The Pathway to Peace Is Incredibly Inconvenient

My decision to make contact with the other side—the Azeri side—came shortly after clashes erupted on the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh) Line of Contact (LoC) in April 2016. I was living and working in Armenia at the time and I was utterly shaken by the possibility of war.

As an American, I’d never felt close to or threatened by warfare—a strange notion, considering I hail from one of the most militant and aggressive countries in the world. For many Americans, who are geographically alienated from the battles they fight abroad, war is little more than a newspaper headline, or the price of a tank of gas; but in countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan, where military service is a requirement for all men, it’s an inescapable, existential threat.

A military parade at the 25th anniversary celebrations of Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union (Photo: Karine Vann)

 

Immediately after the violence on the front lines, my social media feed was ablaze with nationalist rhetoric from my Armenian network. All around me, the air seemed thick with tension. I couldn’t concentrate on my work, and would spend hours digging through news coverage of the events, trying to understand: Would we soon be at war with Azerbaijan?

Armenian sources were insufficient in providing the Azeri side of things, which I desperately wanted, in order to know if the threat of war was real. And because I only speak Armenian and English (not Russian), the only international coverage I was able to access came from the English-speaking West, but I was dissatisfied with that, too.

There was, generally speaking, a worrying dearth of commentary from ethnic Azerbaijani specialists, and I came to realize that, for my own peace of mind, I didn’t want official statements. I wanted local perspectives on the ground. I wanted to know what the social media newsfeed of someone who is just like me—but Azeri—looked like at that moment.

My vision crystallized at the realization: I had never met an ethnic Azeri in my entire life, to whom I could pose such a question. I began sifting through my contacts, trying to find anyone with an Azeri friend who might be willing to speak with me.  

I first made contact with Avaz Hasanov, a veteran peacebuilder based in Baku, well-versed in the diplomatic process, whom I had found cited in an article on the news site JAMNews (a publication which translates all its articles into Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, English, and Russian). To my relief, Hasanov expressed severe doubt about the likelihood of war from the Azerbaijani side, and my conversation with him, which was published in Hetq in June 2016, yielded a valuable glimpse into frustration felt by many peacebuilders about the disintegration of Azerbaijan’s NGO sector.

Avaz Hasanov (Photo: Voice of America)

But as we spoke about the future of the conflict, and about young people in Azerbaijan, I sensed a disconnect. There was a generation-gap lurking beneath the surface of our conversation.

Then, I met Zamira Abbasi through a mutual journalist friend, a woman who was, in many respects, my Azeri counterpart. In her late twenties at our time of speaking, she spoke candidly about all the things I had thought we might spend the conversation tiptoeing around.

Abbasi was born in the village of Vardenis in Armenia. She was four years old when her family fled to Azerbaijan. Like many on both sides of this conflict, she was traumatized by her exile, and grew up with hatred in her heart for those responsible for her family’s deportation.

Zamira Abbasi (Photo courtesy of Zamira Abbasi)
Zamira Abbasi (Photo courtesy of Zamira Abbasi)

Her parents, she says, never encouraged her anger towards Armenians, believing instead that the conflict would eventually be resolved and they would one day return to Armenia.

But Abbasi’s nationalism grew unrestrained. She says she dreamt from a very young age of entering the military and recalls wanting to be on the frontline, fighting Armenians.“I was full of revenge,” she admitted. 

In hindsight, it’s clear to her now how her anger was fueled—and even encouraged—by the state. “When you are a child, you act upon or believe in what the media is saying, what your school is saying, what your curriculum and what your books are saying.”

By the time she reached adulthood, the hatred that had consumed her since childhood had grown intolerable. “It had gotten so intense… I didn’t want to live with it anymore,” she recalled, “So, I went to the U.S. to study peacebuilding and my position totally changed—what I believe in versus what I was forced to believe in and what the media had been pushing on us, what the government was pushing…”

At our time of speaking, Abbasi was working full time as a specialist in Post-War Development, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction, but despite her State Department-funded education, she remains profoundly skeptical of bureaucratic approaches to reconciliation, and instead works primarily in grassroots projects.

Zamira Abbasi (Photo courtesy of Zamira Abbasi)
(Photo courtesy of Zamira Abbasi)

Her career started, she says, with Tekali Association—the first bottom-up peacebuilding effort founded by the people of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—named so for a village on the intersection of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, where the Armenians and Azeris were once living together peacefully.

The initiative was started in 2012 as a festival of Armenian-Azerbaijani movies. Abassi’s colleague, Georgi Vanyan, who helped found the program, was an actor and producer. He would show Azerbaijani movies in Armenia while peacebuilders from Azerbaijan would show Armenian movies in Azerbaijan.  It later evolved into a series of open mic events, where Armenians and Azeris could come and speak freely to one another. Nothing was off limits, and no one would be censored.

What they discovered was that, while in online internet forums and social media, people were brutal—incessantly trolling one another and proliferating hatred—this was often not the case during these face-to-face encounters.

Members of the Tekali Association—the first bottom-up peacebuilding effort founded by the people of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan (Photo: Tekali Association)

“Some [Armenians] were coming up to the microphone and saying how they were really hurt by Azerbaijanis” Abbasi recalled, “Not really hate, but they are offended by what happened in Nagorno-Karabagh. Or there were some people on the Azerbaijani side saying that, ‘We don’t hate them. We used to live together and we still can. We were not expecting this to happen, so we are mad at each other, but not on the level of hatred.’”

Naturally, governments from both sides, alarmed at the news that Azeris and Armenians were holding non-violent meetings in private, sent agents to eavesdrop on their sessions. “They were coming silently, recording, and leaving,” says Abbasi, “but our platform was so open that we wouldn’t even stop them! We never restricted anyone’s participation in Tekali.”

Today, sadly, Tekali Association is no longer active, and as a dissenting voice in Azerbaijan, it has been several years since Abbasi has taken residence in her home country. She is on a break from peacebuilding altogether, in fact, and is now studying full-time to be an entrepreneur. Whether she will return to peacebuilding, only time will tell.

***

What I got out of these conversations transcended the stories of the peacebuilders themselves.

I’ll admit, it’s a lot to ask of ordinary citizens in Armenia to seek out the Azeri perspective on their own, as I did. Luckily, there are people whose job it is to seek out this information on their behalf: journalists. It is the job of reporters to transport people outside their bubble, and into the social media feeds of the other side—not to agitate, but to inform. And so far, English language journalism on this issue—with rare exceptions— has failed to do that.

At the present moment in time, we cannot expect much from our colleagues in Azerbaijan, whose government is on a witch hunt, persecuting freethinkers and writers who refuse to propagate their nationalist narratives.

The responsibility, then, falls on the shoulders Armenian journalists to paint a more informed picture, as our community is host to a more tolerant and international media landscape than that of Azerbaijan and with ties to the liberal, Western world secured through a well-organized Diaspora. 

I’ve since come to the conclusion that a peaceful resolution to this conflict isn’t impossible. It’s just extremely inconvenient. And that’s not just because we don’t agree with the other side (though there’s certainly that). It’s because we don’t even know what the other side is actually saying. 

Karine Vann

Karine Vann

Editor
Karine Vann is acting editor of the Armenian Weekly. She is a musician who transitioned into journalism while living in the Caucasus for several years. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian.com, The New Food Economy, and a number of other publications. Her critical writings focus primarily on the politics of culture, media analyses, and the environment. She spends her spare time in front of a keyboard, at a farm, or making a fuss about zero waste. If you have comments, questions, pitches, or leads, she can be reached at karine@armenianweekly.com.
Karine Vann

@karinevann

Editor at @ArmenianWeekly newspaper. Journalist. #ZeroWaste advocate. All views my own.
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7 Comments

  1. “As an American, I’d never felt close to or threatened by warfare-a strange notion, considering I hail from one of the most militant and aggressive countries in the world.”

    Actually, the United States is by far the most militant and aggressive country in the world today. Committing acts of aggression against other countries, who do not agree with America’s imperialistic ambitions, is something that’s very standard within the U.S. government’s foreign policy agenda. Instead of spending a large portion of its national budget on improving the health of the rapidly deteriorating American nation, the extremely militant U.S. government would much rather spend this money on building more bombs, missiles, and other kinds of ridiculous military weapons to be used against puny countries which do not pose the slightest military threat against America. And then after all of that, the U.S. government shamelessly crowns itself as being the “human rights leader” of the world. This is indeed horribly shameful!

  2. It is very courageous of you, Ms. Vann, to publish this balanced and informative article.
    If we really love that piece of land that we call Hayreniq, and want to live there, we have no reasonable choice but to find an honorable way to live peacefully with all our neighbors.

  3. In a nutshell, undoubtably, there are Azeris who are decent and don’t have hatred towards Armenians and are not pursuing the elimination of Armenia. But I don’t know what percentage tif Azeri population they constitute. But unfortunately, the percentage of Azeris who want to see the destruction of Armenia is high and that mentality is reflected in their government. And that’s what Armenia has to contend with.

  4. Karine,
    You lost me after your first few sentences. Armenia is unfortunately located in a place like the south Caucasus and has neighbors like Turks and Tatars (Azeris). Yes, Armenia has no choice but to live with this reality. And yes, sooner or later, Armenia has to living peacefully with all its nehighbors. But, the problem is not with us Armenians it’s with Turks and Tatars. So, your priorities are a bit misplaced. First, Turks and Tatars need to become civilized. Then, we’ll then talk about neighborly relations. Until then, Turks and Tatars pose an existential threat to Armenia. So, “kumbaya” articles such as this only services to mislead our people in front of these two very dangerous enemies.

  5. Reaching peace is one thing and is a good objective but people should not be deluded into thinking that Armenians and Azeris can live harmoniously in the same community. It’s already been tried — in the Soviet union — and it failed miserably.

  6. Aliev and his government are warmongers and like many of the new “Independant Republics” of the former Soviet Union they “loot and rape their countries financially, economically, politically and in every other way they can.” In Azerbaijan’s case Aliev to divert the attention of the Azerbaijani people from his above actions, and “no thanks” to Azerbaijan’s petrodollars they have bought and are buying billions of dollars of weapons for aggressive not defensive purposes and sadly even Russia our ally is helping them with the excuse that if we don’t sell, others will. In addition, Aliev and his government are blaming Armenia and Armenians for every mishap in Azerbaijan and continuously and aggressively propagating hatred towards Armenia, Artsakh and Armenians; and unfortunately many if not the majority of the Azerbaijanis are getting brainwashed. I agree that if possible we should pursue to have dialogue with the people and involve not only the young but also the relatively old who cohabited with Armenians during the Soviet times and had Armenian friends and some who even had Armenian spouses. At the same time we should always be alert and ready in case dialogues and negotiations fail.

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