Editor’s Note: The following special report by Weekly correspondent Linda Berberian is based on an exclusive four hour, one-on-one interview with Maral Najarian. Due to Najarian’s traumatic experiences and the sensitive subject matter, Berberian and Najarian took breaks during questioning. The interview was conducted a week after Najarian’s release in the Armenian language and was translated by Berberian.
Maral Najarian spent her 49th birthday on November 18 alone in a dark, dreary Baku prison. Perhaps the only permanent trace left of her was the number she marked on the wall with a broken zipper hook from her jacket, symbolizing the last of the 120 agonizing days held captive by the government of Azerbaijan. Najarian, a former civilian war hostage, is now safe and back in Beirut, Lebanon. But her kidnapping and imprisonment continue to haunt her. With no television, radio or books, not even a pencil or a piece of paper to distract her from an unimaginable reality, the future looked grim for the Lebanese-Armenian who had repatriated to Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) just two weeks before Azerbaijan launched a full-scale war on Armenians.
The ink had barely dried on the Russian-brokered trilateral ceasefire agreement in the early afternoon hours of November 10, 2020 when Najarian and her fiancé Viken Euljekjian—an Artsakh War volunteer— began traveling toward his temporary lodging in Shushi by car from Yerevan. They were just two blocks from the hotel when they faced a roadblock and were met with Azeri forces.
“When we saw they had set up positions on the road along with their flag, I turned to Viken and said there are Azeris here. What are they doing here? What is happening?” Najarian recalled, believing that it was safe to travel to the Fortress City amid conflicting reports from social media and government officials about its capture. “He replied to me, ‘don’t be afraid,’ and I exhaled a bit.”
She said they had no choice but to move forward since the road was far too narrow to turn around. So they pulled up in front of the post and parked the car.
According to Najarian’s account, two Azerbaijani officers surrounded the car. The soldier on the passenger’s side spoke in Russian, but then switched to Turkish when he realized Najarian didn’t understand him. He asked where she was coming from and where they were going. Najarian, who speaks fluent Turkish, responded they were coming from Yerevan and on their way to a Shushi hotel to collect their belongings.
“He said to me, ‘Don’t you know Shusha is ours? It’s not Shushi anymore,’ and I told him if we did, we wouldn’t have come,” she explained.
The soldier instructed Najarian to unlock her cell phone, making sure her passcode was visible to him. Meanwhile, Euljekjian was undergoing a similar line of questioning. Both of their phones were confiscated as well as their Lebanese and Armenian passports as they are both dual citizens as of 2017.
“They took my purse. Then they took the car keys and after they took everything, they asked us to get out of the car. They searched us to see if we had anything on us, like a gun,” said Najarian. “I was already shaking and crying because I realized the matter was very serious because I’ve never been in a situation where I was threatened with a rifle before, not even in Lebanon.”
The couple was told to sit down on the side of the road, as one soldier stood guard while another scrolled through Najarian’s phone. One soldier asked if they were hungry, thirsty or cold. She said she was too distraught to accept any of these offers.
Najarian said she overheard the four soldiers calling for backup; perhaps because she spoke Turkish with them they must have thought she was a spy. She also noticed the soldiers going through Euljekjian’s phone, which contained photos of him holding a rifle during the war. Najarian noted neither of them was carrying any weapon to be regarded as enemy combatants even if Euljekjian had volunteered to fight in the Artsakh War. According to her, he stayed and fought for only about four or five days, then spent time at a Shushi hotel for one week before returning to Yerevan.
“From what I understood, they were saying they captured two people and they needed to go. At that time, I didn’t understand if that meant to go to Armenia or to go with them,” said Najarian.
After two hours on the side of the road in the bitter cold, another group of soldiers arrived. Within moments, eight soldiers surrounded Euljekjian and tied his hands behind his back. They began to kick him as Euljekjian, fearing for his life, yelled that he was forced to fight in the war.
“They [Azerbaijani soldiers] beat him all over his entire body and repeatedly told him that he used a gun against them and needed to be punished. I remember there was blood all over Viken’s face. He and I were both yelling out that he didn’t want to go and fight and I was trying to push the soldiers off of him, but they shoved me aside so that I wouldn’t get beaten too,” recalled Najarian, unable to hold back tears as she described this painful account.
She said the soldiers then covered Euljekjian’s head with a hood. With hands tied, both were forced into a 4×4 jeep and headed to a military prison camp about 30 minutes away. From there, she said they were transferred into another jeep filled with gas tanks. The windows, Najarian recalls, were closed.
“I started screaming to Viken they are going to burn us alive,” Najarian described. “I was screaming, but Viken was partly unconscious and unable to hear me.”
She said she felt dizzy as they were both having difficulty breathing while trapped in the car with gasoline fumes. About 30 minutes later, four soldiers entered the overcrowded jeep; Euljekjian was then forced to sit on the backseat floor. That’s when they cracked open the windows for fresh air.
“Viken was begging me to remove the hood off his face, but I couldn’t help him because my hands were still tied. He was really suffering because he still couldn’t breathe. After some time, the soldiers began to take off the hood and then put it back on. They did this until we reached the prison where we stayed overnight,” she said.
On the morning of November 18 following a week-long series of interrogations and then being allowed some time with Euljekjian, they were both hauled off in a prison van with three other male Armenian POWs, including an elderly man who was deaf and blind. She said at some point during the five to six-hour journey, she asked one of the soldiers where they were headed and why it was taking so long. Najarian said she was shocked to hear they were headed to Baku and had no idea that they were previously in Azerbaijan. She said up until that moment she thought they were in an unfamiliar area of Artsakh that had been recently captured by Azerbaijan after the war.
After spending one night in a temporary holding cell, she was told by the guards that she would be taken to the Red Cross. An overjoyed Najarian quickly put on her jacket and shoes thinking she would be going home and this nightmare would be but a brief misunderstanding.
After a 15-minute ride, Najarian, Euljekjian and the same elderly Armenian POW stopped in front of a building with iron bars on the windows. Euljekjian was blindfolded with his hands tied in front of him but managed to move the blindfold enough to catch a glimpse of the ominous site.
“Viken and I both told each other this doesn’t look like the Red Cross, and moments after this conversation they took him away. That was the last time I saw him,” she said. All she knows of his fate is based on information from an Azerbaijani official who told her that he has multiple charges against him and will be in prison for “a long time.” The last time Najarian saw her fiancé she said his face was bruised where he was beaten and his wrists had open wounds.
“I hope I see him again, but I don’t think I will because they really made me lose hope that much, but I hope God will help him and all the POWs,” she said.
Evidence based on firsthand information of Azerbaijan’s maltreatment of detained Armenian soldiers and civilians has been recently documented and released in several reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW). “HRW was quite open in raising the responsibility of Azerbaijan for war crimes,” noted Siranush Sahakyan, an international human rights attorney who is part of a team that has filed 250 cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to apply interim measures for captives under the control of Azerbaijani authorities and protect them from harm. In her comments to the Weekly, Sahakyan said the initiation of these proceedings has been backed by the Armenian Legal Center for Justice and Human Rights.
But Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has refuted these investigative reports and asserted that all Armenian POWs have been returned in accordance with the November 10 ceasefire agreement. Sahakyan says the government of Azerbaijan is once again trying to mislead the international community, masking the crimes of its own political leadership and making political bargains at the expense of humanitarian issues.
To date, only 65 captives from the 2020 Artsakh War have been repatriated. According to Sahakyan, around 75 captives have been officially acknowledged by Azerbaijan. The remaining captives are unaccounted for more than four months after the cessation of hostilities.
Najarian, for her part, said that Azeri authorities never explained any charges or allegations against her or why she was being kept prisoner, other than her association with Euljekjian.
“I didn’t know what was happening to me or where I was until I was taken to a prison cell with one wall that had the prison’s rules and visiting days written in large letters. That’s when I became very stressed and realized that I’m in prison,” Najarian said.
Gobustan prison, about 40 kilometers (23 miles) west of Baku, is where Najarian believes she was held for eight days until November 26; the high security facility, known for incarcerating Azerbaijani political prisoners and activists, is now widely reported to be where 250 or more Armenian prisoners of war are held captive. She described the cells as small and claustrophobic with bunk beds and double doors; the outer door had iron bars while the inner door was solid with a metal flap usually opened only to serve meals. During her interview with the Weekly, she repeatedly referred to her prison cell as “the L-shaped,” where she recalled walking eight steps forward, eight steps back.
In her first prison cell, there was a razor by the wash area. She wasn’t sure, however, if it was left by previous inmates or if it was intentionally put there. Later that day, prison guards blindfolded her again and introduced her to another cell, which also had a razor. She would remain in that cell for four days; she was given two blankets since the heater was not working. Then they moved her again to another cell with a razor placed on the bed; she was convinced that the availability of these razors was intentional.
At this point, the mental and physical toll of confinement was mounting for Najarian as she endured a number of intense rounds of questioning from prison authorities. During one of many interrogations in a designated room in the prison, she recalls speaking with two Azeri authorities, one of whom spoke Armenian and would serve as translator. These were stressful situations for Najarian, who passed the time by pacing back and forth in her cell afterwards for hours. Desperate and hopeless after eight days, she recalled reaching for the razor but ultimately stopped short to envision her two children.
“I could hear them saying to me, ‘Mom, don’t do it, don’t do it’ and right then I threw the razor into the underground toilet hole and poured water over it,” vowing to see her children again. “I thought of committing suicide because I was convinced I was going to stay there, and they were never going to release me,” Najarian recalled.
Dr. Artin Terhakopian, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in PTSD and war trauma, said from what he knows about Najarian’s case, he believes she was subjected to unnecessary prolonged trauma due to the Azerbaijan government’s decision to delay her release from captivity. Dr. Terhakopian has never treated Najarian, but he does have extensive experience in working with patients with fresh trauma, including from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
He explained that predictors of PTSD or severe depression are if a person has been subjected to a lack of any type of predictability or security, such as not knowing what may happen in the next hour or tomorrow or when control over when they want to sleep, eat or drink is taken away from them. He also added that many Armenian war veterans and civilians who are suffering from insecurities, traumas or effects from the recent Artsakh War may not want to seek help because of the stigma attached.
“It’s a lot easier, God forbid you have a severed leg, to seek help for that. When you are able to possess all your limbs and appear intact physically and can’t focus or you are having nightmares or can’t sleep, it’s a very difficult thing to talk about or admit,” said Dr. Terhakopian.
There were at least two separate incidents during her four months in custody when Najarian thought she would be killed. On November 27—15 days into her captivity and the day after her final interrogation with Azeri authorities—she was escorted into a prison van while handcuffed and blindfolded. Terrified, she began to cry and yell that she was a civilian and had done nothing wrong, but the prison guards mercilessly snapped back, ordering her to stay quiet. After about a 15 to 30-minute ride, Najarian—still handcuffed and blindfolded—was removed from the vehicle by Azerbaijani guards, walked to a wall, and shoved her forehead against it.
“I was praying, shaking and crying while waiting for a bullet to go through my chest.”
“I kept thinking that since yesterday was the interrogation, today I’m going to be punished. I said to myself they are going to kill me,” she told the Weekly of the incident. “I was praying, shaking and crying while waiting for a bullet to go through my chest.”
When they took the blindfold off, Najarian realized she had been transferred to another prison. While there, she was given new clothes and allowed to shower once a week. She also underwent a full medical evaluation, including a PCR test for COVID-19. She described the prison as much more regulated. Her cell was located on the second or third floor and had a wooden door with a metal flap, which was used to determine whether or not she was sleeping during off hours. When the guards caught her sleeping, they banged on the cell door to wake her. One guard in particular had a habit of waking her up one hour before the other prisoners. “Sometimes they were good to me, but then they would go back to treating me badly again,” recalled Najarian. “There were days when some of the guards would bring me shawarma or potatoes or ask me if I wanted salt with my food, while others shoved food in my face.”
During her captivity, Najarian was never allowed out of her cell, except to receive medical attention. She suffered hypertension and was prescribed medication to treat the onset of her symptoms, as well as antidepressants to calm her nerves. Najarian said she never had any type of serious health issues prior to her imprisonment. The doctor also prescribed medication for dizziness and allowed her to sleep, but when she woke up to use the bathroom, she noticed that her hands had turned blue. At that moment, she said everything went black before she fainted. The prison doctor then adjusted her medications.
For the first three days, Najarian said she wasn’t allowed to sleep until around 10:30 pm and began to experience back pain due to a herniated disk. The guards noticed that she started laying on the floor, and not long after that the prison warden instructed the guards to allow her to rest on the bed when needed. She also said the food tasted better; her diet consisted of grains, macaroni, chickpeas, as well as fruit and juice three days a week. Her cell had a working heater. Linens were changed once a week. She was also given necessary toiletries. The prison guards also wore face masks at all times as part of COVID-19 safety measures.
Najarian said the guards assured her that they respect women and that because she was never a soldier or fought with a knife or a gun, no harm would come to her. That’s not what happened to 58-year-old Alvard Tovmasyan of Artsakh, an intellectually disabled Armenian woman from the Karin Tak village who was brutally tortured, dismembered and eventually murdered in her own backyard after Azerbaijan forces captured the village on October 29, 2020 during the war.
On December 13—the death anniversary of Najarian’s father—she suffered a panic attack and later fainted. She was evaluated by the prison doctors who gave her medication to calm her nerves. When she returned to her cell, she saw they had conducted a full cell inspection and removed everything including her shoes and extra clothes. Najarian suspected they might have thought she was abusing drugs.
Months later on February 12, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was finally granted access to visit Najarian in prison. ICRC representatives interviewed Najarian to gather further background on her case; Najarian said they seemed surprised to learn she was unarmed upon her detainment.
“According to its mandate, ICRC visits conflict-related detainees, monitors their treatment and conditions of detention and helps to ensure that these individuals are able to maintain contact with families,” said ICRC Yerevan’s communications manager Zara Amatuni in a statement to the Armenian Weekly.
“They told me I can write a letter. My hands were shaking, and I was crying at the same time,” Najarian said. Her letter was addressed to her two children; she assured them she was safe and being treated well.
During the week of March 4, Azerbaijan withdrew from negotiations to free Najarian with no official explanation. On March 8—International Women’s Day—Najarian was summoned to see a high-ranking official who offered his congratulations on her future release and then gifted her a bouquet of red and white flowers. She remained skeptical of this news.
She told the guards that she wanted to be home to receive flowers from her children on Mother’s Day and asked that the flowers be removed from her cell. She had missed many important milestones and holidays with her family, including her son’s birthday on March 9. She was inconsolable and exhausted from the emotional rollercoaster and constant manipulation. She was prescribed even more medication to relax. “There was a psychiatric ward on one of the floors above mine, and I could hear them screaming all the time. I would tell myself that I’m almost at that point of heading up there myself. Either they [Azerbaijan] are going to win by me dying, or I’m going to win by surviving,” she said.
In the early morning hours of March 10, the prison guards opened the metal flap and instructed Najarian to gather her belongings. “I jumped out of my bed and quickly gathered everything. At 6 am, they opened the door—the door that would never open for me. I couldn’t believe that I was really leaving. Before I left the cell, I turned around and I prayed to God that whoever comes after me in this prison cell, let them get out even sooner than I did,” she tearfully told the Weekly.
Najarian was transported to the Heydar Aliyev International Airport where she met with an ICRC representative and an Azerbaijani soldier/escort. The ICRC representative accompanied her all the way to the airport’s security checkpoint and gave her a plane ticket to Istanbul. She traveled with her Lebanese passport wearing the clothes she had on the day she was kidnapped along with a jacket and a sweater given to her by Azeri authorities in case she got cold on the plane. They did not return her phone, her watch or her glasses, but they did make sure she left the prison with their gifted bouquet of red and white flowers.
During her 11-hour layover in Istanbul, Najarian passed the time aimlessly walking around the terminal. She says she was disoriented, but eventually made conversation with other travelers. She landed in Beirut at 9:30 pm local time.
“I never imagined I would reach my family and that happiness I was feeling that God gifted this to me. When I got off the plane, I looked around and thought no one had come because I didn’t recognize anyone and just as I was about to start crying, my son and daughter came up from behind and hugged me, and I realized that I had gotten my wish,” a smiling Najarian said.
Since her release, there have been questions surrounding why Najarian decided to journey back to retrieve her belongings from a fresh warzone when there were so many conflicting reports about the status of Shushi and the safety of surrounding towns. Najarian, who fled Artsakh for Yerevan 10 days into the war, claims she was under the impression that it was safe for her to return to Berdzor to retrieve her belongings (furniture, kitchen essentials, clothes). She had made contact with Euljekjian, who after serving in the war for about five days, had returned to a hotel in Shushi and joined Najarian in Yerevan a week later.
“Every day we were checking our Facebook pages and the news on what was happening with the war but there was always wrong information coming out; news from Lebanon was different from the news in Armenia and this went on until November 10. On that day, we saw on Facebook that Shushi had been taken but we still didn’t know if it was true or not,” she explained. Najarian criticized the Armenian government for being indirectly responsible for her harrowing ordeal due to the misinformation surrounding the capture of Shushi.
A frustrated Najarian said she and Euljekjian had not reached Shushi until around 4 pm and that there was enough time for the Armenian side to set up blockades at least on the border of Berdzor, which remained Armenian territory. She believes this would have prevented Armenians from heading to areas of Artsakh that had fallen under Azerbaijan occupation after the war ended. She also said that she noticed Russian peacekeepers from afar who were deployed but had yet to set up checkpoints on the only road leading to Shushi.
“Everyone makes mistakes, but it doesn’t mean you have to pay for it for the rest of your life,” she said while recalling her and Euljekjian’s decision to go back to Shushi.
She credited the ICRC and the Lebanese Red Cross for facilitating her ultimate release and also named Lebanese Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe and President of the Federal Council of the Russian Federation Valentina Matvienko, as well as all the foreign ambassadors for their efforts along with Armenian Revolutionary Federation Central Committee of Lebanon members Hagop Pakradounian and Raffy Demirdjian.
After her release, Najarian identified an Armenian POW in a viral video filmed by Azerbaijani soldiers as the elderly man from her time in the Baku prison. Sahakyan confirmed he was eventually repatriated to Armenia sometime in February but died shortly after.
For now, Najarian, who captured the attention of the international community, is planning on restarting her career as a hairdresser in Lebanon. While incredibly grateful for all the support she received during her captivity, she said she would have rather been known for her positive contributions to society. “As for me, I want my life to change for the better. I went through hell and back, but right now I want to move forward.”