- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
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 July 11 , 2003 

Battle Lines: How two families became hostage keepers on opposite sides of war

The Red Cross found Liova in Azerbaijan and delivered a Polaroid photo to his family. On it Liova wrote: "From the immortal man. To remember."

It has been eight years since a cease fire was declared between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the conflict in Karabakh.

Periodically there are still agreements reached for releasing Prisoners of War, and with each release a little more is learned about the awful subtleties of neighbors at war.

Like with other war survivors, time passes and old soldiers talk. This is a story of men who met on opposite ends of a gun. Their families never met, but were oddly joined by desperate schemes to save their sons.

The defense of Martakert (1992) was one of the most significant episodes in the Karabakh War (1991-95), when both Armenia and Azerbaijan sustained heavy casualties during battles.

In addition to numerous casualties, among the 900 Armenians who are still listed as Missing In Action, many were from the battles of Martakert. Some Prisoners of War have been returned, thanks mostly to efforts of the International Red Cross. Still, to this day relatives are looking for sons and husbands from those fights.

Since 1991, more than 600 citizens of Armenia have been delivered from captivity with the help of international organizations as well as private individuals.

Fifty year old Liova Harutyunyan is among the lucky whose families were re-united. But the reunion did not come easy . . .

On June 2, 1992, Harutyunyan left his home in the village of Verin Artashat in the Ararat region. He had recently married and had a three-month old son.

"People used to ask me how could I leave my young wife and new-born child and go to the war," the veteran recalls. "My answer was that there are many new-born babies in Karabakh too and that they are helpless and here in Armenia they are in safety."

Soon after he joined the voluntary detachment, Harutyunyan was sent to fight in Maghavuz, a village in the Martakert region. There, Harutyunyan got pinned down by gunfire and was seriously wounded in both legs and an arm.

"When I came to life three Azeries were standing next to me," he recalls. "One of them pointed his gun at me and told his friends that it was better to kill me rather than take me as a hostage, so they wouldn't be overloaded. However, one of them didn't allow the others to kill me and I was taken to a hospital."

Harutyunyan's leg injury became infected, swelled and he was in great pain.

"I lost the hope that I would be able to walk again," he says. "But one day an Azeri doctor approached me in hospital and started to treat my legs. I was surprised at first, but later I realized that there were good people among them as well. That doctor saved my life."

Several days later when Harutyunyan's condition improved, the Azeri soldier who prevented his killing came to the hospital and took Harutyunyan to the Azeri's home.

It turned out that the Azeri soldier's family had a son, Ilham, who was missing and suspected taken by the Armenian side. The family decided to hold Harutyunyan as a potential ransom for their son.

For three years, Harutyunyan was held by the Azeri family. He doesn't say much about that period, but his 79-year old father, Marlen, remembers the pain of not knowing his son's fate.

He was held hostage by an Azeri family for about three years, but Liova Harutyunyan says he would go to war again.

"I was living in Tbilisi for a month," the father recalls. "I met numerous different people including criminal leaders and people reputable in the criminal world. One such person, an Azeri from Marneuli, offered to find and bring my son back for 10 million rubles (about $300,000).

"I was ready to do anything, but the Azeri family keeping my son didn't agree to any offers, saying that they would set Liova free only in exchange for their child."

In 1992-1993, it was common practice for Armenian families to keep Azeri hostages to exchange for Armenian relatives held captive. The Harutyunyans decided to become hostage caretakers in hopes of exchanging for Liova.

Friends serving with Liova brought five hostages from Shushi to Liova's parents' home.

"We were keeping them and continuing to look for Ilham (the Azeri family's son)," Marlen says. "I did everything to find him, however, I couldn't."

Marlen found people in Martakert who knew the soldier who'd taken Liova hostage. But those people said the brother, Ilham, had been killed. Marlen feared telling his son's captors such news.

The Harutyunyans exchanged two of their five hostages for two Armenians (arranged privately by people they didn't know). They continued to keep the other three, hoping that one day their son would be exchanged.

One day the Red Cross brought letters from Azerbaijan to Armenian families, including one for the Harutyunyans.

"I know you kept five Azeries and you exchanged two of them for Armenians," Liova wrote. "They are very thankful. Don't hurt the others and take good care of them. One of them is wounded. Call a doctor to treat him as they call a doctor to take care of me. Be patient until I'm exchanged too. Continue to look for Ilham."

Liova's wife, 29-year-old Naira, says the family took good care of the Azeri soldiers.

"We used to say let's take a good care of them so that God would bring Liova back," says Naira. "I told them we wouldn't forget you and if Liova comes back then we would keep in touch with you."

After learning that the Red Cross had found Liova, his family released the three hostages.

"I took them to Sadakhlo, where their relatives met them," says Marlen.

By that time, Liova had been held captive for two years, 10 months and 10 days. The Red Cross negotiated his release on May 12, 1995, along with 31 others.

Larisa Alaverdyan is president of the non governmental agency, Against Legal Offences, which conducts medical rehabilitation programs for former hostages and POWs. She says men such as Liova need constant care.

"The experience shows that passing years make mental problems of those people more complex," she says. "They must have a permanent place where they would be able to go for help."

Liova Harutyunyan returned to his permanent place in Verin Artashat. The number of his children has increased to include Gor and Armine. Today this family lives by cultivating their own land plots and vine groves.

"If there is peace we will live somehow," Liova says. "And if there will be a war I will again go to defend my homeland."

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  Photos of the week
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The National Chamber Orchestra made a tour of Karabakh last weekend, including an open-air performance at the College of Applied Sciences in Shushi. THe Orchestra is back from a recent tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg.



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