By Hrant Aleksanian in Stepanakert
A group of relatives of Azerbaijani soldiers that went missing during the war for Nagorno-Karabakh paid a landmark visit to Stepanakert at the weekend in the hope of ascertaining their whereabouts and establishing contacts with similar families in Karabakh and Armenia proper.
The five Azerbaijanis as well as several Armenians, who also lost their loved ones in the conflict, held a series of meetings with Karabakh officials as part of a confidence-building initiative sponsored by the Interchurch Peace Council (IKV), a Dutch non-governmental organization promoting peace around the world. The meetings are part of a broader IKV effort to heal the persisting wounds left by ethnic disputes in the South Caucasus.
“We have arrived here with great expectations and hopes for finding our loved ones,” said Tamara Ayubova, head of an Azerbaijani non-governmental organization uniting families of the missing soldiers. “We act on behalf of friends and relatives of all Azerbaijani soldiers who disappeared or were taken prisoner.”
“My hope is to at least get some information about the missing soldiers,” said Beyuk Beyuk-zade, a resident of the Azerbaijani city of Gyanja whose son Elshan went missing in February 1994 in the Kelbajar district west of Karabakh. He said his son was seen seriously wounded shortly before his disappearance. Kelbajar was occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces in 1993 and remains under their control.
Both Ayubova and Beyuk-zade told RFE/RL that their organization would like to cooperate with similar groups in Karabakh and Armenia in tracking down the victims of the Karabakh conflict who are still unaccounted for nine years after the end of fierce fighting.
At least 20,000 people from both sides were killed and hundreds of thousands of others were displaced by the 1991-94 Armenian-Azerbaijani war. The conflict has seen a relatively small number of prisoners of war (POW). Several dozen of them have been exchanged and sent back home since 1994. Each party now claims to have no enemy prisoners on its soil and accuses the other of secretly holding hundreds of captives.
According to Ayubova, 783 Azerbaijanis are currently listed as missing. The Azerbaijani government claims that many of them are alive and are held by the Armenians. The Nagorno-Karabakh government, for its part, maintains that about 680 Armenian residents of the disputed territory, both civilians and former fighters, remain in Azerbaijani captivity.
Vilen Kocharian, the head of a Karabakh commission on missing persons, welcomed the idea of Armenian-Azerbaijani cooperation on the sensitive subject. “We are using and will continue to use every opportunity to both repatriate Armenian soldiers and help the Azerbaijani side,” he said.