Baku, Azerbaijan – Dilgam Asgarov’s mother is buried in Kalbajar district, the region of Azerbaijan where he was born.
A young man still afflicted and suffering, he frequently visited his grave.
But in the early 1990s, when Armenian-backed forces seized the region in a bloody war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, that visit became seemingly impossible.
Still determined to pay homage to him, Asgarov and others risked their lives to enter their ancient towns and villages of origin, then occupied by ethnic Armenians, to pray at the graves of their loved ones.
On numerous occasions, Asgarov, now 60, made the journey unharmed.
To go unnoticed, he took long and winding routes, through mountains he knew like the back of his hand.
In July 2014, however, while on their way to Kalbajar to visit the graves of their relatives, Asgarov and another Azerbaijani, Shahbaz Guliyev, were seized by Armenian-backed troops. A third Azerbaijani, Hasan Hasanov, was shot dead.
At the time, Asgarov lived and worked in Russia, chopping trees and selling timber, rarely being able to return home to see his family, and tensions between Baku and Yerevan were high, with several clashes between Armenian soldiers. and Azeri.
Armenian officials said the three were on reconnaissance, accusing them of crossing the line of contact and kidnapping and torturing a 17-year-old – accusations Asgarov and Guliyev have consistently denied.
“Since 1998, I have visited my mother using many different routes,” Asgarov said, “until July 11, 2014”.
Guliyev was arrested on July 9, 2014, and Hasanov was shot dead on July 11. Asgarov was arrested on July 14 in the village of Istibulag.
“I had been watched by helicopter,” he said.
Asgarov spoke to Al Jazeera by phone from his home in Kalbajar, one of the regions of Armenia returned at the end of November this year, as part of a ceasefire negotiated by Russia, after weeks of deadly clashes.
As part of the November deal, the two sides also pledged to exchange dozens of prisoners – including Asgarov and Guliyev. They arrived home in December.
After being arrested in 2014, Asgarov and Guliyev were taken to a prison in Stepanakert, a central town in Nagorno-Karabakh known as Khankendi by Azerbaijanis.
When Asgarov first appeared in court, he was blindfolded but was walking normally. During a second appearance, he could be seen in video footage limping – evidence, according to Azerbaijanis, of ill-treatment.
The Nagorno-Karabakh court, which was not recognized by international law, sentenced Asgarov, accused of espionage, murder and other charges, to life imprisonment, and Guliyev to 22 years in prison.
“They have created their own tribunal, a tribunal that is unrecognized in the world. We have been charged with espionage, state border trespassing and murder. Of course, I denied all the charges. First, I am not a spy, I visited my mother’s grave. Second, I did not violate the borders of any state, I moved within my own territory, and third, I was unaware of the death [of the 17-year-old]. “
Both men have pleaded not guilty.
“They broke my fingers,” he said, alleging torture at the hands of the Armenians who imprisoned him. “I was immobilized by the heavy blows to the head. They didn’t even allow me to breathe normally.
“I lost 40 to 45 kilos in a year. I was electrocuted. The severity of the torture I suffered was visible when I was brought to justice. Then I was transferred to Shusha Prison and stayed there for five years.
The prison guards were a mixed group – some Armenians from Yerevan and others, commonly known as ethnic Armenians, from Nagorno-Karabakh.
Asgarov says those in Karabakh treated him better.
“During my year in Khankendi, I only received pasta, water and bread. The Armenians of Karabakh gave me chocolate and sausages. They did it secretly from the Armenians of Yerevan.
Every day during the six years he was imprisoned, his only exercise was a short daily walk around the prison grounds.
From his cell window in Shusha, he could see several houses that had been destroyed in the 1990s war – his only view outside for years.
But a radio offered by the Red Cross keeps him well informed.
“The radio picked up Azerbaijani radio waves. The day the radio was given to me, the Armenians took it apart in front of me and looked inside, as if something might be hidden there. They saw nothing, fixed it and returned it to me. Because the Red Cross gave it to me, no one dared to take it from me. I heard on this radio that the regions were liberated from occupation.
“I have heard about President Ilham Aliyev’s meetings, overseas visits and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution process. I learned about the internal political situation in Azerbaijan, even the diplomatic tensions between Russia and Turkey, then the reconciliation of these countries.
As for food, he lived on a diet of bean and buckwheat stew.
The Armenian guards spoke to him in Russian or Azerbaijani.
“It was sad. I knew when it was New Years, then Nowruz, then my birthday. All the while, in solitary confinement, I was congratulating myself on my own.
He heard about the recent clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia on his radio.
“On September 27 (when the recent war broke out) we could hear heavy artillery fire. One of the prison guards, Galstyan, came to the cell and asked me what had happened. I laughed and replied: “You are the one who is free, I don’t know what is going on!” They closed all the windows in the prison.
When the clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh escalated, Asgarov and Guliyev were evacuated from Shusha prison and taken to Armenia.
After the ceasefire was negotiated in November, they were returned to Azerbaijan and spent some time in quarantine, in accordance with measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Then they headed for emotional meetings; during his absence, Asgarov’s family cried and grew up without him.
Crowds of Asgarov’s friends and neighbors gathered to welcome him to his home in Shamkir.
“During this period, I had three grandchildren – two boys and a girl. My father, my aunt, my father-in-law and my mother-in-law have passed away. My grandson, born in 2014, bears my name, Dilgam. “
For the first time in six years, he was able to organize a New Year with his family.
“Now I’m home and spent the New Year with my family,” he said.
“Kalbajar is free now, and so am I. From now on, I will go directly to our neighborhood, to my mother’s grave, it is not necessary to fall in the mountains.