Of tin and plastic

museum of missing soldiers

In the museum of missing soldiers. Photo: © Lina Verschwele

By Elena Ammel & Lina Verschwele

On 11 May 1994, an armistice was reached in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Many of the soldiers who disappeared at that time remain missing today. Mothers from both sides have come together in an act intended as a sign of reconciliation: a visit to the site.

When Vera unlocks the museum door each morning, it’s a bit like coming home. Before her lies her creation: she has organized display cabinets, arranged plastic flowers and hung pictures on the wall. Dozens of men look down on her as she enters the large exhibition space. An extended family – indeed, she explains, it’s as though they are all sons to her. Just like her own son, all of the soldiers pictured here disappeared during the war.

The war over Nagorno-Karabakh is almost forgotten in the West. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenians and Azerbaijanis began to fight for control of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1991 the region broke away from Azerbaijan and declared itself unilaterally independent. War ensued, lasting until the truce of May 1994. Soldiers continue to die regularly, however, on the front line. The warring parties have been negotiating for years, without success. With each failure, the conflict moves a step further away from the focus of international attention.

This doesn’t matter to Vera. You can’t so easily shrug it off, when the story is your own. For her, it was the last year of the war that was actually the most difficult.

On 6 January her son, Spartak, on leave from the front, pays her visit. They discuss how best to treat an injury to Vera’s hand. It is an uneventful meeting, lasting less than an hour. Vera wishes him farewell, without any sense of foreboding. The uneasy feeling came later, she explains. On the morning of 16 January 1994 she wakes with heart palpitations, feeling worse than usual. The war has already lasted for almost three years. The day goes by and nothing happens. It is only a few days later that Vera receives a letter in the post – notification that her son has been missing since 16 January. Having gone out on patrol with a combatant, neither of them returned.

Vera has carefully documented his disappearance and the events leading up to it. In the Museum of Lost Soldiers, in Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, she has collected together everything left behind by her son, displayed on a small altar: an accordion, a few books and a photo album whose pictures enable visitors to piece together his life. They shows a young Spartak in his first school class, the teenager playing sports, and the young man in his traffic policeman’s uniform. The family garden is also there. Spartak loved gardening, explains Vera. He wanted to build a swimming pool in the garden, once the war was over.

Blood on the felt lawn

Vera’s account of events sounds as though it has been narrated many times before. It quickly becomes clear than many journalists have already been here, asking her about her story. Even Spartak’s disappearance is described in an almost routine-like way:

A few weeks after 16 January, on 12 May 1994, the ceasefire comes into effect. The war is over. Vera becomes hopeful of news from her son, that he will be released from prison. But nothing comes. Not in the following weeks, or years, or at any point. Her son remains missing to this day.

Together with her daughter-in-law, Vera searches for clues as to what happened on 16 January. They find nothing. When Spartak disappeared he had been married for just five months. The wedding photograph shows the pair at the grave of a deceased general, previously Spartak’s boss. Five years later, Vera tells her daughter-in-law to remarry. This is her first farewell. Nevertheless, she won’t give up hope. “I believe he’s still alive. A mother can sense these things.” More than 20 years have passed since his disappearance. If she were to see her son again, he would now be 43 years old.

In order to channel her sorrow, in 2004 Vera founded the Museum of Lost Soldiers, together with three other mothers whose sons had also disappeared during the war. They have created an at times bizarre shrine. Opposite the small altar are mannequins in camouflage. Next to the display cabinets a battle scene has been recreated using toy soldiers. Someone has knocked them over onto the felt lawn, painting some of them red, in order to make the scene more authentic. Vera explains, in a detached manner, which battle is represented, who shot from where, who was hit where. Her pride and joy, however, is an eternal flame, made out of fabric and plastic, which whirrs as you switch it on. It’s a do-it-yourself museum, a mixture of pathos and real emotion.

A meeting with the other side

Only after a while do visitors get to hear a different story, one which does not flow quite so easily from Vera.

When, in 2005, she arrives in the Russian-held Kabardino Balkaria, she is excited. She is about to meet Tamara, the mother of a soldier who is also missing, for the first time. The same story, but in reverse. Tamara is from Azerbaijan.

Even in the Soviet Union, Azerbaijanis and Armenians lived peacefully side by side. Almost 400,000 Armenians lived and worked in the Azerbaijani Soviet Republic until the 1980s. The war, however, made this impossible. Many younger generation Armenians and Azerbaijanis have never met someone from “the other side”. Their respective images of each other have become racially charged.

For the women, things in Russia must have thus been all the more trying. “I brought flowers and a radio for her – so she can remain up-to-date with the news. Tamara brought Baklava. We exchanged gifts and then we cried,” explains Vera. She doesn’t think the mother is to blame: “The war has its own laws.”

They have met a further four times since then – three times in Tbilisi, in neutral Georgia, and once in Rostov-on-Don. From their meetings has resulted a diary, which narrates their stories and appeals to both sides to finally release all prisoners. It is Vera’s greatest hope that her son is still alive, held only in captivity.

The diary has only managed to make it, however, into a side room of the exhibition. It remains unclear whether the school class currently loitering in the main room will even get that far. As Vera and some of the other mothers show them photographs of various commemorations, the class look on, more out of a sense of obligation than of interest.

Just a few days earlier Vera was at one of these commemorative events. Together with high-ranking Karabakh politicians, she listened to speeches and lay wreathes; took part in the whole circus aimed at fashioning the victims of war as heroes. A few hundred meters from the museum, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs displays a picture heralding the toddlers of today as the “Future Defenders of the Motherland.”

Those wanting to understand why the conflict remains unresolved must therefore look not only to politics, but also to people like Vera. Despite all these images, it doesn’t seem as though she really believes that the sacrifices were worth it. “We don’t have peace now either,” she says, and not without stressing that the blame lies with the Azerbaijani government. Since the beginning of this year, shootings on the front line have increased. Indeed, on the day we meet troops would again be killed in combat with enemy soldiers. It made headlines in the newspapers the next day. That this fate is the same on both sides can only be discovered in the side room.

Translation by Jayne Goss.