The articles published on this website arose from a project work of Freie Universität Berlin (Free University Berlin). In October 2014 we – six students enrolled in the masters program Osteuropastudien (Eastern European Studies) – decided to discuss the conflict around the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The goal of our website was to provide the German public with insights into the topic, as multilayered as possible Until now there is hardly any information about the conflict available in Germany. Our research was conducted by two central questions: Why does the conflict still remain unsettled and how do the people on both sides of the ceasefire line live with it?
In March and April 2015, after months of preparation, we traveled to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. On the spot we interviewed political scientists, refugees, mothers of soldiers, volunteers, politicians, teenagers, activists and taxi drivers. The articles published on this website give an account of their opinions and our impressions. They are meant to offer a broad overview – and can only portray this gridlocked conflict in excerpts.
If you have any further queries, please do not hesitate to contact us – Elena Ammel, Anne Ludwig, David Ruge, Paul Toetzke, Lina Verschwele and Lisa Westphal – by using the contact form on our website or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
OUR TRIP – Daily notes
Sunday, March 29th
Arrival in Tbilisi: After a flight that lasted roughly 13 hours, including an 8 hour layover in Istanbul, we arrive in Tbilisi completely exhausted. The owner of the hostel picks us up from the airport. After eating dinner, we fall straight into our bed.
Monday, March 30th
Early in the morning we go to the Azerbaijan embassy, to make one more attempt to get our visa for our research in Azerbaijan. When we’re there, we realize that in contrast with Germany, here in Georgia it seems to work a lot faster than we thought: after only four hours in the embassy, we leave with the promise of receiving a visa in three days. After this, we explore the city and eat in a Georgian restaurant. Aside from the waitress, we were the only women in the restaurant. The hospitable and exuberant Georgians invite us to drink Rakija with them. We gladly accept the invitation: finally, we manage to celebrate Paul’s birthday!
Tuesday, March 31st
The next morning, we make our way down to an Azerbaijani tea house. A young Armenian girl serves us our tee– the owner of the tea house, however, is Azerbaijani. In this tea house, people work together peacefully, drink tea, and play backgammon– politics seems to be unimportant. In Georgia, the country which provided the ground for a neutral platform for discussion about the Nagorno–Karabakh War, this is possible. In the evening, we meet Lenny, the hostel owner, and his girlfriend in a hip bar that could have been set up in Neukölln in Berlin.
Wednesday, April 1st
On Wednesday, we meet with Nino Lejava, the leader of the regional office of the southern caucus for the Heinrich Böll foundation. The interview that came out of our meeting can be read here. Other than that, we went to the train station to get information about our tickets to Baku.
Thursday, April 2nd
With the hope of in the end finally getting handed a visa for Azerbaijan, Lina and Lisa go again to the Azerbaijani embassy in the morning: Lisa’s visa arrived, Lina’s, however, is still being processed. We will be able to pick it up around 4:00 p.m. Since our night train to Baku departs at 4:30 p.m., our departure was delayed one more day.
In the evening, Georgian students lead us all through Tbilisi. They show us the many churches and the mosque in the city. The mullah tells us that this is the only mosque in the entire world in which Shiites and Sunnites pray together. After an inquiry, it becomes apparent that this is the case for very practical reasons– in the entire city of Tbilisi, there is only one mosque. In the evening, we find ourselves again in a typical Georgian cellar restaurant. This time, the people sitting next to us invite us to drink homemade wine with them, which they had brought in big plastic canisters. Half an hour later, the tables were pushed together and we introduced ourselves with the help of English, Russian, and above all sign language. We’re overwhelmed by their openness and hospitality we were met with in this restaurant.
Friday, April 3rd
4:00 p.m.: departure to Baku. At a maximum of 50 km/h, our train glides across the Azerbaijani capital city. As villages and hills pass by, we (Lina and Lisa) meet the people in the neighboring part of the train. The three of them studied dentistry in Germany, and as an ‘unofficial proxy’, they give us a pack of ‘cartridges’. They will come in handy later, when the sleeping coach heats up to 35 degrees: our provisions melted a long time ago, yet the sunflower seeds are still in good shape.
Meanwhile in Tekali
On this sunny morning, we (now only Elena and Paul) make our way through a small village named Tekali, not far from the border to Azerbaijan. Here in this unremarkable village inhabited by Azerbaijani people, a peace project between Azerbaijani and Armenians is taking place– with a small frame, yet a large impact. Although the two leaders of the project, who we already spoke with in Germany, aren’t in Tekali at the time being, we want to see the place at the very least. After an exciting travel through the border village, we were kindly received by Mushvig, the ‘mayor’ of the town. He invited us to have tea and cookies. The Easter eggs we brought create confusion at first. However, after a short introduction into German Easter tradition, he ate them up with relish. At the moment, the office of the Tekali project is in Mushvig’s house– the NGO Caucus Center of Peace Making Initiatives doesn’t have its own building in Tekali.
Mushvig doesn’t only want to show us the village, but also a really special place – “so that you understand why the Tekali project takes place here.” His nephew drives us through the mountains in his Jeep up until the point where the borders of Armenian, Azerbaijan and Georgia meet– the South Caucasian border triangle. The view is breathtaking.
In the afternoon, Mushvig takes us through the village and then invites us to the only restaurant in the area to an expansive meal. He tells us a lot about the history of Tekali, but also about the Tekali Process and its perception by the villagers and participants. At the end, we have to admit that his until then somewhat grim-looking nephew drove us back up to Tbilisi in a good mood. Full of thanks and visibly exhausted from the trip to a village which is just an hour’s drive from the Georgian capital, where the Nagorno-Karabakh war already seems to dominate the lives of the residents worlds away, we return to our hostel in the evening.
Saturday, April 4th
9:00 a.m: Arrival in Baku. The first impressions of Azerbaijan fulfill the cliché: To the left a row of withdrawn tanks, to the right mining towers, and in between lie plains and construction sites. After a long journey through the suburb, the majestic skyscrapers of the city center rise before us- we’re there. When getting out of the car, we’re welcomed by a bunch of taxi drivers and a huge poster of Heydar Aliyev, the ubiquitous former president of the country. What is written under there, we ask. “He lives in our hearts,” says one, laughing bitterly. “Because we are now rich from all the oil. Well, I don’t see anything from that ”
2:00 p.m. in the hostel: after we try on our guest slippers and finish drinking our welcome tea, we go to our first appointment. We almost feel like agents, since nobody is supposed to know what we’re traveling further to Karabakh. For that, you need the government’s permission. You also have to be registered as journalists. Even though we love government offices in general, we did it without the permission and registration. Now we’re waiting at the station “İçəri Şəhər“ for our contact, who we don’t recognize from the photos. Finally, a grown up man asks us if we’re Lisa and Lina. There’s more about Ali Abasov in this portrait.
Meanwhile in Tbilisi
We decide to save a day for writing. The last day in Tekali was so eventful, that we need time to sort out all the information and write it down. Aside from that, we want to organize a place to stay in Yerevan, and prepare for the upcoming interviews. After we took care of everything, we meet again with the Georgian history students. One of them, Giorgi, speaks perfect German. Everybody emphasizes, that the Nagorno-Karabakh war hardly has an influence on their daily lives. They emphasize instead the competition between Georgia and Armenia – culturally, historically, and scientifically. None of them were in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Sunday, April 5th
We just want to explore the old city, but then someone speaks to us in German. Ivan (name changed) actually lives in Berlin. Now he’s finishing his service in the military. Actually, he bought his way out of doing service. Until his ‘service’ is done, he has to stay in Baku, and spends the time in a friend’s carpet store. The store owner, Bakhtiar fled Shusha in Karabakh in 1992. Here is a portrayal of his history. Later in the day we meet another Bakthiar: he also fled from Karabakh. He too would pack his things immediately if he were allowed to return. And yet here the similarities end: while the first Bakthiar went to war for his country, the second one was involved in the peace process. Exactly how he came to be involved will be told in the interview.
Meanwhile in the borderland
From the bus station in Tbilisi, we take a Marschrutka to Sadakhlo, a village on the border crossing to Armenia. After changing buses three times, we cross the border without any problems (a visa isn’t necessary for either Georgia nor Armenia). We wait for Georgi, a leader of the Tekali project, who invited us to ‘his village’ in Armenia for an interview. After an extended break at the border crossing, which was financed by the EU and only recently finished, Georgi and his friend Karen pick us up in a sleek Lada. Then we drive through the beautiful landscape, up the curvy mountainside, all along the border to Azerbaijan into a village called Nerkin Tsaghkavan. Recently, Georgi moved into this village in order to live together with potential participants of the Tekali project.
For a moment, our hearts skipped a beat after Karen told us in a quiet tone “Over there are the bunkers from the Azerbaijani army. If we drive really slowly, they’ll shoot at us.” Yet luckily the Lada took us rather quickly up the mountain, and we arrived safely in the village. After making a short round in the village, some of the young kids in the village invited us to eat grilled fish– fresh from the Sevan lake. For digestion, Paul was summoned to play a game of soccer. The interview was postponed until the next day. Not entirely disappointed about that, we go to bed.
Monday, April 6th
Our last day in Baku. We interview Zardusht Alizadeh, a famous founder of political parties and critic of the government. Then, panic breaks out: the desk for the bus tickets to Tbilisi is nowhere to be found. Luckily, an old man helps us. The way is really simple after all– only into the shopping center, down two staircases, left, 200 meters straight ahead, one more time right and down another staircase. To thanks to him, we invite the man, who helped us to eat food at the Imbiss. Later, he casually pulls out a red booklet from his bag. His veteran passport: “Whenever I show this, I can be sure to be appreciated. But because of that, I look like this at only 53 years old”, he says, and shows us his gray hair.
Meanwhile: Journey to Yerevan
This morning, Elena and Paul are not woken up by their cell phones, but rather from the crowing of an Armenian mountain rooster– an effective alternative! Georgi drives us to Dilijan, where we can carry out our interview about his engagement in the Tekali project and his assessment of how the conflict is developing over a strong cup of coffee. After Giorgi finishes his 20th cigarette of the morning and the interview is over, we get in the Marschrutka and we doze as the care drives towards the Armenian capital city. As we pass the Sevan lake, our heads shake left and right under the rattling of the potholes in the road. In Yerevan, we stay with Artak, a Ukrainian linguistics student that we met on couchsurfing. He has only been to Nagorno-Karabakh once with Armenian friends– “for a stamp in my passport, and, honestly, to celebrate and drink. . .”
Tuesday, April 7th
Today in Yerevan, we meet Luiza, the second ‘head’ of the Tekali project. She explains her ideology to us and emboldens us to get involved after the completion of our blog. In the evening, we meet with Syune, a journalist from Yerevan that works at the Armenian news agency. She’s very busy at the moment– the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide are coming up and the editors want to know how the foreign press will cover the event. Nonetheless, she gives us important tips and also contacts for our stay in Nagorno-Karabakh. Shortly thereafter, Lina and Lisa also come to Yerevan, and we’re all together again. After eating dinner together, there is a discussion about the situation and a planning for the next days in the Yerevan headquarters, namely Artak’s living room, which looks more and more like a campsite.
Wednesday, April 8th
The last day in Armenia, before we go to Nagorno-Karabakh. More interviews are in the progress. In the morning, Lina and Elena meet with Gegham Baghadasaryan, a famous journalist and former delegate of the de-facto parliament in Nagorno-Karabakh. In the evening, Lisa does an interview with Vahram Soghomonyan, a Karabakh-Armenian political scientist and employee of the German embassy in Yerevan. Meanwhile, Paul engages with a few members of the Federation of Youth Clubs, who have a few questions about our project and give us new contacts in Stepanakert. Lina takes care of the last preparations for the next day’s journey. In the evening we meet Tatev and Rema, two students that know a lot about the conflict and participated in a project that aims to create a better understanding between Azerbaijani and Armernians in civil society. Tatev is writing her doctoral thesis about Nagorno-Karabakh.
Thursday, April 9th
8:00 a.m.: We drive to the bus station in a taxi. Our backpacks are fastened to the roof of a Marschrutka, and we wait until the small bus is full. A young soldier in uniform sits in front of us. His father brought him to the bus, they communicate with hand signals through a closed window. The father tells the son to put his forehead on the window pane so he can give him a kiss. It seems like the son is going away to war. The way to Karabakh is cumbersome, the streets are bad, and there are lots of curves in the mountain. Once in a while we have to stop so that people can get out of the vehicle and barf all over the place. The bus driver seems to be unimpressed. At the border, we’re the only four people that have to get out and show our passports. In Stepanakert, on the instructions of the border official, we have to foreign ministry. After a half an hour we get our visas. They are printed on an a piece of paper with a hologram glued on the backside. We can decide if we want to glue it into our passports (and thereby travel safely without having our entry into Azerbaijan refused) or not. In the evening, we meet with Susanna, a well known and well-rounded organizer of the in the Arzakh Youth Development center. In the evening, we accept Susanne’s help– she organizes us a hotel, since there are no hostels in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Friday, April 10th
In the morning we go with a group of local students to Nor Maragha, where we attend a memorial for a massacre that took place during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. In the following report, you can read about our impressions from our conversation with survivors on this day. We also run into Alana, who offers to let us sleep at her house in Shusha on Sunday. She’s an Armenian volunteer for the organization Birthright Armenia from America. Since we’ve already planned a visit, or rather a few appointments in Shusha, the ‘cultural capital’ of Karabakh, we gladly accept her invitation.
Saturday, April 11th
In the afternoon, Elena and Lisa visit the Press Club, an independent association of journalists. You’ll learn more about the conversation with Masis Mayilyan, the politician and editor, in the following potrait. Paul and Lina speak with the parliamentary president from Nagorno-Karabakh. Afterwards, we eat our first “Yingyalov Hac” together– a herb bread which, according to personal specification can have anywhere between 20-50 different herbs. It is the national dish in Karabakh. Thereafter, we visit the new opposition party – “National Renaissance Party” at a campaign meeting.
We celebrate Lina’s birthday at midnight. Sine there are no bars, we stay home. The only club in the entire country was also already closed when we arrive at 12:30.
Sunday, April 12th
The second part of our time in Nagorno-Karabakh begins with a ride in the Marschrutka over the serpentine roads from Stepanakert to Shusha. There we plan to sleep at Alana’s house, the volunteer from the USA. It’s Lina’s birthday, and we wanted to take the day off after concentrating on the project for two weeks straight. But it doesn’t even take two minutes till we’re caught up in a discussion in three different languages– English, Russian, and German– with the popular Saro and his friend, a pensioned soldier. The former was in the war in the beginning of the 1990’s, after he’d fled from Baku to Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, he’s the region’s expert on the (Armenian) history of Shusha. The latter indulges in his memories about his life in the DDR: as a young soldier, the Soviet Army was stationed for a year there. Half proud, half self-ironic, he shows us his tattoo on his forearm from this time. After we passed through the thick fog to Alana’s decrepit but spacious house, in addition to Alana, Sevan from California and an Italian and someone from the Czech Republic come to greet us. Like us, they are also staying at Alana’s house from couchsurfing.
We are hungry, so Sevan, Artho, and another boy from Lebanon decide to go find a kebab, tea, and maybe a schnapps to have a toast with. The first bar is out of anything (even though we’re the only guests to come by in days), but the second bar– a hotspot in summer– receives us with good temperatures, fantastic home cooking, disco music from the 90’s, plastic flowers everywhere and a military satire on TV. Over dinner, we discuss the comparability of Israel and Nagorno-Karabakh – what does ‘Holy Land’ actually mean? Back at Alana’s house, we spend the evening drinking regional wine, listening to American music, telling Czech jokes, eating German chocolate, and playing international card games. In the following report, there is more information about Alana, other volunteers and their main reasons for traveling to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Monday, April 13th
Lisa and Paul walk through the snow to the cultural ministry to talk with the minister in charge. Artho, our new friend, translates. Here you can read the interview with the Minister of Culture. Lina and Elena go to the museum of dead soldiers. There they will meet Vera, the mother of a soldier that is famous far beyond Nagorno-Karabakh. The mood in Stepanakert is somewhat bizarre. In addition to the thick fog, squalls and torrents of rainwater joined. All of the sudden, the otherwise emphatically tidy city seems to sink into chaos. The canals are overwhelmed by the tempests– yet the illuminated campaign advertisements, one meter high, change their content at regular one minute intervals. In the early evening, a part of the group goes to the ‘ghost town’ Agdam. Another part of the group tries to capture images of the ubiquitous display of independence (or rather, of statehood). They take photos of campaign posters, mobile voting offices, entry signs of different ministries, academies, and public institutions that all begin with the word ‘official’ and end with ‘of Nagorno-Karabakh’. Back in Alana’s house (Shusha), the cultural climax of our stay in Nagorno-Karabakh happens: as a group of 10 people, we play music with percussion, guitars, accordions, wile others sing songs from different countries. The homemade red wine, filled in plastic containers from the small store across the road, is one more thing to ensure that we’re all warm. This evening, we think very little about the bloody history and widespread desolation of this town.
Tuesday, April 14th
Today Paul and Elena are invited to an interview with the blind speaker of the prime minister, Artak Beglaryan. He’s taken care of by a young woman, who runs his Facebook account as well as making sure that all the guests have fresh fruits (instead of the usual cookies) upon their arrival. The speaker is as old as we are, an impressive young man with clear vision. Even though he lost his vision as a school child in a mine, he was not prevented from fighting for his country, Nagorno-Karabakh, with words and deeds. He wanted to see that his country would one day come to be an internationally renowned democracy. Lina and Lisa meet with Saro in the meantime, a refugee from Baku (see April 12th) that runs his own NGO. They interview him and he leads them on a tour through the city. In the evening, Paul and Elena observe the campaign work of the young party ‘National Renaissance‘, while Lina and Lisa speak with participants of an English class in the youth center of Stepanakert. They give out interviews, which the school kids complete with relish. The evening fades away quietly. The next morning, we want to take the bus to Stepanakert at 7am, to get back in Yerevan in about 8 hours.
Monday, April 15th
In an overfilled vehicle, half of a bus, half of a Marschrutka, we drive through the most beautiful sunshine through the mountains and valleys, past the fallow lands, the cluster of Spartan abodes, and an unusual amount of small gas stations. . . Once in a while we stop at open passages of the road to pick up freshly tied bundles, boxes and brooms, or to let passengers out either temporarily (those who look upset) or permanently (those who are joyfully expected). At the border, we, the only four foreigners, have to get out shortly to show our visas.
When we arrive early in the morning in Yerevan, an indefinite relief spreads throughout the group. . . the relaxed end of our journey begins here. We have a toast to this in the park with our couchsurfing host Artak (see April 6th). Later we take a walk further and enjoy the Yerevan. After 6 days of intense work and many new impressions in Nagorno-Karabakh, we enjoy the happy, spring environment in the Armenian capital.
Thursday, April 16th
The next afternoon we go hunting for souvenirs, but hardly find anything. In both Armenia and Georgia, it seems very difficult to come across something that would be deemed typical for the country, like a labelled coffee mug. In the early evening, we get in a big taxi, since the last Marschrutka to Tbilisi had, according to the information we’ve received, already long since departed. The stress about the leftover Drams we had is already over before we cross the country’s border: an Iranian diplomat offers us fruits and cookies (at the end he told us that if we ever came to Iran, he’d be ‘at our duty’). The half toothless, Georgian driver is a real joker. He stops many times along the way so that we can take photos or just enjoy the breathtaking view. His front seat passenger, a clean cut, somewhat corpulent middle-age Russian woman, is the only one who can speak Armenian. She translates the huge inscriptions that we see when we drive by a camp of the Armenian army not far from the ceasefire line. Lake Sevan, one of the prettiest mountain lakes in all of Armenia, stretches out kilometers long to our right side. It’s also famous for its tasty fish, so we stop three more times so that the driver and the Russian woman can get us the best price. The sun shines and we shine back– how lucky we are to have gotten into this taxi! We arrive in Tbilisi at around 9 p.m.
Friday, April 17th
Spring! We eat breakfast in sunglasses and t-shirts on the the roof terrace of the hostel. Lina and Paul dare to go to get their hair cut (with a very good result), Lina and Elena write their last (and first) postcards. In the evening, we take a walk along the famous market at the bus station. There, shortly before our departure back home, we discover the real treasures amongs the normal activities: the entire area of almost 400 quadratic meters has a cellar underneath it. Despite all the fire safety regulations, there is an entire underworld to this market, that every schnapps drinker will love. In the evening, we decide not to visit the many sulfuric therms, where you can rent separate cabinets with friends and even have a picnic. Instead, we spend our last evening outside in the company of others where the day began– on the roof terrace.
Saturday, April 18th
The day begins shortly before 5 a.m. with a scare– in two and a half hours, Elena’s flight departs, but the taxi we ordered is nowhere to be found. It doesn’t take long for Lenny to wake up, curse at his friend (the taxi driver), and then pick up his phone an call another friend (who is also a taxi driver). Not 10 minutes later Elena, wide awake, is speeding off to the airport. Lina, Lisa and Paul follow a few hours later. The same evening, we’ll meet up in Berlin– in Lisa’s WG there will be a party. It went so fast! Here we are again, back in another world. On the end of our journey and at the beginning of our attempt to give expression to our experiences.