Sanam Chagharyan first sensed something terrible had happened to her 20-year-old son Aghasi, an Armenian soldier serving on the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline, when she could no longer reach him by phone. More than 23 years later, she still does not know where he is.
“I went to the post office and tried to talk to my son on the phone,” recollects Chagharyan, a 66-year-old resident of Aygedzor, an Armenian village a few kilometers from the Azerbaijani border. “Every time [I called,] different soldiers would answer my call, trying to hide that he’s not in the military unit.”
Chagharyan says she spent days and nights in Aygedzor’s post office, using its public phone. It took three months for her to learn about an Azerbaijani ambush on her son’s eight-person unit. The Armenian army never confirmed his death.
To this day, she believes Aghasi, the youngest of her three sons, is alive.
“I think that it’s not possible that my son is dead. He’s not one of those guys [who died].”
Chagharyan is not alone in her desperate hope to believe that a missing loved one somehow survived the 1991-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which tries to trace these individuals and support their families, estimates that 4,500 Armenians and Azerbaijanis are still missing from the conflict.
The Armenian border region of Tavush contains 15 of the 400 cases of missing people registered in various databases, the Armenian Red Cross Society states.
View Map of Missing People in Armenia in a full screen map
Before the war, local interaction with neighboring Azerbaijani villages had been common in this region. Sometimes, that initially facilitated getting snippets of information about the missing. But, ultimately, as the conflict worsened and the border closed, those leads came to an end.
The ICRC states that reports differ about what happened to Aghasi Chagharyan, whether he was killed or taken prisoner into Azerbaijan. His mother, who suffered a nervous breakdown over her son’s disappearance, chooses to believe the latter.
In the Tavush regional seat of Ijevan, a town about 131 kilometers to the west of Aygedzor, another 70-year-old woman clings to an even thinner sliver of hope.
Inside Maretta Simonyan’s house, a large portrait features her husband of 13 years, Saribek Sarukhanyan, as she last saw him – a 41-year-old father of three. Sarukhanyan, a truck driver, disappeared sometime around August 19, 1990, when his empty truck was found on the highway between the villages of Berkaber and Sarigyugh, near today’s Armenian-Azerbaijani border. What happened to him is unknown.
At the time, with tensions over Karabakh heating up, kidnappings were not unusual in this area. But appeals to law enforcement and the ICRC turned up nothing.
Working as a sales clerk, Simonyan brought up her children alone. Two of her daughters went on to attend university. Her son became a truck driver like his father.
This son now undertakes tasks, like house repairs, that would have fallen to his father, but that does not mean that Simonyan acknowledges her husband’s death.
“If he now opens the door and comes in, I won’t be surprised. I’m always waiting for him.”
About a three-and-a-half-hour drive northeast of Ijevan, 63-year-old Shushan Khachikyan, who married straight out of high school, well knows what that wait is like.
After fighting over Karabakh began in the late 1980s, Khachikyan’s husband, Khacik, a Djoghaz reservoir engineer, became one of the men from the couple’s village of Voskevan who volunteered to guard the hamlet. On July 24, 1990, he left for his shift at work and never returned.
Word eventually came from the nearby Azerbaijani village of Baghanis Ayrum that Khachikyan, 40, had been taken hostage.
Even so, for many years, the family didn’t lose hope that Khachikyan would return.
The conflict’s impact lingered in other ways as well. One of the couple’s three sons lost his hand in a landmine explosion; another had his leg badly damaged.
Khachikyan, who now runs a village shop, has not let these events discourage her.
“I brought up all of my three sons and my daughter by myself and tried to be independent. . . I used to carry fruit on my back and sell it to feed them and give them a higher education,” she says. “Today, when people complain about life, I just tell them to go and work.”
It was work, though, that kept Serob Shahumyan from joining the other men of his village, Koti, in evacuating their families when artillery shelling intensified in June 1992.
Shahumyan, an army signaler, had to stay put. At home with him was his 39-year-old brother, Hovsep, who, Shahumyan says, was intellectually challenged.
“On July 12, 1992, I was on a mission,” the now 62-year-old man recounts. “In the evening, my brother was missing. I remembered that he had wanted to go into the forest to collect wood. I [thought I] had talked him out of that idea, but, eventually, [it seems that] he went.”
A search began immediately, but Shahumyan’s missing brother could not be found. The only chance for information was at the border post of Berdavan, 150 kilometers to the north, where Azerbaijani and Armenian civilians still had contact.
There, Shahumyan learned through an intermediary that a person answering his brother’s description was in a neighboring Azerbaijani village. Those holding the individual “promised to state a ransom and we agreed to meet after 10-15 days,” he says. “However, they didn’t get back in touch again.”
“I feel that he’s not alive anymore; he wouldn’t be kept as a hostage for so long,” Shahumyan continues. “I wish that I had his remains through the Red Cross to bury in his homeland.”
After a family discussion, Shahumyan ultimately included his brother’s portrait and name on their parents’ tombstone. There is no date of death.