The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Armenia and Azerbaijan, desperate families search for news of the Nagorno-Karabakh war dead

Relatives of soldiers missing since the Nagorno-Karabakh war gather outside the Armenia Hotel in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh, on Nov. 28. (Anush Babajanyan/VII)

STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh — Sarven Vaniskhian has been getting by on bad coffee, little sleep and many cigarettesas he waits for news of his son, an Armenian volunteer soldier who went missing during the ­Nagorno-Karabakh war.

He and other fathers — who have traveled from across Armenia to the main city of the ­Nagorno-Karabakh enclave — now hold a tense vigil in the restaurant of Stepanakert’s Armenia Hotel in hopes of picking up any scrap of news or rumor about whether their sons are alive.

Many hold out hope that their sons may be in hiding or lying wounded in steep, mountainous terrain since a Russian-brokered cease-fire was signed last month to end the worst fighting over the enclave since the 1990s.

But the known casualty figures are not encouraging.

More than 1,746 Armenian and Karabakh soldiers have been confirmed killed, according to officials in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-led enclave within Azerbaijan’s international borders. Azerbaijan announced Thursday that at least 2,783 of its soldiers died.

Armenia’s Health Ministry has so far conducted forensic analysis on at least 2,718 battlefield dead from both sides, authorities said Wednesday.

Zara Amatuni, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Armenia, said efforts to recover the missing have been hampered by winter weather and unexploded munitions. A rescue worker from Armenia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations said authorities did not know how many bodies were still unrecovered. The worker, who has been searching in a steep gorge near the city of Shusha, known in Armenia as Shushi, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.

“We don’t even know where to search for them in the gorge,” he said. “There is a lot of forest, so we are just searching everywhere.”

And so the fathers wait in a gauzy haze of cigarette smoke at the hotel, a landmark site in the city and one of the few places that remained open in Stepanakert amid worries about the future under the peace deal.

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They trade stories and theories. Internet links aren’t working. ­Updates travel only as fast as the fathers can chase them down.

When they hear of more bodies recovered, they walk to the morgue to look at photos and — with hearts racing — hope that their sons are not among them. Other times, they go across the square to the Nagorno-Karabakh government offices to pressure officials to do something — although it’s not clear what they can do.

An earlier war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the 1990s saw Azerbaijan lose control of the enclave and seven districts around it. In the new war that broke out Sept. 27, Azerbaijan effectively defeated Armenia, regaining the seven districts and a chunk of the enclave under a truce signed Nov 9. Russian peacekeepers now patrol the region.

The last time Vaniskhian saw his son, Vahe, 29, was on Sept. 28. Vahe, a construction worker in Russia, was home visiting his parents in their village, Shirak, in northwestern Armenia, and rushed to join the fight. His parents were proud. The father, Vaniskhian, 58, also a construction worker, fought in the 1990s war.

He has had no contact with Vahe since. Vaniskhian did get occasional word from his son’s colleagues that Vahe was fine. But the last news was Nov. 6.

“I call my wife many times a day. She tells me, ‘Don’t come home without my son,’ ” said Vaniskhian, his face lined and unshaven.

The tables in the restaurant are piled with used coffee cups, overflowing ashtrays, hunks of stale bread, instant noodle packets, plastic forks and plastic bottles of homemade vodka or brandy. A man sobbed upon learning that his son had been killed.

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In Azerbaijan, families of the missing face secrecy from authorities and conflicting accounts.

Khadija Ismayilova, a well-known investigative journalist who was jailed by authorities in 2014 after reporting on corruption, had to search for her missing nephew in a morgue in Yevlakh, about 150 miles west of Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. The remains of many soldiers there were burned beyond recognition.

“It’s a devastating process that we’ve been through,” she said. “Nobody wants to believe,” she said referring to people’s fears that their loved ones were killed.

“The families are still looking. Most of them have to go through the pain of looking for their siblings among corpses,” she said. “But most of these search efforts are useless. Basically, it’s happening because we don’t want to believe.”

Her brother’s son, Rovshan Ismayilov, 21, was drafted after graduating in June from the Azerbaijan University of Cooperation in Baku,where he studied finance. After fighting broke out Sept. 27, he was sent to the front where some of the toughest fighting occurred.

His last call home was Oct. 12. It was not until late last month that official confirmation came and Ismayilov’s body was returned and buried in the Alley of Martyrs in his local area.

Ismayilova said the family was told he died with a group advancing ahead of the main body of Azerbaijani soldiers.

“He wanted to be a hero, and he died a hero,” she said.

Ismayilova said that there was little government information on war casualties, but that relatives and civil society groups had set up WhatsApp channels with information on where to provide DNA to help identify the casualties.

In Stepanakert, the trips from the restaurant to the morgue cannot even bring clarity. Some soldiers’ bodies are unrecognizable.

“Yesterday, they told us they had brought 20 bodies, so we went to the morgue to see if we could identify them,” said a man who spoke anonymously because he was sensitive about discussing grief. “We are sitting there being tortured, and when they call out the names, you are hoping your son’s name is not on the list.”

Vaniskhian does not go to the morgue. He keeps a distance from the other men — out of respect for their pain, he said.

“The difference between them and me is that I know my son is alive,” he said, although he has had no such confirmation. “It’s much harder for them.

“I know he is coming back,” he insisted, smiling. “l will greet him with respect and pride that I have such a hero son who fought for his motherland.”

Another man’s face flushed deep red with emotional and physical stress so severe that volunteers rushed him to the military hospital. He did not want his son to go to the army and had tried to pay a bribe so he could avoid Armenian military service. But his son was determined.

“I don’t care if my son comes back with no limbs. I just want him back,” he said, declining to be named. “Now we have lost the war, we can’t even bury him as a hero.”

A few days later, word came through that his son had been killed.

Dixon reported from Moscow.

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