Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Armenia: Sad Fate of Azeri Graves
When I heard that the Azerbaijani cemetery in the village of Nor Khachakal, in Lori district, had been repaired by the NGO Helsinki Civil Assembly, I felt an urge to see with my own eyes the graves of Azerbaijanis who once lived in the country.
In 1988, a dispute over Nagorny Karabakh broke out in the Caucasus, with most ethnic Azerbaijanis leaving Armenia and vice versa. As the conflict grew, monuments were destroyed in both countries - especially graveyards. In the once Azerbaijani-populated village of Saral, which was renamed Nor Khachakal, its two Azerbaijani cemeteries are abandoned, and many of the headstones broken.
Last year, the Armenian culture ministry was allocated two million drams (about six thousand US dollars) of government money to collect information about Azerbaijani cemeteries and cultural monuments in Armenia. This study identified a total of 69 cemeteries in Armenia and another 52 in Nagorny Karabakh and the seven Armenian-controlled territories outside Karabakh.
The study concluded that more of the cemeteries had been preserved than had been destroyed. The government then chose not to allocate money for their restoration after deciding that the graveyards had no intrinsic cultural value.
However, the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly did a study of the Azerbaijani cemeteries in the region last year, which showed they were in a ruinous state, and decided to use grant money to restore them.
I wanted to see the places that used to be home to Azerbaijanis now perceived as “the enemy”, to see the state of the graves and tell the former Azerbaijani residents of Armenia about the fate of their dear ones’ resting places.
The urge to write became even stronger, when I saw Azerbaijan, who’d come to Armenia at the invitation of the organisation implementing the rehabilitation works, praying at the old cemetery in Nor Khachakal. There they conducted a special worship ritual, asking God to give rest to the souls of those buried there, and thanking the Armenians for trying to restore the graves.
On that day, the cemetery was strewn with white carnations - the first flowers laid there for 18 years. Seeing those graves now restored and covered with flowers, one could not help thinking once again how wrong it was to bear a grudge against the dead, how wrong were those who, embittered by the conflict, took their anger out on the graves.
Armenia’s Azerbaijani cemeteries should be written about, I thought, for the sake of peace and greater tolerance between the two societies.
Less than a year later, I went to Nor Khachakal again only to be disappointed: I had hardly entered the cemetery, when I noticed that the plate giving details of the renovation of the graves was already broken.
However, local residents - Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan – seemed to know nothing about it, while the head of the village promised to find the wrongdoers.
Conversations with the villagers proved discouraging. I, who wanted to write about how humane it was on part of the Armenians to repair the cemetery in Nor Khachakal, now had to listen to stories about Armenian cemeteries razed to the ground after the war. They said that potatoes were grown where an Armenian cemetery used to lie in Azerbaijan and offered to prove their claims with videotapes sent to them by their former neighbours and acquaintances from Azerbaijan.
The picture was even gloomier in the village of Arjut, several kilometres away from Nor Khachakal. Some graves had disappeared altogether.
I felt a pain that one feels when seeing something that is left to the mercy of fate, even if it belongs to a different culture, and it strengthened my belief that it was wrong to keep silent about it.
And patriotism has nothing to do with it. It’s not unpatriotic to speak about the shoddy treatment of graves, even if they belong to the other side.
After the article was published, I had to listen to and read many critical comments about the inappropriateness of writing about Azerbaijani graves at a time, when they were destroying Armenian cemeteries and Khachkars (ornate Armenian stones commonly used to mark graves).
I felt somewhat subdued when a person who had probably never in any way contributed to promoting peace questioned my love of motherland and professionalism.
But this did not last long, because when you are a journalist and writing about people and their fates, it is not your emotions, but the objective reality that matters most.
Naira Bulgadarian is an IWPR contributor in Vanadzor, Armenia.
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