Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

MASSACRES STILL HAUNT AZERBAIJAN'S ARMENIANS

Just a decade after bloody pogroms in the streets of Baku, Armenians resident in Azerbaijan live in an atmosphere of fear and discrimination.
By Alena Myasnikova

Tamara B. lives with the enemy. An ethnic Armenian, she was born in Baku, married a Russian and has two adult children who both live in the Azerbaijani capital. In 1990, when armed gangs launched a pogrom against local Armenians, the family fled to Moscow. They returned six months later. Baku is the only home they know.


Although she is past retirement age, Tamara doesn't get a pension. She has never applied for one. "I don't want to make a fuss," she says. "If I go and apply for a pension they'll ask for my passport, which proves that I'm an Armenian. Who knows what problems that could mean for me and my family?"


Tamara's husband was a highly placed Communist Party official during the Soviet era and the family lives in a special apartment block built for the nomenclature. The neighbours know of her nationality but, says Tamara, "they have never behaved badly towards me or the children and we still live on good terms."


Like most of the estimated 30,000 Armenians living in Azerbaijan, Tamara keeps a low profile. Memories of the recent pogroms are still fresh: in 1988, 26 Armenians were massacred in Sumgait, on the Caspian Sea, during two days of bloodshed. Two years later, at least 15 died when rampaging mobs took to the streets of Baku.


Recently, the Azerbaijani president, Heidar Aliev, personally guaranteed the safety of all Armenians living in the former Soviet republic. He pledged that any state bureaucrats caught discriminating on the basis of nationality would be severely punished.


But, with 98 per cent of their community consisting of women, most Armenians remain unconvinced. They reason that, if the government is unable to protect the rights of its own people, there can be little hope for representatives of ethnic minorities.


Discrimination is certainly widespread and often Armenians are forced to fight bitterly for their rights. One Armenian, Asya Khydyrova, recently won a court battle over her claims to a Baku apartment.


In 1992, Khydyrova, who was married to an Azerbaijani, took her three children to visit relatives in Kislovodsk. She returned a month later to discover that her husband had not only managed to process a divorce but had also removed her name and those of her children from the flat registration documents. To add insult to injury, he had moved his new fiance into the property.


Supported by the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly and the Human Rights Centre of Azerbaijan, Khydyrova took the case to court. She and her children were eventually awarded half of the living space, which they are now trying to exchange for alternative accommodation. This is a rare case of an Armenian national scoring a victory - be it a modest one - over the system.


Often, Armenians are forced to disguise their identities for fear of discrimination. Yana and Roman Arutyunova were orphaned in 1990. With nowhere else to go, they stayed in Baku where they were brought up by neighbours. Yana, then 17, refused to let her eight-year-old brother go to school because she was afraid he would be bullied.


This year, Roman was called up for military service and Yana paid $250 for a passport which gave him a Russian surname and Russian nationality. She was helped by an old friend of the family who had "good connections".


Yana explains, "Maybe the officers would have treated him normally, but I don't know how he would have got on with the other soldiers who belong to refugee families from the occupied territories."


Now Yana dreams of changing her own passport and getting a new surname and a new nationality. She says the situation is uncertain. "I'm afraid. There are a lot of people in Baku who know that my brother and I are Armenians, and they've helped us and still help us. But who knows what tomorrow will bring?"


Almost all Armenians in Azerbaijan live in the hope that the situation will change for the better. Their hopes have been further fuelled by recent peace talks between the presidents of the two warring countries.


Few, however, have the option of finding sanctuary in Armenia. There they are generally viewed with distrust and suspicion - in fact, one Azerbaijani journalist who recently visited Yerevan was astonished to hear the comment, "They [the Armenians in Azerbaijan] don't have the right to be called Armenians!"


But the number of Armenians prepared to fight for their rights as citizens of Azerbaijan is growing from year to year. To a large extent this has been made possible by the work carried out by non-governmental organisations which have called for people to stand up for their rights and join forces to fight discrimination.


Alena Myasnikova is a correspondent for Monitor Magazine in Baku.