BY JASMINE H. SEYMOUR
It is hard to imagine what this friendly face with a Mona Lisa smile might look like now, in captivity for almost four months. The ordeal of Maral Najarian and her distressed family is inconceivable for those who have not been through wars, captivity, and brutal exploitation.
The international media and decision makers of the free world once again display double standards dealing with humanitarian disasters. While the disappearance (voluntarily) of the daughter of Dubai’s ruler was treated as major international calamity, the destiny of hundreds of Armenian POWs, including women and civilians, tortured, and abused in Azerbaijani prisons, does not concern the leading international media.
Since the trilateral Ceasefire Statement between Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenian ending the war over the control of Nagorno-Karabakh, over 230 POWs are still unlawfully held by Azerbaijan. This violates article 8 of the above Statement, as well as the III Geneva Convention on Prisoners of war. The Convention establishes the principle that prisoners of war must be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities (Article 118). Not only existing POWs have only partially been returned (total of 64), but new hostages – civilians and soldiers – have been taken by the Azeri forces, who gained the control over 75 percent of Nagorno-Karabakh after the 44-day-war in autumn 2020. Evidence of inhuman abuse and torture of Armenian POWs, has been reported across international media, including ISIS-style beheadings by the Azeri militants of an elderly civilian and soldiers.
A few weeks ago, a petition to release all Armenian Prisoners of war and captives, was initiated by the British Armenian humanitarian group, which has already amassed over 16.500 signatures, and the number is increasing daily. Amid the political and social chaos reigning in Armenia since the Ceasefire of 9 November, it is unclear for distressed families of POWs where to turn for help.
Maral Najarian’s sister, Annie, has been campaigning tirelessly for her sister’s release since her capture on 10 November 2020. After the Beirut blasts of the last summer, the sisters decided to move permanently to Armenia on 24 August for a peaceful life. The reality for them turned out anything but peaceful, with Maral in captivity in Baku, and Annie alone in Yerevan, trying to survive and to fight for her sister’s release. Jasmine Seymour, is one of the founding members of the group, who held an exclusive interview with Annie Najarian this week, that we bring to your attention.
JASMINE SEYMOUR: Can you please give some background about your family and your life back in Lebanon?
ANNIE NAJARIAN: We are Armenians from Lebanon, born and bred in Beirut, we are a large extended family – I have 6 siblings. My grandparents were from Kilis and Aintab in Western Armenian, now part of modern Turkey. After the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923, they escaped their homeland via Syria and settled in Beirut, Lebanon. My sister Maral is in her 40s, the second eldest among siblings. She has two children in their twenties and lost her husband three year ago.
J.S.: Why did Maral decide to move to Armenia?
A.N: Maral came to Armenia a year ago together with her two children to settle down but returned to Lebanon because of the pandemic. When I made the decision to move to Armenia, she told me she would also repatriate. We decided to arrange everything and then bring our children. We came on 25 August without our children. We went to Nagorno-Karabakh in mid-September, then unexpectedly, Azerbaijan started a wide-scale military assault on Karabakh. Our lives were shattered once again.
J.S.: Did you have any idea of the threat of war?
A.N: We had no idea about that. When we moved to Karabakh, there were 4 other Lebanese-Armenian families with us, more families arrived by mid-September. We were placed in hotels in Karabakh. As far as I know, everyone went back to Yerevan because of the war.
J.S.: What did the Armenian government offer to Lebanese Armenians?
A.N.: We learnt there was a scheme to help people to repatriate from the diaspora to Karabakh. They promised us housing and work permit. We are hardworking people and we decided to make our home in Karabagh. We wanted to open a small restaurant or a hairdressing salon, since Maral is a hairdresser.
J.S.: What happened next?
A.N.: On 26 September we left the town of Shushi, as we both suffered from hypertension. We could not adapt to Shushi’s high altitude, so we decided to settle in Berdzor (Lachin). We stayed in a hotel in Berdzor, when the war started the next day, on September 27.
J.S.: Where were you during the war?
A.N.: We stayed for a week or 10 days after the start of the war, but when the bombing of the Lachin corridor by Azerbaijani forces started, we decided to go back to Yerevan to stay with our maternal aunt. Afterwards, we rented a house near Yerevan, but after Maral was taken captive, I have moved back with my aunt.
J.S.: What happened to Maral?
A.N.: We read on Facebook that Ceasefire Statement had been signed, so we called the hotel employee to ask whether we could go back to retrieve our luggage. Maral went to Karabakh with Vicken Euljekjian, a Lebanese-Armenian friend of ours, a driver. I didn’t know that Maral and Vicken would also go to Shushi. Our luggage was in Lachin, but Vicken’s stuff was in Shushi.
J.S.: When did you hear that they had been detained?
A.N.: We learnt from Facebook posts that Shushi had been taken. We did not yet know they were taken hostage. Only a fortnight later we received messages via Maral’s messenger. Maral’s Facebook account showed she was online, so when we messaged her, Azerbaijanis replied. They gave contradictory messages, once they said they had killed her, then they said she was alive, they were agonizing us with those messages which lasted for days.
J.S.: What about Vicken?
A.N.: Whatever has been published on YouTube, that he has been charged with terrorism, that’s all we know. His family still lives in Lebanon and they are looking for him, my family have been more vociferous and actively campaigning for Maral. We’ve been told to stay away from social media, but I believe if we get media attention, hopefully, they would be more watchful and not torture her. We were desperate because we didn’t know how she was. We believe that they have mistreated and abused Maral, that is why the Azerbaijani authorities did not allow the Red Cross to visit Maral until now.
I believe there are good and bad people in every country. There are people who have a conscience and there are cruel people. I just hope Maral is in the hands of more considerate Azerbaijanis, but we don’t really know.
J.S.: What about the International Red Cross in charge of repatriating prisoners or war?
A.N.: Following our pleas, the Lebanese government interfered, and the International Red Cross was allowed to visit Maral and Vicken on the same day on 12 February for the first time in three months! They are kept in the same prison but in different sections. They reported they are both ok. We must wait until they release Maral. After that we will see what steps we need to take. I am very upset with the fake news being spread, how dare people speak about my sister’s situation without checking their sources? I am not only speaking for my sister, but for all POW’s, every single one of them must come home. There are over 230 Armenian POW’s.
J.S.: Do you know if the POW’s are held in the same prison or different prisons?
A.N.: All I have heard is that all the Armenian POW’s are held in a prison in Gobustan, some 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Baku. But I have also heard that after being interrogated, some may have been taken to Baku.
J.S.: Why do you think Maral and the other civilians are being held?
A.N.: The only reason is that they are Armenian. The more people they hold captive, the more they manipulate the negotiations and get more concessions from the Armenian side.
After our interview, Annie Najarian confirmed that after ten days, the Red Cross has finally handed over Maral’s letter to her children in Beirut and her sister in Yerevan, where Maral wrote that she was doing well, but had no idea when she would be released.
Following Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s announcement of February 26 that Azerbaijan had returned all Armenian POWs already (total of 64), and that everyone captured after the Ceasefire was a terrorist, the human rights lawyer Siranush Sahakyan representing families of 95 POWs at the European Human Rights Court (ECtHR), and Human Rights Ombudsman Arman Tatoyan condemned Aliyev’s distortion of facts and evidence. In her interview to the Armenian TV H1, Miss Sahakyan confirmed that Azerbaijan was still holding Armenian POWs taken before the Ceasefire of 9 November, that Azerbaijan has previously acknowledged to the European Court. Human Rights Defender, in his turn, strongly condemned Aliyev’s deceitful statement, ‘’I emphasize once again that, regardless of the date of captivity, all servicemen of the Armenian side detained in Azerbaijan, as well as civilians, are prisoners of war by their status’’ .
The group British Armenian continues to campaign for the families of victims urging world leaders and international organizations to take immediate action to release all Armenian POWs and civilians. Maral is one of them, an innocent casualty, who, dreaming of a peaceful life, happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.