A Former Armenian Prisoner of War Recounts His Horrific Captivity 

“How Can We Peacefully Co-Exist?” A Former Armenian Prisoner of War Recounts His Horrific Captivity

by Lindsey Snell

Arsen Gharayan as seen in a video shared by his Azerbaijani soldier kidnappers. Lindsey Snell.

In mid-October 2020, a representative from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Armenia contacted Anahit Gharayan and asked her to watch a video that Azerbaijani soldiers shared on a Telegram channel. In it, an elderly man is handed a small Azerbaijani flag while soldiers stand around him, demanding that he kiss it. After he complies, one of the soldiers sits down near him. “Are you clean?” the soldier asks in a mocking tone.

Anahit Gharayan recognized the man in the video as her husband, Sasha. Several days earlier, Sasha had disappeared from their home in a Hadrut, a town in Karabakh. “We have lived in Hadrut all our lives,” she said. “My husband never thought the Azerbaijani forces would get to Hadrut. So we thought we were safe staying there during the war.”

On October 9, 2020, Azerbaijan captured Hadrut from Armenian forces. Though most fled, a number of civilians were killed or kidnapped by Azerbaijani forces in the course of the invasion. When Azerbaijani soldiers entered his village, Sasha Gharayan was home alone. “I was working in my garden. Maybe fifteen Azerbaijani soldiers came up to me. I asked what they wanted. They said they were going to take me with them,” he said.

The soldiers took Gharayan to an Azerbaijani colonel stationed at a military point nearby. “They gave me vodka,” he said. “They gave me barbeque. They ate with me. And then the colonel said, ‘Ok, that’s enough. Take him away.’ And I thought they were going to release me and let me go home. But I was wrong.”

When Gharayan learned he’d remain a captive, he asked the Azerbaijani colonel why they wouldn’t release him. “I said I was just a civilian,” he said. “I had no weapon. I’m an old man…I am 74 years old. But the colonel said there was no difference between me and an Armenian soldier, and that I was the enemy, too.”

Azerbaijani soldiers led Gharyan away and began to beat him. “One of them smashed me in the head with the butt of his rifle four times,” he said. “When I fell to the ground, they kicked me. They tied my hands and feet. Then, they threw me in the trunk of a car and drove me away.” Gharayan paused and rolled up his pant leg, showing a deep ligature wound on his left ankle.

Sasha Gharayan. Lindsey Snell.

When they reached their destination, the Azerbaijani soldiers blindfolded Gharayan and took him into a room. He eventually fell asleep. “The next morning, they started to interrogate me,” Gharayan said. “They asked where my weapon was. I told them I didn’t have a weapon. They said if I didn’t say more, that they would shoot me. I told them to go ahead and shoot me, because I was telling them the truth. After that, they didn’t hit me again.

“The place they kept me in wasn’t so bad,” Gharayan continued. “There was a bathroom. They fed me.” During his captivity, the Azerbaijani soldiers guarding Gharayan told him that they’d also captured his son, Arsen, from Hadrut. “They were keeping him in a different place, but I assumed we would both be released,” Gharayan said.

Anahit Gharayan. Lindsey Snell.

Anahit Gharayan discovered that Azerbaijani soldiers had captured their son when a friend called her to tell her she’d seen him in a video shared on a pro-Azerbaijani Telegram channel. In the video, Arsen Gharayan stands in a dim room. Azerbaijani soldiers around him yell at him, telling him to say, “Karabakh is Azerbaijan.”

“My daughter and I cried tears of happiness when we saw this video,” Anahit Gharayan said. “It meant my son was still alive. Before that, we really thought [the Azerbaijanis] had already killed him.”

A few days later, Azerbaijani soldiers shared a second video. In it, Arsen Gharayan sits in the back of a pickup truck. “Say hello to people in Shusha,” a soldier demands. Gharayan did as he was told, but his obedience wasn’t enough for his captors. Within days, the Azerbaijani soldiers had executed him. Azerbaijan turned Arsen Gharayan’s body over to Armenia, and Sasha and Anahit Gharayan’s daughter was asked to identify it.

Sasha Gharayan was released in a prisoner exchange between Armenia and Azerbaijan on December 14, 2020. He expected his son to be released at the same time. After he landed in Yerevan, he was taken to a hospital to receive treatment for the injuries inflicted on him by his captors, including a fractured skull. As he laid in the hospital, he was told his son had been killed.

Today, Sasha Gharayan, his wife Anahit, and three of their children live in a cramped hotel room in Stepanakert. They’ve lost their son, their home, and all of their worldly possessions. “I don’t know how life can go on,” he said. “The Azerbaijanis are still killing us. They still have prisoners. How can we possibly live with them, peacefully co-exist with them?”

According to information compiled by the Artsakh Human Rights Ombudsman, at least 31 Armenian civilians have been murdered in Azerbaijani captivity. The number of Armenian prisoners of war is unknown, but is believed to exceed 100. Most of the captives currently in Azerbaijan’s custody were captured after the ceasefire agreement.

In a February 26, 2021 press conference, Azerbaijani president Aliyev denied that Azerbaijan held Armenian prisoners of war, saying, “We have returned all the prisoners of war. We returned them before they returned our captives to us. And these people are not prisoners of war, they are terrorists, they are saboteurs.”

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