayilova told RFE/RL. ‘When the bodies were recovered after the cease-fire -- almost a month after the battle -- most of them were unrecognizable because they were burned -- killed, then burned.’

A day later, his body was buried alongside other casualties of Azerbaijan's three-decade-long war with Armenia in the Bilacari cemetery's Alley of Martyrs, in a neighborhood of Baku.

This article was published originally at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

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