“In marshy fields and mountain slopes, in hard-to-reach areas overgrown with bushes, littered with mines and unexploded ordnances, dozens of men and women have been searching for and finding the remains of fallen soldiers for more than a year,” the International Committee of the Red Cross said about the consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020.
About 300 people are still missing as a result of the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020. Since the ceasefire agreement was signed in November 2020, the remains of more than 1,700 people have been found and the process of identifying them and returning them to their families has begun.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, together with Russian peacekeepers, has conducted about 360 searches for human remains, supporting local rescue teams in their work.
“Nothing can bring their loved ones back but giving these hundreds of families a chance to know what happened is incredibly important. Conditions are always extremely dangerous because the terrain is littered with mines and unexploded ordnances, and on top of that, in winter visibility drops to almost zero,” said Christopher Poole, who leads ICRC’s regional specialists in landmines, explosive remnants of war, stockpiles and small arms.
“In order to retrieve these remains, recovery teams must face mortal danger. It is not just about treating the dead with dignity, but also doing it safely. Our teams support local specialists as they do this,” Poole said.
Restoration work is often put on hold for a variety of reasons, including winter conditions. These operations are part of the ICRC’s longstanding work as a neutral intermediary in the region since 1992.
The ICRC’s forensic experts also assist mortuaries in the region by providing cold storage, equipment and advice to groups undertaking the difficult task of identification.
“Retrieving human remains, identifying the victims and returning them to their families is complex and takes time. There is always a lot of pressure on forensic practitioners from authorities and families to work as quickly as possible, but there is no margin for error,” said Jane Taylor, ICRC’s regional forensics manager for Europe and Central Asia.
In addition to the hundreds of people missing in the November 2020 escalation, more than 4,500 people went missing as a result of the 1990s conflict.
“People going missing and families not knowing what happened to them is one of the most agonizing and often overlooked scars left by conflict. Thousands of families across Europe today are living with this pain.
Besides those affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there are hundreds of people missing in Ukraine after almost eight years of conflict, for example, and more than 10,000 people missing in the Balkans,” said Martin Schüepp, ICRC’s regional director for Europe and Central Asia.