Armenia: Still Waiting for the Missing

Author: Gayane Mirzoyan

Edition: Unseen Borders

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].”

The village of Aygedzor, an Armenian border settlement of just over 2,000 people, contains two families with missing soldiers from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Sanam Chagharyan’s grandchildren know their uncle -- Chagaryan’s missing son, Aghasi -- only through stories and photos.
As a commemoration from past Christmases, a dried-out fir-tree branch hangs over Aghasi Chagharyan’s portrait.
Aghasi Chagaryan, first from the left, is shown together with friends three to four years before his 1994 disappearance on the Karabakh frontline.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a constant part of the lives of children, like Aghasi Chagaryan’s niece, who live in border villages.
Sanam Chagharyan and her oldest son, Sarkis, a former army officer
Sanam Chagharyan’s neighbors used to work at the Aygedzor post office, where Chagharyan spent months in 1994 trying to get word of her son, Aghasi.

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.

Ijevan, a town of just under 22,000 people, is the administrative center of northeastern Armenia’s Tavush region.
Ijevan resident Marietta Simonyan looks through photos of her husband, Saribek, who disappeared during the Karabakh conflict 27 years ago.
One of the last family photos with Saribek Sarukhanyan (second from the right), taken in 1990.
Dampness from a leaking roof threatens these photographic memories of Saribek Sarukhanyan.
On August 19, 1990, Saribek Sarukhanyan’s empty truck was found on this highway between the villages of Berkaber and Sarigyugh, not far from Azerbaijan.
In April 2017, the International Committee of the Red Cross planted trees in Ijevan’s central square to remember Tavush residents who disappeared during the Karabakh conflict.

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.”

More than 23 years after the ceasefire with Azerbaijan, the Karabakh conflict is still active in the Armenian border village of Voskevan.
“We had good relations with Azerbaijanis all our lives. We would even visit each other,” says Shushan Khachikyan, a resident of the border village of Voskevan. “Who would think that such things could happen one day?”
After 27 years, Shushan Khachikyan has barely any hope left that her husband, Khachik, will return home.

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.” 

The Armenian village of Koti, bordered by Azerbaijan on three sides, was the site of intensive fighting during the early 1990s.
Serob Shahumyan, 62, a former telephone operator, became a volunteer fighter and, later, a signaler for the Armenian army in the Karabakh conflict.
On July 12, 1992, the day he disappeared, 39-year-old Hovsep Shahumyan reportedly went to the nearby woods from this house, his home in Koti with his brother, Serob.
Two of the few photos of the missing Hovsep Shahumyan show him as a student and as a baby with his mother.
Unlike the families of many missing persons, Serob Shahumyan included his brother in a tombstone for his parents. His father, who carved the designs into the tombstone, originally had intended the six-ton piece of rock as a memorial for his own mother.

“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.

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