The Armenian Weekly August 2013 Magazine
The woman sitting across from me stopped speaking. Tilting her chin downward she closed her eyes and shook her head slightly.
Oh, I said, startled as I looked up from my notebook. I saw there were tears running down her face. Oh, it’s OK. You don’t have to go on. I turned to my interpreter. Please tell her she doesn’t have to continue if she doesn’t feel comfortable. I wanted to reach across the table and place my hand on her arm, to offer a reassuring touch. A sign of consolation. A pause. She nodded through the tears. A stiff smile crossed her face for a second, revealing a trace of relief. Her hands in her lap, she remained motionless.
I’m so sorry, I said. Please tell her I didn’t mean to make her uncomfortable.
The woman had stopped herself midsentence, choking up while recounting the story of her neighbor in Baku. They had lived in the same apartment building for years. It was where, in the courtyard, the resident families would hold cookouts during warm summer evenings, where their children would play together, and where they would share meals during the holidays. It was the same building where she and her husband spent years remodeling the floors, the bathroom, and the kitchen to make it truly comfortable. And it was where one night a group of angry Azerbaijanis broke down her neighbor’s door, grabbed her by the arms, and threw her from the window, four stories to her death on the concrete below. Then, in some twisted final act, the Azerbaijani men combined their might to hurl her large wooden bureau out of the window so that it landed on top of her.
I took a breath. Where to go from here? I thought.
This woman was one of the many displaced Armenians from Baku who I interviewed for my master’s thesis. The quest to complete the thesis was bumpy, to say the least; I switched topics at least three times over the course of several months before settling on one that continues to fascinate me—the human face of violence and war. I did so by focusing on the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, specifically the pogroms of Baku, and the Armenians who fled Azerbaijan because of them. Setting out on an equally trying road of finding people to interview, I spent weeks searching, traveling up and down the East Coast to interview those who were forced from a place that their families had called home for generations. Through my interviews I tried to figure out how conflict-induced displacement had impacted the cultural identity of some of Baku’s Armenians, now members of the Armenian Diaspora. I set out to explore the way people relate to others within their own ethnic group and their sense of belonging to that group. And while I focused on how this group of people expressed their identities through symbolic ethnicity—like language and the Armenian Church, for example—what moved me the most was much of the material I didn’t include in the final product: the stories of abrupt and horrific violence, the heart-wrenching and shocking tales of neighbors turning against neighbors, incredible loss, struggle, survival, and subsequent rebirth.
After some silence the woman suddenly surprised me by continuing. After that, I hid, all night long in a closet and then again for the entire next day. As soon as I could, I left on the ferry to Turkmenistan.
The long-simmering dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabagh finally erupted into violent clashes in 1988 when pogroms were waged against Armenians by Azerbaijanis, first in the small industrial city of Sumgait, located about 20 miles outside of Baku. While tensions had culminated in several episodes of violence around Armenia and Azerbaijan up until that point, they were nothing compared to the gruesome violence of Sumgait. When about 50 people assembled in Sumgait’s Lenin Square for a rally protesting Karabagh’s unification with Armenia and demanded that Armenians leave Azerbaijan, violence exploded on a seemingly unimaginable scale, engulfing the city as gangs tore through, vandalizing property, looting and destroying homes, and smashing and burning cars. People were hacked to death with axes. Metal pipes were used as crude weapons. Homes were destroyed. Women were gang raped in public. Some people were dismembered, some were set on fire. Thirty-two people died in the Sumgait pogroms—26 Armenians and six Azerbaijanis.
Many Bakvetsis were incredulous; the violence that struck Sumgait was atrocious, so horrifying, that most never believed it would be able to permeate a multicultural, downright cosmopolitan city like Baku—where Russians, Jews, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, and Armenians not only intermingled but were friends. While discrimination was embedded in the social strata, the differences between these ethnic groups were mostly overlooked in daily life.
In no other capital in the Soviet Union were people as proud as they were of being from Baku. After the genocide took place, these were the people who accepted us. Azeris were the people who accepted us, one man told me.
There were streets named after Armenians in Baku, there were Armenian schools and churches, and a specific neighborhood in the center of the city called Armenikend, or “Armenian Village.” Armenians for the most part considered themselves integral to the history and the strength of the city.
Life in Baku, it was beautiful, many of them told me. Parties. Concerts. Barbeques. Family gatherings. Some had salvaged photos, which they spread out across coffee tables and in their dining rooms, showing me life as they had once known it. Birthday cakes. Singing around pianos. Vacations to the Black Sea in the summer, sunlight dripping off the palm trees. Sure, Armenians were second-class citizens, but everyone was friends with everyone else for the most part, they told me. Life was rich.
After Sumgait happened, Baku was relatively quiet until a certain tension and fear gripped the streets, permeating the fabric of the city. It’s not going to happen in Baku. It’s never going to happen in Baku, was what many of the people I interviewed said they thought after Sumgait. It could never happen here.
Then it all changed.
Things continued to shift, Armenians were targeted more and more. They feared for their safety when they were outside. Some were followed by Azerbaijanis and forced to make a quick escape by hiding in nearby buildings. Mobs of Azerbaijanis, sometimes as big as 30 or 40 people, would comb the city, pulling people off of buses and out of crowds in an attempt to “catch” Armenians. If they couldn’t identify Armenians based on physical characteristics, the Azerbaijanis would also run “tests” of shibboleths, like the pronunciation of the Azeri word for “hazelnut,” (fundukh), which Armenians tended to say with a “p” instead of an “f” sound.
Eventually, a curfew was imposed. Threats increased. Many Armenians began to trade their apartments and sell their belongings in preparation for a way out of Azerbaijan.
In January 1990, rallies eventually broke out in the north of the country and in Baku following the decision of the Armenian Parliament to include Karabagh in its budget. When a list of Armenians’ addresses was posted on the front door of the Azerbaijani Popular Front headquarters in public view, violence erupted in Baku. Ninety people died in the pogroms, known as “Black January,” in violence just as horrific as Sumgait.
For one week, it was a bloodbath with no one to stop it, one man told me.
Azerbaijanis would break into homes, searching for Armenians, vandalizing everything. Once again, people were assaulted, killed, raped, and mutilated.
For many Armenians fearing for their lives, the acquaintances and the neighbors they had known for years turned their backs on them. There were those who helped, too, of course, like the Azerbaijani neighbor who harbored one woman and her daughter in his apartment for days until they could finally be evacuated by a relative in the KGB, who escorted them out with the Russian families being evacuated from Baku. And there was the young group of Azerbaijanis who saved one of their friends from an inquisitive mob, insisting he was just one of them—a Tartar who couldn’t speak Azeri. Or the kind neighbor who hid her Armenian friends in her closets and under her bed while Azerbaijanis raided her apartment building.
We are left with broken hearts, one woman told me. My students asked me, ‘Why did you leave?’ I tell them that it’s not like they knocked on my door nicely and said, ‘Go.’ They killed and they raped. Something broke inside me.
The violence in Baku essentially drove the rest of the Armenian population out of Azerbaijan. Most—about 200,000—had left by the end of 1989 and had resettled in Armenia, Russia, and other former Soviet republics. Over the course of several days during and after the pogroms, the Armenians of Baku fled for their lives, gathering up their families and whatever few possessions they could to leave by plane or by train or by truck or ferry. They left everything behind, and their stomachs were weighed down with the horrible feeling that they were probably never going to come back. The 18 Armenians that I interviewed went to Armenia, and Moscow or southern Russia, primarily because they had some kind of personal connection to someone living in the country at the time, some family or friends who could provide support. Eventually, these 18 people came to the United States, primarily as refugees, where they started over a second time.
For some, seeking refuge in their historic homeland, Armenia, after the pogroms seemed logical. Even though they spoke Russian at home instead of Armenian, and even if they had no family members to host them, they thought they would have the space and the support to rebuild their lives in Armenia, and the shock of displacement would be lessened. For some it was a source of pride. This was our land, our soil. We’re going to have our roots there, they said.
Sometimes it was viewed as the only option. We left Azerbaijan to go to Armenia because we had no other choice, one told me. There was nowhere else we could go. But it wasn’t always the easiest experience.
For some, life in Armenia meant struggle, and they were treated as outsiders. Some were criticized for having lived so far from the motherland or for not being able to speak Armenian. Others told me of being yelled at or even spit on, being called “Turks” or shortvatz (flipped) Armenians who had been happy living with the enemy.
Having come from a cosmopolitan city like Baku, many were in shock when they suddenly found themselves living in refugee housing in rural areas, where they were forced to grow their own food or wash their laundry by hand. Our house became a refugee camp, said one person whose three-room apartment in Abovyan was typically filled with 17 displaced relatives at any given time.
Others had similar experiences living in Russia, where they were called “black,” a derogatory name for people from the Caucasus, or where they were physically assaulted simply because they were perceived as being different. This discrimination grew more persistent after the fall of the Soviet Union, concurrent with the rise of Russian nationalism.
During the 1990s, the United States allowed those fleeing persecution in the Soviet Union to come to the U.S. as refugees. Many Armenians—up to 100,000—came to the United States between 1989 and 1996, and many received priority refugee status in the early 1990s. Most of the people I interviewed arrived on U.S. soil with next to nothing—broken suitcases and no more than $300 in their pockets. As adults who had established themselves as engineers, teachers, musicians, and scientists back in Baku, they had to reinvent themselves.
Some took jobs in factories or cafeterias while they tried to learn English. Others pursued their educations and tried to get ahead. Struggles continued for some, and lasted longer than expected. And often, a question arose: Did we make the right
decision to come here?
For most I spoke with, the answer is yes. Armenians are no strangers to collective trauma and violence. It’s no surprise these 18 people displayed the resiliency and the strength needed to not only rebuild their lives, but to succeed after being affected both directly and indirectly by violence that is so often the consequence of geopolitics.
I’ve lived in Azerbaijan. I’ve lived in Armenia, Russia, and now I live in America. Obviously I can adapt, one participant said. You have to lose part of you to become part of something else.
Over the course of more than two decades they have turned themselves back into engineers and teachers. Some have become activists and writers in places like New Jersey and Boston and Washington. Some have become mothers and fathers and grandparents. Some have connected more to their Armenian roots. Others say they are indifferent.
Those I interviewed had many ways of describing how they thought of Baku now: a shut door, a closed page, a home erased, just as evidence of the Armenian presence in Baku has been washed away with the defacement and destruction of monuments and cemeteries.
For many, Baku is now just a piece of their history, the memories of which remain in the recesses of their minds. Perhaps that’s what happens when there is really no way of going back home. Very few said they would ever go back, even if they were allowed to.
There is no such place, one woman told me. That’s all. It’s gone.
While researching this topic, I found that while the violence of the pogroms was recorded, the long-term impact they had on the Armenians from Baku had scarcely been touched. More than once I was asked why I was interested in this topic. No one really cares about this anymore anyway, some said. Still, I was fascinated. And perhaps at the very least, I hoped to make some contribution to documenting stories that haven’t really been told.
Toward the end of my interviews, one woman made a remark about how Baku Armenians are a dying people. My generation, that’s it. Our kids–they won’t remember, they won’t know. I will try to pass the memories, though. We still remember my dad’s aunt. She was a Genocide survivor. She was 8 or 10 years old and they escaped the Genocide. We still remember her telling us about it. So we will probably do the same with our kids.