Javid Valiyev


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Remnants of the Karabakh wars: Missing civilians, mines and WAC

2023-08-31 11:44

The two Karabakh wars have, over the last 30 years, claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, ruined cities and livelihoods in the region, and resulted in the forcible expulsion of over 1 million people from their homes and properties. The Armenian armed forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide in the course of the aggression. The occupation and massacres carried out by Armenian military forces in the territory of Azerbaijan had effectively been approved by the decisions of international organizations.

However, in 2020, Azerbaijan ended the occupation by using its right of self-defense arising from the four resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council in 1993. Nevertheless, the problems created by the Karabakh wars continue. These problems concern missing people, mines in the liberated territories, and Azerbaijanis who cannot return to their homeland.

On Aug. 3, 2023, the families of some of the missing applied to the U.N. and requested Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to call on Armenia to provide information about the fate of the missing persons and to reveal the locations of mass graves to the Azerbaijani side. These families also demanded the appointment of a U.N. special rapporteur on missing persons.

Torture and violence

According to information from the State Commission on Prisoners of War, Hostages and Missing Persons established in Azerbaijan in 1993, as of Aug. 16, 2023, 3,888 citizens of Azerbaijan, 3,170 of them servicemen and 718 civilians, were registered missing in connection with the conflict. Of the civilians, 71 are children, 266 are women and 326 are elderly. It has been established that 871 of the 3,888 missing persons were taken as either prisoners of war or hostages, including 604 servicemen and 267 civilians, of whom 29 were children, 98 were women and 112 were elderly. Through the analysis of the materials received by the State Commission, it is known that 550 people were killed in captivity.

A clear list of missing Azerbaijani citizens has been submitted to Armenia through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and is regularly updated. Armenia is in breach of international law for refusing to account for the missing, as well as for refusing to conduct a prompt and effective investigation into the fate of the missing people and into the evidence that at least 871 of them were taken into its custody and have not been seen since. Armenia is also in violation of international law where the additional suffering imposed upon the relatives of the missing persons is concerned, owing to the obstructive attitude it has adopted in this matter.

The testimonies of prisoners who were rescued from captivity or who managed to escape in the period before the war suggest that all of those who disappeared were killed. While women were abused, men had to endure hard labor. For example, most of them were employed in dismantling tombstones and houses in occupied territories. Some of them were employed in the homes of the invading Armenian generals. Many of them were shot and the rest died in the misery of starvation. Despite violating the international laws of war, the Armenian side has faced no sanctions.

However, with the discovery of 10 mass graves in a short time after the war, the fate of these people began to emerge. One mass grave was found in Başlibel village of the Kelbejer district; three in Edilli village of the Hocavend district; one in Farrukh village of the Hocalı district; two in Dashaltı village of the Shusha district; two in Shusha city; and one mass grave was discovered in Sarıcalı village of the Ağdam district. So far, the bones of 51 people have been found in these graves. Many of these bones show indications of torture.

War mines

With the emergence from the decades of occupation, one of the most important questions remaining concerns the mines laid in the occupied territories. According to Hikmat Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to the president of Azerbaijan, over 1 million mines were laid in this region during the occupation period. These mines prevent the return of the civilian population to their homeland and delay reconstruction work in the region. In the post-occupation period, feverish work was being carried out with the support of friendly and allied states to clear these mines. Azerbaijan has repeatedly appealed to Armenia and demanded the correct map of the mines laid during the occupation period, but the maps provided are only 25% accurate. Since the end of the Second Karabakh War on July 10, 2023, only 51,000 mines and items of unexploded ordnance have been neutralized.

According to Azerbaijan National Mine Agency information, from 1991 to July 17, 2023, 3,382 people were injured in mine explosions – 357 of them children and 38 women. Since the Second Karabakh War ended in November 2020 up to July 17, 2023, there have been in total of 303 mine explosions that have led to deaths, injuries or other harm. These have involved 141 civilians (42 killed, 99 injured) and 162 military personnel (13 killed, 149 injured). Of the civilians, 39% were visiting their homeland, 21% were involved in infrastructure works, 19% were on duty, including mine clearance, and 21% were involved in agricultural activity.

One of the problems created by the First Karabakh War was that Azerbaijanis were expelled from their historical homelands in Armenia and could not return. Between 1987 and the outbreak of the First Karabakh War, about 250,000 Azerbaijanis living in Armenia were forcibly expelled from their own lands. Becoming organized after the Second Karabakh War, these Azerbaijanis call themselves the Western Azerbaijan Community (WAC) and have appealed to international organizations and Armenian officials to create the opportunity for their return. However, the Armenian side still does not respond positively to these calls and does not feel pressure from international organizations in this direction.

To sum up, Armenia, which has avoided fulfilling its responsibilities after the Second Karabakh War, continues to create obstacles to solving the problems created by the First Karabakh War. The three issues mentioned above are important components of the Armenia-Azerbaijan normalization process. But instead of meeting these demands in a way that will serve regional peace and cooperation, Armenia prefers moves that will distract attention from these issues. For this reason, the country is using the Lachin road for political purposes. However, it is difficult to talk about real and fair normalization between the two countries until these three issues are resolved.

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