“I was told by the [Defense Ministry] hotline that he wasn’t among the injured,” a cousin of Yahya Abdinov, a 21-year-old soldier from the eastern Azerbaijani city of Shirvan, said on November 18.
There are estimates of possibly thousands of Azerbaijani dead. But no one outside the halls of power…knows for sure.
“Everyone says different things,” the cousin, Saday Tagiyev, told RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service. “One person says he’s alive and doing his service, another says he’s somewhere where there’s no [mobile-phone] network so he can’t make a call. We’re lost. We can’t get accurate information.”
This week, the family still had no idea what had happened to Abdinov or whether he was even alive.
As fresh graves are dug and filled, and coffins are lain in “martyrs’ allies” in Baku and other cities as bodies are returned from the battlefields in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, there are estimates of possibly thousands of Azerbaijani dead.
But no one outside the halls of power of this strategically located Caucasus nation that has been locked in a “frozen conflict” with neighboring Armenia for decades knows for sure.
‘We Don’t Have Protests’
Authoritarian Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s already secretive government remains silent about overall casualty figures from six weeks of intense fighting after it kicked off an offensive on September 27.
Officials refuse to answer journalists’ questions about specific cases, too.
So parents and cousins still regularly crowd lists of the wounded hung outside hospitals in the capital, Baku. Multiple accounts suggest the Defense Ministry hotlines mostly take down information and urge patience.
The problem extends to a lesser degree in Armenia, where Yerevan has reported more than 2,400 war dead and hundreds of others either missing or still to be identified.
In the capital, there are scenes showing throngs of angry Armenians outside official buildings.
There, desperate family members have demanded answers from a government under political siege since the weapons went silent with Azerbaijan back in control of about two-thirds of the Azerbaijani territory held since 1994 by ethnic Armenians.
But in the streets of Baku, despite unofficial suggestions that at least hundreds of troops are still unaccounted for, there are seemingly no public signs of anger.
“We don’t have protests against the government regarding this issue,” a journalist in Baku said bluntly.
History Repeating Itself?
Aliyev has kept a tight lid on state-dominated media since taking over from his ailing father in 2003, and his administration has been accused of routinely jailing its critics.
It already ranked 168th out of 180 countries on watchdog Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) press freedom index earlier this year.
But martial law declared on September 28 has allowed authorities to impose even stricter limits on what people can say or report about the conflict.
“The Azerbaijani public will be informed of it after the completion of the active phase of military operations,” Aliyev told Russian television at the height of the conflict.
Information hasn’t emerged since the November 10 cease-fire that was widely seen as a victory for Baku in the region’s most intense fighting since the first war ended in 1994, however.
Legacy Of Missing Fighters
Many Azerbaijanis are acutely aware from the 1988-94 conflict that killed as many as 30,000 people of the confusion that can accompany the fight for a sliver of land that went from heavily Azeri to almost exclusively ethnic Armenian.
Hundreds of thousands of Azeris who fled that violence were displaced after the shaky cease-fire of 1994 left nearly all of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts in the hands of ethnic Armenians.