By Irina Hovannisian
Greta Karapetian has a dream, and it speaks volumes about her pain and desperation. She would give up everything, including her life, to catch a final glimpse of her soldier son who went missing in the dying weeks of the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
“I will wait for him even on my death bed,” she says in tears. “Let my heart stop, let me die the moment my boy comes back and I see him for the last time.”
Ashot Karapetian, who was 27 at the time of his disappearance in April 1994, is one of about 950 Armenian servicemen and civilian hostages that remain unaccounted for more than 12 years after a Russian-mediate truce stop fierce fighting in and around Karabakh. Over 200 of them were citizens of Armenia proper. Most have been formally declared dead by Armenian courts at the request of their families who have lost any hope of finding their loved ones.
Others still hope for a miracle, embittered by what they see as government indifference to the fate of the missing soldiers and civilians. Karapetian’s elderly parents say no military or government official has visited them in the last 12 years and are surprised to see journalists taking interest in their plight.
“Nobody cares about my son,” says Ashot’s father Avetik. “I have written to [Defense Minister] Serzh [Sarkisian], to [President Robert] Kocharian, to everyone. They replied that they keep looking for.
“But who are they looking for? Don’t they know what happened to those men? They know, but won’t tell us.”
Karapetian himself spent several months touring Karabakh and trying to gather information about his son a decade ago, but to no avail.
Ashot was in a group of five soldiers who went missing in a pitched battle with Azerbaijani forces southeast of Karabakh on April 20, 1994, less than a month before the war was stopped. One of them, Artak Avetisian, is said to have been seen in a critical condition by some of his comrades on that day. But his whereabouts have been unknown since then.
Avetisian’s parents believe he is most probably dead and had the Armenian authorities officially certify that recently. The formality allowed them to start receiving a measly state benefit of 3,000 drams ($8) a month.
“I pinned my hopes on them for five or six years, but nothing was done,” Avetisian’s father Hrant says, referring to the government and the military. “All I heard was ‘don’t worry, he’ll come back one day.’”
The Armenian Defense Ministry insists, however, that it has done its best to locate and repatriate prisoners of war. Colonel Ashot Balian, a member of a ministry commission dealing with them, claimed last April that hundreds of Armenians remain alive in Azerbaijani captivity. “We have information that they are used as slave labor in Azerbaijan,” Balian told RFE/RL. “The Azerbaijani authorities keep moving them around and leaving no traces of them.”
“We still hope that our missing sons will return to their families one day,” he said.
The Azerbaijani authorities have denied holding any Armenian prisoners and allege, for their part, that as many as five thousand Azerbaijani captives are being held in Armenia and Karabakh. Defense Minister Sarkisian dismissed the claims as “unfounded” during an April meeting the visiting chairman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jacob Kellenberger.
The Red Cross, which has offices in both Baku and Yerevan, is the main international institution that arranges Armenian-Azerbaijani prisoner exchanges and repatriations. Both conflicting armies continue to turn to it for assistance after reporting soldier disappearances.
Prisoner exchanges have also been arranged by private individuals, usually via Georgia. They have strong connections in Armenia and Azerbaijan and earn lump sums in the process. According to an informed member of the Yerkrapah Union of Armenian veterans of the Karabakh war, who asked not to be identified, some families have paid the middlemen between $40,000 and $150,000 to get their sons out of captivity. “If the parents have money and know where their son is kept, their chances are big,” he told RFE/RL.
The Karapetians neither have money, nor know Ashot’s whereabouts. What they have instead is a bitter grudge against the far more prosperous Armenian officials who they feel could have done more to bring their son back home. “Our boys went to fight and die to swell their pockets and the coffers of Swiss banks,” says Avetik Karapetian. “If, God forbid, there is another war, who will fight for this country? Let them, their children fight.”