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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.