“Baku and Barda has registered approximately 3700 persons as missing around 80% of which were combatants”
APA News Agency has had an interview with Elena Ajmone Sessera, Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Delegation in Azerbaijan
- Few months have passed since your appointment as a head of ICRC Delegation in Azerbaijan. What are the main works done under your supervision?
- I started my work as the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Azerbaijan in March and soon after, the April escalation happened. That was challenging for me, being new in the country, I still had to learn a lot about the context, but my previous operational experiences helped me to quickly adapt ICRC response to the situation. We did our best to support civilians in need on both sides of the frontline and still continue our activities to alleviate the suffering of those who face challenges in their everyday life due to the proximity to the conflict. The ICRC has expanded its budget for 2016 to meet the needs of civilians who suffered in the April escalation.
- What is ICRC doing on frontline areas to support civilians facing conflict situations?
- ICRC works both on the Line of Contact and International Border, from its delegations in Baku and Yerevan, the office in Barda and the mission in Nagorno-Karabakh to address the consequences of the conflict. After the escalation in April we mainly focused on supporting people to meet some of their immediate needs and resume their livelihoods. The intensification of fighting along the Line of Contact led to the destruction of infrastructure, including homes and water systems, and to the loss of crops. Furthermore, the security situation and the presence of Explosive Remnants of War (EWR) have hindered or prevented people from farming. The ICRC immediately began assisting conflict victims on both sides of the Line of Contact. In close coordination with Azerbaijan Red Crescent society the ICRC provided assistance to civilians in Aghdam and Goranboy districts mainly, with economic support for renting accommodation for those households whose houses were destroyed while the reconstruction by Azerbaijan Agency for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Areas was ongoing. Immediately after the escalation AZRCS and ICRC provided tarpaulins to those families who had their houses damaged, allowing them to do some basic repairs. Over 1500 farmers who lost their livestock or harvest received compensation or seeds and tools to prepare the next harvest while in 18 communities daily workers were enrolled in a cash-for-work project. ICRC also supported authorities and communities in 21 villages of Terter, Aghdam, Fuzuli and Goranboy to repair water infrastructure.
With the support of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Defense we organized seminar on War Surgery and Emergency Room Trauma Course for the health staff working in facilities near the front line; in close cooperation with the AZRCS we also organized First Aid Training for the frontline communities.
The ICRC and Azerbaijani Red Crescent (AzRCS) also work with the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) to raise awareness of threats posed by Explosive Remnants of War (ERW), through risk-education sessions.
One has to consider that living in areas so close to the frontline for many years may have a strong impact on the psychological wellbeing of people, and in particular women and children. ICRC and AZRCS, in close coordination with local and national authorities will put on pace programs to support communities in overcoming and managing stress related to the conflict.
Last but not least, one of the most important parts of our work is to engage in a constant confidential and bilateral dialogue with the conflicting sides in regard to their obligations to respect international humanitarian law (IHL) especially regarding the conduct of hostilities, the protection of civilians and the need for extra precautions – for instance, when civilians or humanitarian actors carry out work close to the front lines.
- During April battles Armenian side informed that quite a few number of military went missing and the bodies were left on the battle field. Were there any missing people registered? How many dead people left on the battle field were then returned back?
- Thanks to operations of search and retrieval of bodies that the sides carried out with participation of the ICRC and theOSCE, and thanks to two operations of transfer of bodies carried out in agreement with the sides by the ICRC in its capacity of neutral intermediary there are no soldiers unaccounted for from the events of April 2016. This is a very important result that is fundamental for the families of those fallen in battle. On the figures, this is not information the ICRC discloses publicly, it is up to the sides to decide if and how inform on such figures.
- How many people are being held by the conflicting sides currently?
Currently the ICRC is visiting two Azerbaijanis held in Nagorno-Karabakh and one Armenian prisoner of War (PoW) detained in Baku.
- How many people are registered as missing by ICRC? And how many of those are from Azerbaijan?
- Today we have approximately 4500 missing in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. These are people who went missing at the beginning of the 90s. Our offices in Baku and Barda has registered approximately 3700 persons as missing around 80% of which were combatants.
- How many people were released from captivity with the ICRC assistance since opening of its Delegation in Azerbaijan?
I would like to clarify here that ICRC has no role in the decision of releasing someone, which is a decision that can be taken only by detaining authorities and governments. Our role is to facilitate the hand over between the sides once the decision of releasing them has been taken at the political level.
In terms of handover, we estimate that over 700 people have been returned home with the support of the ICRC offices in Nagorno-Karabakh, Baku and Yerevan since the beginning of ICRC activities in 1992. However, consider that in the early years of the war, things were very chaotic and at times people were captured and then returned without ICRC involvement.
- In September of this year, the State Commission on Prisoners of War, Hostages and Missing Persons informed that there is no photos of more than 100 missing people. The Commission asked family members, relatives, friends and acquaintance of those people to assist to find photos. Does ICRC have any cooperation with the Commission on this issue?
- We work closely with the State Commission and especially its Working Group to clarify the fate of missing people in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Jointly with the State Commission and Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society, between 2008 and 2011 Detailed Data about the missing people was collected and is gradually being processed by the State Commission. In addition, we are collecting biological reference samples from the relatives of those who are still missing. This is done together with the State Commission and the hospital of the State Security Service.
The ICRC supports the State Commission in collecting and centralizing information that can help clarify the fate of missing persons. This also includes visual material, such as photos. Some of the families of the missing persons may not have photos of their loved ones.
- Denise Duran, previous Head of ICRC Delegation in Azerbaijan in her interview to APA mentioned that Biological Reference Sample Collection (BRSC) had started. How many BRSCs have been collected?
- The project has been implemented in Baku, Absheron, Sumgait and Salyan so far. We are in a process of the BRSC in Neftchala and then will continue in neighboring districts. To date, the State Commission on Prisoners of War, Hostages and Missing Persons and the ICRC have collected more than 3000 samples.
These samples are being stored by the Hospital of the State Security Service so that one day it will be possible to make DNA comparisons to try to identify the human remains which may be exhumed and returned to their families. This way, some families might one day know what happened to their loved ones and be able to begin their true grieving process. Collecting all these biological samples will take some years. There are about 3,700 missing Azerbaijanis and we need to collect samples from between 3 and 6 biological family members of each missing person so that a forensic identification might be possible. It’s a huge task that is done jointly between the ICRC and the State Commission.
- What is being done to return Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev to the Azerbaijani side?
- ICRC has no role in the decision of releasing and returning people detained. Such decision as mentioned before lies at the political level. Once a release is decided, ICRC steps in as neutral intermediary to facilitate the handover at the border or the Line of Contact.
Meanwhile, ICRC regularly visits the detained within its mandate to visit people deprived of their liberty, be it in relation to the conflict or not. This mandate stems from the Geneva Conventions. The ICRC visits are carried out to assess the conditions and treatment in detention and ensure that family contact is maintained through letters exchanged between the families and the detainees (Red Cross Messages).
- Have you discussed with the sides a possibility of communication via Skype or any other visual way of communication between Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev and their families?
- The ICRC dialogue with the sides on any specific issue remains for the institution confidential and bilateral. In general, ICRC puts all possible efforts to always ensure family links are established and maintained in the best achievable way.
- Different information about the bad health conditions of Dilgam and Shahbaz was spread in media. The families also mentioned that they have serious health problems. What can the ICRC say about this?
- Detainee can inform his/her family about the health issues. But the ICRC does not publicly disclose private information of the visited detainees. I can only assure that the ICRC pays serious attention to the health services provided to detainees. An integral part of our visits to detention facilities worldwide is to check treatment, detention conditions and services provided to detainees. We also have ICRC doctors to participate in visits and check if medical treatment is provided. The ICRC doctor regularly visits both the two Azerbaijanis detained in Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian Prisoner of War in Baku. But I want to stress that detaining authorities bears responsibility for the healthcare of detained.
- A lot of Azerbaijani citizens have been participating in the battles in Syria. Has any family member requested your assistance to clarify their fates? In general, are you involved in learning/ finding their fates?
- The ICRC in Azerbaijan has been approached by few family members who tried to trace their close relatives in Syria. Provided that detailed information is made available by the families with regard to Azerbaijani nationals in Syria, the ICRC Delegation in Baku can open Tracing Requests for them. Unfortunately, in these few cases the requirement of having detailed information was not met. The situation in Syria is precarious and ICRC's tracing activities are confronted with difficulties.