MOSCOW—The last time Ashot Asatryan saw his son Henrik, it was in a video with a clutch of other Armenian soldiers, their hands thrust in the air after their base had been captured by Azeri forces in last year’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Mr. Asatryan’s quest to find out what happened to his 19-year-old son has since taken him into Azeri-held territory with the help of Red Cross officials and Russian peacekeepers in search of clues. Hundreds of other parents are also struggling to find out what became of their children after they were believed to have been taken prisoner in the brutal 44-day conflict.
Their fate, almost four months after a Russian-brokered cease-fire halted the fighting over the disputed enclave, is one of the most polarizing issues in the aftermath of the conflict, as Armenia and Azerbaijan try to find a path to a lasting peace in the volatile South Caucasus nearly 30 years after they first came to blows.
The prisoners of war issue is “a huge obstacle,” said Arman Tatoyan, a lawyer and Armenia’s human rights ombudsman. “It keeps the situation here very tense.”
Armenian officials are reluctant to say how many of its soldiers are believed to be held as POWs in the aftermath of the conflict, which saw Azerbaijan secure control of large swaths of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. The region is largely populated by ethnic Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has been the subject of fighting between the two former Soviet republics since the early 1990s.
Mr. Tatoyan says there are several hundred, while Tanya Lokshina, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, says some 700 people are still missing, including POWs, according to information provided by the office of Nagorno-Karabakh’s president.
Azerbaijan denies holding any POWs. President Ilham Aliyev said last month it had returned all legitimate prisoners of war and other captives. Those still being held are “terrorists and saboteurs,” as he described them, who had attacked Azeri personnel and civilians after the cease-fire was signed.
In an interview earlier this year, Hikmet Hajiyev, chief policy adviser to Mr. Aliyev, denied Azerbaijan is torturing any POWs as Armenia claims, but said charges of war crimes committed during the combat were being investigated and should be punished.
Armenian leaders and human rights activists, though, argue that prisoners are being held as bargaining chips as Azerbaijan attempts to negotiate complete control of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is facing growing demands to step down for signing the cease-fire agreement, has said the POW dispute is “the most sensitive and painful issue,” and is pressing Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene. Armenia says it has returned all the Azeri prisoners it captured, and Azerbaijan should do the same.
“The issue is being politicized,” said Siranush Sahakyan, a lawyer representing more than 100 Armenian families of POWs in an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, where both countries are members. “A humanitarian issue is being interlinked with an issue on a political agenda, which is unacceptable,” she said. “We also know that unjustifiable delays in repatriating POWs is a war crime.”
Russia, which has peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh as part of the cease-fire agreement it brokered, is moving cautiously.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said Mr. Putin is working to ensure that all provisions of the cease-fire are fulfilled and the POW issue was also on the agenda.
“We have a terrible lack of mutual confidence there, so we have to make small steps, one by one, just to firstly create confidence between both sides,” he said.
Meanwhile, Armenian families who fear their sons are being held captive endure a painful wait for news.
Hazarapet Arakelyan hasn’t heard from his son Norik since Oct. 20, when he told his father that he would be home soon. Five days later, Mr. Arakelyan wept as he saw his 30-year-old son in a video shared on social media, his hands bound with a zip tie and speaking awkwardly, as if his teeth had been smashed in.
A voice off-camera shouts the word “Karabakh” over and over. “It’s Azerbaijan,” Mr. Arakelyan responds.
In a similar video, Arsen Karapetyan, a karate enthusiast and volunteer aid driver, is asked to say who has the rights to Nagorno-Karabakh. He, too, says “Azerbaijan.”
“Honestly?” a voice asks.
“Honestly,” Mr. Karapetyan replies, timidly.
Zara Amatuni, a spokeswoman for the Inte`rnational Committee of the Red Cross in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, said it had received more than 12,000 inquiries about missing relatives since the fighting erupted at the end of September. Ms. Lokshina, the Human Rights Watch researcher, said maltreatment of Armenian prisoners, including civilians, includes beatings, torture and verbal abuse, judging from video evidence and interviews she has conducted with released captives. She said one soldier told her he was chained to a radiator and deprived of food for several days. He was allowed to use the toilet once a day.
“Those people should have been released promptly and no kind of ill treatment of POWs or civilian captives should be tolerated,” she said.
Mr. Asatryan, meanwhile, has set out on his own journey to find his son, Henrik. The last time he spoke with him was the day before the conflict began. Henrik, a talented singer who also plays the traditional Armenian wind instrument, the duduk, had been conscripted into the army in 2019, before he could enroll at conservatory where he had been accepted the same year.
In the phone call, Mr. Asatryan recalled his son seeming sad and tired.
After spotting him held captive in a video clip, Mr. Asatryan set out for Henrik’s last known location, the village of Talish, where his base had been overrun by Azeri forces. He was encouraged by the fact that Henrik wasn’t pictured in some of the other footage he saw that emerged from Nagorno-Karabakh, in which he said he saw some of his son’s friends had been killed, their bodies strewn across the ground.
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Mr. Asatryan left his home in Gyumri, near Armenia’s border with Turkey, and headed east toward an area of Nagorno-Karabakh now controlled by Azerbaijan.
With the help of the Red Cross, the Azeri military and Russian peacekeepers, Mr. Asatryan then found his way to the town of Talish. Henrik wasn’t there, but Mr. Asatryan found a flak jacket emblazoned with his name and some of his papers in a pocket.
“When I found the flak vest, an Azeri colonel was there,” Mr. Asatryan said. “I asked, ‘Can I take the vest? This vest was worn by my son.’”
“And he said to me, ‘What you see, what you want—take it, no need to ask any more.’ He was a good man,” Mr. Asatryan said.
Since then, there has been no word of what happened to his son.
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