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Caucasus: 'Frozen Conflicts' Still Freezing Issue Of Missing People

Ethnic Armenian soldiers during the war for Nagorno-Karabakh (file photo) (Photolur) Well over a decade after conflicts in the South Caucasus froze, the International Committee of the Red Cross says new cases of missing people continue to emerge. Significant progress will, it fears, have to wait for final peace agreements.

PRAGUE, April 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnic conflicts in the 1990s claimed tens of thousands of lives in the South Caucasus. Some 15 years later, many families are still searching for information about relatives who disappeared without a trace in the fighting.

Groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are part of efforts to ascertain the fate of people who went missing in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. And this was one of the key issues on the agenda of the ICRC's president, Jakob Kellenberger, when he toured the South Caucasus between April 3 and April 9 to meet with the presidents and other senior officials of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to discuss humanitarian issues related to the region's so-called "frozen conflicts." Isabelle Barras, the ICRC's head of operations for Eastern Europe and a member of the ICRC delegation, spoke on her return to RFE/RL.

RFE/RL: How many people are still unaccounted for from the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, where a fragile cease-fire has been in place since 1994?

"Fourteen years after the start of the conflict and 12 years after the signing of the cease-fire in this region, we are still opening cases."

Isabelle Barras: The figures are evolving, actually. It might sound a bit strange, but 14 years after the start of the conflict and 12 years after the signing of the cease-fire in this region, we are still opening cases. There are still families approaching the ICRC with old cases of people who have gone missing. And the figures that the authorities have and that the ICRC has collected directly from the families are not always the same. So far, as far as the ICRC is concerned, in relation with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, we have 3,750 total cases of people who have gone missing. That means Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and people from Nagorno-Karabakh, although the majority of them are Azerbaijanis. Those are the current figures. But again, we are opening new cases almost every day.

RFE/RL: In addition to tracking data related to individual cases of missing persons, what other work is the ICRC doing on this issue?

Barras: There is also some work that can be done with the families, some psychological support that can be offered. Unfortunately, in such matters, we have to work on the basis of the fact that most of the cases are people who have died. We know that one of the solutions might be that it will at some point be possible to proceed with exhumations. And then there will be all the identifications. This means that you have to get as much information as possible to make a link between human remains and a person in one of those cases. And that's a process that is going to start in the three countries. It has been done already partly in Georgia, and it will start in Azerbaijan and then in Armenia -- to collect that information and keep it and record it properly, so that at the moment of exhumation it will be useful for identification.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, at a treatment center for prisoners with tuberculosis in Azerbaijan (courtesy of the ICRC)

RFE/RL: There is also the issue of prisoners of war (POWs) and of soldiers and civilians detained for crossing the Azerbaijani-Armenian border or violating the line of contact with Nagorno-Karabakh. Is the ICRC involved in securing the release of such POWs? And how many such cases are there?

Barras: This is of course something that we have been doing for quite a long time. We do not have a population of prisoners of war we [have been visiting] for a long time, because usually they repatriate people quite quickly. And the ICRC is acting there as a neutral intermediary between both sides, and so has to organize the repatriation of the person, after, of course, having confirmed that he is willing to go back to his place of origin. Since the very beginning of this kind of activity, we have been involved in 656 such repatriations. Its not always a prisoner of war, of course -- sometimes it's a civilian person. This does happen also, that a civilian crosses the border -- sometimes by mistake, simply.

RFE/RL: Kellenberger's trip also focused on Georgia's separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. What kinds of issues does the ICRC deal with there?

Barras: The issue of missing persons is also one of the most important cases being followed by the ICRC in Georgia. The number of cases is a bit lower than in Armenia and Azerbaijan. We're speaking about around 2,000 persons who have gone missing. This is in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but the biggest number is concerning Abkhazia.

RFE/RL: There is also the issue of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting between Georgian and separatist troops in 1992-93. Does the ICRC also work with issues of internally displaced people (IDPs)?

Barras: We know there are discussions about the possible return of IDPs, more particularly in the region of Gali, between Abkhazia and western Georgia. This is something that we follow in terms of whether there is the possibility or necessity for us to be involved. If at one point this repatriation is organized, we would probably be ready to do something. But we are not part of the discussions about those returns. I know that it is more discussed with the United Nations system, and we follow that. But the ICRC is not directly part of those talks.

RFE/RL: In the case of Abkhazia, communication between the two sides is said to be virtually nonexistent. The situation is hardly better in terms of Armenia and Azerbaijan in dealing with Nagorno-Karabakh. Is it possible for the ICRC to do its work in situation where there are few, if any, official negotiations on such politically delicate issues?

Barras: I think it's important to understand that in relation to such a sensitive case, it's very rare that we can make significant progress in the absence of a peaceful resolution of the conflict. As you know, all the conflicts in this region are unsolved -- they are still ongoing, even if they're no longer in the acute phase. We are in situations that have not been solved politically. And this is definitely very difficult, in the absence of a peace settlement, to have concrete progress. But nevertheless there are a lot of things that can be done in order to prepare the ground for when there will be a possibility to go ahead with a more concrete solution.

RFE/RL: Russia has a significant influence in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, something that has angered officials in Tbilisi and decreased the likelihood of a settlement anytime soon. Does the ICRC deal with Russia when it comes to its work in those two separatist regions?

Barras: Our main discussions on what we are doing in Abkhazia and South Ossetia would definitely be with the Georgian government.

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