Armenian journalists are used to writing about the Nagorny Karabakh war, but no amount of experience prepared me for meeting Arthur Badalyan.
I am just 34, so I have no direct memories of the conflict, and have previously relied on hearing about it from veterans. That has made it in a way distant, something to be studied and understood.
The story I heard from Badalyan, who returned from captivity in March this year, was different. The awareness of how state politics and distant decisions can destroy the life of a poor young man still shocks me.
Badalyan says he crossed the border from Armenia into Azerbaijan by accident, and was then detained. Officials in Azerbaijan deny that Badalyan was mistreated in detention.
While he told me of the two years he spent in captivity, I realised ever more the absurdity of war. It hurts me to think how this unresolved conflict destroys the lives of guiltless people such as him, and I wrote this article in the hope that it would show those who think differently the consequence of their opinion.
It was hard for me to accept having an Azeri colleague’s work included in the story, since that would mean publishing an official denial of any bad treatment of Badalyan. I had seen him, I believed that he was telling the truth when he described being beaten in captivity. This was a 32-year-old who, according to his relatives, was a completely normal young man but now needs psychological treatment to be able to function properly.
Nonetheless, I recognised that we must struggle to create a balanced picture, and the Azeris have the right to have their voice heard.
One thing I was surprised by was his readiness to talk. Normally, it is hard to find sources for stories, but Badalyan was the easiest of interviewees. Indeed, it was far harder to see him in the state he was in, and to hear the words he was saying about his ordeal, than to persuade him to say them.
It was far more difficult again to persuade officials to talk on the record about his troubles. For two days straight, I rang officials and non-governmental offices to find information on the appeals filed by Armenians at the European Court of Human Rights; and then to get reaction to the comments provided by my Azeri colleague.
And that caused problems all of their own. As an Armenian, I struggle to hear Azeris refer to Karabakh, which we call “liberated”, as “occupied”. In discussion with our editor, however, we managed to come up with a formula that we could both agree on, and that reflected Karabakh’s disputed status.
As a journalist, I know I need to be neutral and objective, but all the same, when I hear an Azeri insist that Nagorny Karabakh is really part of Azerbaijan, two Naira Bulghadaryans start to fight inside me. One is a journalist, and knows that we need to be neutral, and the other is an Armenian, who wants to support the interests of her nation.
Any Armenian would find it hard to put their name to such an article, but I recognise that Azeris feel the same way. Seymur, my Azeri colleague, would be suffering the same doubts about terminology and structure.
Luckily, the editors managed to find a way through our differences, and the joint article was acceptable to both sides.
The stand-off between our two countries is so serious that I doubt articles like the one that Seymur and I produced will have much influence on our government. But we can keep hoping that our articles affect the societies we live in, and awake them to the human tragedies at the heart of the conflict. Maybe that will help bring peace.