Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Armenia-Azerbaijan: Learning to Give "Enemies" a Human Face
When I saw a Facebook message saying that IWPR Armenia was seeking a journalist to write an article in partnership with an Azerbaijani reporter about the way history is taught in the two countries, I wondered whether such a collaboration was possible at all.
I was very young during the Armenian-Azerbaijani war for control of Nagorny Karabakh, but I vividly remember the way adults used to talk about it well into the night. I did not understand what they were discussing, but I could see from their faces whether the latest news was good or bad.
My grandmother and I would sit in the corner and listen to the radio, and I learned to gauge her reactions. If she was upset by the news, I would sing a patriotic song about Armenian revolutionary hero General Drastamat Kanayan to cheer her up. Once I asked my mother whether if I sang the song enough, the general would return to save our homeland.
There was a boy at school who was a refugee from Azerbaijan. We pitied him because he had lost his mother, but since he did not play with us or talk to us, we soon forgot about him and the war he had experienced.
At the time, I did not know that the enemies whom we called “Turks” were real people. I imagined them as some kind of horrific creatures out of a fairy tale.
I was ten when we started studying Armenian history at school, and realised that the enemy had not vanished, but was living next door.
The history lessons raised as many questions as they answered. Why had our two nations fought each other? Why did the book call them Azeris when we called them Turks?
We now understand that Turks and Azeris are different though related peoples, although it took some time for this to filter into the general consciousness.
The narrative of Azeris as our eternal enemies is more complex than it seems, too. My maternal grandmother, for example, often recalled how in Soviet times, Azeri traders visiting our town would sleep in our homes, and were decent people.
“Who’d have thought then that we’d become enemies?” she asked.
I used to wonder how it Armenians and Azeris could have trusted one another and spend time under the same roof. I was, admittedly, unusually hard-line. Although I considered myself tolerant, when it came to Karabakh and the Azeris, the blood would rush to my head.
I remember one day one of my friends asked me what I’d do if I found myself standing next to an Azeri. The image of them as enemies suddenly collapsed. I was forced to confront the fact that they were people just like me. It is hard to hate and wish evil on someone whom you recognise as a human being.
When I started university, I began visiting Armenian refugee families and reporting on their problems. Young people don’t discuss the past much, but older people would happily talk about their former lives in Azerbaijan. When I heard how they lost relatives, homes and livelihoods, I would often start crying and voicing hatred for the Azeris who had inflicted such suffering on these innocent people.
But eventually I began to notice that people who had actually experienced pogroms that drove them from their homes never said bad things about the Azeris as a nation; they never cursed or abused them. In fact, they often recalled with gratitude the neighbours who helped them escape, frequently risking their lives to do so. When they saw how I reacted to their stories, they would try to calm me down and tell me there were good people in Azerbaijan, too.
I could not understand them, and it was my own mother who had to explain to me that hatred and vengefulness makes us weaker and removes our ability to think clearly. After that, I began to look on people differently. I try to forgive everyone and not to waste energy on hatred.
Now I take every opportunity to write about Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, as I believe our two nations need to know more about each other.
I was therefore delighted to join a colleague from Azerbaijan in writing about the way history is set out in textbooks. I hope that it will help us find a common language and contribute in some small way towards achieving peace.
(For an Azerbaijani perspective on the same story, see Azerbaijan: Tackling Ethnicity and Conflict No Easy Task.)
Haykuhi Barseghyan is a reporter for the Armenian weekly Ankakh and its website www.ankakh.com.
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