Maral’s agonizing journey to freedom

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YEREVAN, MARCH 11, ARMENPRESS. Four months ago, on 10 November 2020 at midnight, the military aggression against Artsakh was terminated after the Russian-brokered Ceasefire Statement. On the same day, civilians Maral Najarian and Vicken Euljekjian, travelling from Yerevan to Shushi via Berzor were captured by the Azeri militaries. Both, originally from Lebanon, both holding Armenian citizenship since several years, were on their way from Yerevan to Arstakh in Vicken’s vehicle, to collect Maral’s luggage from her hotel in Berzor, and Vicken’s luggage from his flat in Shushi before the handover. Regrettably, they were captured in their vehicle, between Berzor and Shushi by the Azerbaijani militaries before the Russian peacekeepers’ arrival to Nagorno-Karabakh.

Following the economic collapse and the political turmoil in Lebanon, many Lebanese Armenians have been looking to move to homeland responding to the Armenian government’s settlement scheme in Artsakh. Maral had applied for the Armenian citizenship five years ago, and was travelling regularly between Yerevan and Beirut, anticipating to start a business, and to bring her two grown-up children afterwards.

Lastly, after Beirut explosion of 4 August 2020, sisters Maral and Annie Najarian arrived to Armenia on 25 August, and applied to settle in Artsakh in early September. With several other Lebanese-Armenian families, Annie and Maral reached Shushi by mid-September, soon to realize that the high altitude of the town-citadel was not favourable for their health. So instead, they opted to settle in Berzor on 26 September 2020, intending to start a small business, a hairdressing salon or a small restaurant. “Maral has golden hands, she can do anything, and we were so much looking forward to our new life in our homeland’.  But the war decided otherwise…The sisters had to leave their belonging behind and return to Yerevan, to their auntie’s house until the end of the war.

Since the capture of Maral, her sister Annie in Yerevan and the family back in Beirut have been calling, and writing to Lebanese MPs, Embassies, and the Red Cross to provide information about Maral’s health and detention conditions. The British-Armenian humanitarian group launched a campaign including a Petition addressed to the UN, Council of Europe, Human Rights organisations and OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs for the release of Maral and Armenian POWs on 28 January 2021, reaching around 20.000 signatures and worldwide support.

Following the intervention of Lebanese officials, including a well-known Armenian public figure and Lebanese MP Hagop Pakradouni, the Red Cross was finally authorized to visit Maral and Vicken in prison near Baku. Their health was reportedly satisfactory, meanwhile brief, handwritten letters from both hostages were passed on to their families via the Red Cross officials, simply stating they were well but did not know when they would be released. No further information has been released about the two hostages to the families until 10 March 2021.

In the morning of 10 March 2021, the International Red Cross in Beirut (ICRC) called the daughter of Maral Najarian in Beirut informing that Maral was leaving her Baku prison and would be arriving to Beirut the same day. It was likewise confirmed that Maral does not need to be hospitalised.

‘I could not believe the news, when they called’, told Annie Najarian in Yerevan,  ‘I could not sleep all night, and I will only rest when my sister arrives safely home’.

Maral boarded Turkish Airlines flight at 08.30 on 10 March  from Baku to Istanbul. Her connecting flights to Beirut was 10 long hours later to Beirut at 21.35. While the entire operation has been confidential, LBC reporters were among those waiting for Maral at the Beirut International airport alongside her two children, her siblings with their extended families. Upon her arrival, tearful Maral hugged her elder sister Sossi, a nurse at the local hospital. ‘I was working when I got the phonecall this morning, and instantly dropped to the floor. I still cannot believe what has just happened today’.

In her interview, Maral confirmed that she was treated well, but was kept separate from others, and never allowed to get out of her cell. However, the family said that Maral looked exhausted and had aged in the past four months. Ostensibly, Maral had no contact with Vicken since their imprisonment, and had no idea about his whereabouts.

Maral was one of at least two hundred Armenian POWs still held illegally by the Azerbaijani regime. Among them are several women, and Maral’s friend Vicken, Lebanese-Armenian, who holds Armenian citizenship since five years, and had settled in Armenia since 2019, dreaming to start a new life in Shushi, just days before the devastating war of 27 September started.

 

By Hasmik J. Seymour

British Armenian

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