Liberation vs. Occupation – The Nagorno-Karabakh War from a personal perspective

Bakthiyar in his shop

Lisa and Bakthiyar in his office. Photo: ©Lina Verschwele

By Lisa Westphal

The histories of the war could hardly be more diverse, yet at the same time, they resemble each other: one portrait of two men who respectively had to flee in opposite directions.

The versions of the history about the Nagorno-Karabakh region could hardly be more diverse. For the Armenian people, the Nagorno-Karabakh denotes a region that was unjustly allocated to the constituent republic of Azerbaijan during the founding of the Soviet Union. For that reason, the conquest of Karabakh by Armenian and Karabakhi troops was called a ‘liberation’ by Karabakh. The Azerbaijani, on the contrary, considered Nagorno-Karabakh as the “birthplace of their nation”, which was unjustly occupied by Armenia during the war between 1992 and 1994.

In conversations with both sides, one often gets the feeling that one is discussing entirely different events. The paradigms merely resemble one another. Reciprocal accusations are made blaming the other side of having committed pogroms against people who practice their own ethnicity. Historical maps supposedly indicate that the region has been settled by Azerbaijani and Armenians for thousands of years. It appears to be impossible to write a collective version of the history.

However, considered from a personal level, one thing becomes clear: both nations suffered from the war in Karabakh. The personal stories are even surprisingly similar. A perfect example thereof are the experiences of Bakhtiyar and Saro:

Bakhtiyar sits in his business “Karabakh Carpets” in the back room on the sofa, beneath a portrait of the Aliyevs, who have ruled Azerbaijan since the end of the 60’s. While he pours us tea and lights his cigarette, he tells us about his memories from Karabakh. He was forced to leave his homeland at the age of 14. “We didn’t have a youth; there were no games, but instead lots of blood, destroyed houses and death.” Bakhtiyar fled together with all Azerbaijani families out of Shusha/ Shushi into Nagorno-Karabakh on May 8th, 1992, one day before the Armenian troops took over the city. Even today he meets every year with other refugees to commemorate this tragic day. The next day in Karabakh, a military parade to the liberation of Shushi was held. It appears to be cynical when one is familiar with the history of the other side.

After two and a half years in various refugee housings, the son, a teacher and an engineer moved with his family to Baku and opened up a carpet store after finishing his military service. Today, he feels at home in Baku. Nonetheless, Nagorno-Karabakh still has a place in his heart: if he could, he would move back tomorrow.

Saro, a graduate historian and president of the union for Armenian refugees, grew up in Baku, until he and his family fled from Baku to Shushi in 1988, just before the Pogroms happened. He realized how much the mood in Baku transformed into a hostile one when his good, Azerbaijani friend showed him a knife that he bought ‘for the Armenians’. He convinced his family to leave the country. “They were like bunnies in the sight of a snake. My mother especially was in a state of shock. She couldn’t imagine leaving her house.” On the bus, driving away form the unrest in Baku, he fell asleep on the shoulder of an Azerbaijani. During the war, he lived with his family (who came a few weeks later) in the office rooms of a furniture factory, before they could move into the empty house of an Azerbaijani family. Saro joined the partisan soldiers to ‘liberate’ Karabakh. He also took part in the ‘liberation’ of Shushi as a soldier.

Saro in Shusha/Shushi. Photo: © Lina Verschwele

Saro in Shusha/Shushi. Photo: © Lina Verschwele

On this day, the life paths of both refugees split ways. Considering the political situation today, it seems highly unlikely that the two will run into each other again. Saro and Bakhtiyar unite in their love for Karabakh, yet they split at a highly rusted military border. Their stories resemble one another: both fled their home cities, lost close friends and family members, in the meantime, both have settled down in the birth city of the other, and furthermore, both consider themselves refugees. As an outsider, it becomes ever more difficult to understand why the Armenians and Azerbaijani fight. Why a resolution to the conflict still isn’t in sight becomes clearer during discussions like those with Bakhtiyar and Saro. Their stories are two sides of the one coin. Only– their versions of the events are so different, the two of them feel like they’re not speaking of the same coin.

Translation by Hunter Bolin.