At least 3,800 of them died during six weeks of heavy fighting with Azerbaijani forces stopped by a Russian-brokered ceasefire in November. Hundreds of others remain unaccounted for.
Their relatives have regularly staged protests in recent months to demand that the Armenian government do more to recover the bodies of their loved ones or shed more light on their whereabouts. Many of them distrust official data on still unidentified bodies of dead soldiers kept at Armenian morgues.
On Monday, some angry relatives forced their way into the mortuaries to count the number of corpses and body parts stored there. They took pictures inside a morgue in Abovian, a town 15 kilometers north of Yerevan.
The photographs circulated on social media showed plastic bags filled with human remains lying on the ground in its basement, which was not refrigerated to prevent their decomposition. They caused uproar in the country, with many accusing the authorities of dishonoring the Armenian soldiers killed in action.
The Armenian Ministry of Health initially denied that their remains are kept in degrading conditions. But Health Minister Anahit Avanesian publicly apologized to soldiers’ families on Tuesday, saying that she was wrong not to have personally inspected the Abovian morgue.
The scandal continued unabated, however. One of the relatives publicized on Tuesday night a short video of the morgue basement.
Avanesian formally reprimanded Mher Bisharian, the head of a state center of forensic medicine overseeing the Armenian mortuaries, the following morning. Bisharian in turned sacked the director and two other workers of the Abovian morgue.
“We fired them because they didn’t perform their duties properly,” Bisharian told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service. He said they should have placed the remains on stretchers and stored them in a more orderly way.
Bisharian said that the remains were taken to the Abovian facility because a refrigerated morgue truck where they were kept until May 28 broke down. He said they were “temporarily” stored in the basement due to a lack of space in the morgue’s refrigerated rooms.
The official added that the remains were transported on Tuesday to a refrigerated facility in Martuni, a town 130 kilometers north of Yerevan.
Sofia Hovsepian, an independent member of Armenia’s outgoing parliament critical of the government, dismissed the authorities’ response to the scandal which she said highlights their “impunity” and lack of empathy for the families of the war dead.
“Instead of firing the three individuals they should have sacked and prosecuted the health minister and the former health minister [Arsen Torosian, the current chief of the Armenian government’s staff,]” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service.
Hovsepian claimed that many bodies of the deceased soldiers were for months kept at another morgue not equipped with refrigerators and that the authorities transported them to more suitable facilities only after her persistent complaints.
According to the authorities, 200 corpses and 400 body parts of dead soldiers are currently kept there. Officials say that DNA samples taken from them match those of nearly 100 families of the missing soldiers. They say those families refuse to take and bury the corresponding remains because they do not trust the results of the forensic tests.
About 70 other families are said to have refused to give their DNA samples to the authorities for the same reason.