Q. Mrs Denise, it has been 3 years that you have been appointed as the Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Delegation in Azerbaijan. Your mission here is completed now. How would you assess the activities of the ICRC during this period? What has the Delegation done in Azerbaijan during these 3 years?
A. In these three years we continued to focus on our two core activities: frontline civilians and missing and their families.
On the frontline: our teams are there every week, giving economic support in some to the most exposed and vulnerable villages. We also help the families whose houses are very close to the military positions to redesign their homes so that doors and windows that face the frontline are closed off with bricks. In some cases, we build a small protective wall around a part of their home so that at least one room in the house is safe when shooting starts. The most dangerous thing for them to do is to run out of the house. With ICRC support to redesign their homes, they can take shelter in their safe room and wait for the shooting to stop. In 2014, ICRC was given permission to go to some villages we could not previously visit: we appreciated this sign of confidence from the government and were able to offer our program to more needy people.
Since 2014 we see that the tension is high and we see the effect it is having on the villagers living close by the frontline. If a civilian is wounded because of the shooting, or suffers a mine accident, ICRC field teams visit them and offer support to help. Sometimes that means financial support, sometimes it means discussing their situation with service providers who can help them. The Azerbaijan Red Crescent Society (AzRCS) district branch staff also follow up these victims directly affected by the conflict. The AzRCS and the ICRC have been unfortunately very busy with this in the last three years, we witnessed since 2014 an escalation and we see the impact on the nearby villages.
On the Missing, we kept our work going with the families of the missing and with the State Commission on prisoners of war, hostages and missing persons. As you know, many people lost a loved one from the war and they live in a strange situation where they want to believe their family member is still alive, but after all these years, sadly, it is more likely that their loved one has died and the death was not reported to them. So the family, especially mothers and wives, live in this ambiguous situation of not knowing for sure what happened to their loved one. It is psychologically very difficult for them. ICRC helps them meet with others who suffer from the same grief and we accompany them to find solutions for some of their daily problems. ICRC identifies people, mostly mothers and wives, who have a missing relative and who can really understand and sympathize with this situation, and we train those women to be accompaniers and to offer many different types of needed help, depending on the situation of each family and their needs.
This year, ICRC began collecting biological samples from the relatives of missing people. These samples are being stored by the Hospital of the State Security Service so that one day it will be possible to make DNA comparisons to try to identify the human remains which may be exhumed and returned to their families. This way, some families might one day know what happened to their loved ones and be able to begin their true grieving process. Collecting all these biological samples will take some years. There are about 3,700 missing Azerbaijanis and we need to collect samples from between 3 and 6 biological family members of each missing person so that a forensic identification might be possible. It’s a huge task that is done jointly between the ICRC and the State Commission.
We also all have to realize that many families will never have answers and that most people who are missing will not be found. The sad reality is that many if not most have died and the circumstances of their death will not be known and their bodies will not be recovered. ICRC has seen this before in many wars. This is why it is so important to recognize what the families are going through and to help them cope with this, and to recognize their loss.
Overall, we managed to continue doing a lot in Azerbaijan because the ongoing conflict is still unresolved and people continue to suffer terrible consequences. Part of the reason that we manage to do so much is that the government allows us to be active and to accomplish our humanitarian mission in the country.
We also do internal detention visits to people detained by Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Internal Affairs and State Security Service, and in 2015 we renewed this agreement with the government, which allows us to proceed with this service to both detaining authorities and detainees and their families
Q. How many captured persons have been returned between Azerbaijan and Armenia during your mission?
A. Since January 2013, ICRC facilitated the repatriation of 12 people from Azerbaijan to Armenia (2 of these were human remains). In addition there were to transfers over the Line of Contact, two were returned and two were received, by the Azerbaijan side.
Q. How many captured persons are detained both in Azerbaijan and Armenia as of now?
A. Today there are two Azerbaijanis held in Nagorno-Karabakh and one Armenian Prisoner of War held by the Azerbaijani side.
There are sometimes rumors or statements of others being held, sometimes it is alleged that they are kept hidden. ICRC also often hears allegations of people kept in hidden detention by both sides. Every time we hear this, we ask for concrete information. And when we do it is always information like "someone said that he knows someone...". So we have never had any indication that these allegations are correct.
ICRC sees first-hand how these statements hurt the families because it makes them think that maybe it is their loved one who is alive somewhere and suffering. Sadly, most of the missing must be presumed to be dead and statements like these are very painful for the families. If any serious information is transmitted to the ICRC, we will follow it up very carefully. But so far no one has any strong allegation.
Q. How many persons are registered as missing persons in your list as of now?
A. ICRC offices in Baku, Erevan and Nagorno- Karabakh register missing persons when their families approach the office looking for information about their lost relative. ICRC registered around 4,500 people from all sides.
More than 3700 registered in Baku delegation, more than 400 registered in Erevan delegation and nearly 400 registered in Nagorno-Karabagh Mission.
Q. How many persons have been released from captivity through the ICRC Baku since it started working Azerbaijan?
A. In the early years of the war, things were very chaotic and many people were being captured and returned. ICRC does not have good statistics from this time, so we cannot give a precise number. Today we estimate that over 700 people have been returned home with the support of the ICRC.
In the early years of the war, there were many captured and exchanges and returns, sometimes done privately, even by families who negotiated with private persons. Many were done without involvement of ICRC. In that chaotic time, the term "hostages" was used. But, the capture and detention of people in relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is done by the parties to the conflict and is regulated by the Geneva Conventions. It is more correct to call them Civilian Internees or Prisoners of War (if they are military), not "hostages". We see this word is still used hover, but it is better to use the terminology of the Geneva Conventions.
Q. What works are being done for the return of Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev to Azerbaijan?
A. Despite the high expectations turned towards ICRC to get them released, the ICRC is not the actor who decides upon returning detained people, this depends on the detaining authority.
ICRC, like all organizations has its frame and we work within our frame given to us by States through the Geneva Conventions, which practically all States have signed and ratified. Our frame is to check on the conditions of detention and treatment, and to keep them in contact with their families. This we are doing and we will keep doing it as long as necessary.
Q. Has the request been made to the Sides to facilitate “Skype” communication between Dilgam Asgarov and Shahbaz Guliyev and their families? What is being done in this direction?
We followed the media statements about Skype calls. According to our mandate or “frame”, ICRC establishes family contacts and we have been doing that through letters exchanged between the families and the detainees (RCMs). Anything beyond the RCM is to be discussed with the detaining side and we don’t disclose our bilateral confidential discussions with the parties to the conflict.
Q. A lot of Azerbaijani citizens participate in the battles in Syria, since the start of these events. Have you received any requests to clarify their fates? In general, are you enquiring information about the fate of these persons?
A. The ICRC hasn't opened any tracing requests with regard to Azerbaijani nationals in Syria. Meaning families have not approached us except once. We were approached only once by a family in 2014, but with very little information, insufficient for a proper follow up.
The situation on the ground remains volatile both in terms of security and access, hence, making it extremely difficult to carry out full-fledge tracing activities.
Therefore, unless families have substantial and recent information about their loved ones in Syria, the chances are very slim that the tracing efforts will succeed.
Q. The leadership of the State Commission on prisoners of war, hostages and missing persons was changed. According to our information, you met Madat Guliyev, the new head of the State Commission recently. Which topics were discussed?
We had very good cooperation with Madat Guliyev, the current head of Commission previously. As you know he used to be a Deputy Minister of Justice of the Republic of
Azerbaijan and the head of Penitentiary Service. We had longstanding and constructive cooperation and hope to further continue our cooperation.
Q. When are you leaving Azerbaijan?
Elena Ajmone Sessera, a new head of International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation in Azerbaijan is already in Baku. Now, handover process is ongoing. I am leaving Azerbaijan on March 4.