By Lina Verschwele
Some 80 years after the genocide of the Armenians, the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, came to an end. Many Armenians see the massacre of the war as a continuation of the genocide. The vivid images of that time remain today.
At first glance it looks like a class trip; 15 young people flock to the old Mercedes Sprinter, which rolls unhurriedly along the road. The mood is relaxed, the conversation lively. The intended destination of the group is not a holiday camp however, not a lake, not even a boring museum – it is Nor Maragha, a refugee village. Today, on the 23rd anniversary of the forced displacement, the students want, together with the residents of the village, to commemorate the victims.
On 10 April 1992, Azerbaijani forces attacked the town of Maragha. Those who could fled, but many of the older inhabitants were unable to do so. When Armenian forces recaptured the town the following day, at least 43 of the 500 residents were killed and more than 50 were abducted, 19 of which were never to return. Two weeks later, the Azerbaijanis renewed their attack and the town remains to this day under Azerbaijani control. Many of the refugees subsequently settled amongst the ruins of a village approximately 25 kilometers away from their original home, naming it Nor Maragha – New Maragha. Today, there are around 100 people living there.
Since the end of the Soviet Union, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have fought for control of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1991, the region broke away from Azerbaijan and declared itself to be independent. The war that subsequently broke out only ended in 1994. Since then, the region has still not found peace or stability – along the ceasefire lines deadly clashes continue.
For many Karabakh Armenians, however, the significance of the conflict extends far beyond this. For many, the victims of the Karabakh war are inseparably linked to the trauma of the genocide.
The massacres that were carried out on their own people are commonly considered to be the continuation of the genocide. The Azerbaijanis, because of their political and linguistic proximity to Turkey, are further seen as Turkish, and thus also perpetrators. The students also want to commemorate both events simultaneously. Their trip, planned by an NGO, starts in Spenakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. Shortly after their departure, a student begins singing. “My home in Fatherland”, translates Artak, a student from Lebanon. It is a somber war song about life in another country, about exile, the longing for an unknowable home, burnt monasteries, and gravestones washed with tears. It is a hymn for the Diaspora of Armenia. You could say, a hymn for people like Artak. The 25 year old belongs to the Armenian Diaspora. He has only been living in Karabakh since October. Before that, he had made only two short trips to Armenia. As a volunteer, he is currently working on a website about the genocide. On this particular day, he is out and about with his camera as part of this work.
In the satellite orbit
For Artak, Armenia’s history is a central reason for remaining permanently in Karabakh, or Armenia. Even though his family lives in Lebanon and only his mother was born in Armenia, the region is, for him, his historic homeland. It is often difficult for foreigners to understand what it means to have such a history; the history of the genocide.
He is currently funded by the NGO, Birthright Armenia, which aims to strengthen the bond between the Diaspora and their homeland. According to its website, this is ideally achieved through the encouragement of a longer-term stay in Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh. It goes on to state one of the conditions for funding: “You must be of Armenian heritage (at least one grandparent must be fully Armenian).” The website also offers a live counter on the number of volunteers currently engaged in projects (46), the total number of participants who have completed the program (more than 900) and the number who have settled in Armenia or Karabak (70). Artak is one of these few moving in the returning direction. Since the early 1990s, 700,000 people have left the country. There are currently approximately three million people living in Armenia, with Nagorno-Karabakh home to around 140,000 of them.
“I just feel at home here,” Artak says and smiles, something which does not happen often here. At the same time, his interaction with the others seems somewhat awkward. He is like a satellite, orbiting the scene, rather than partaking in it. As ruins suddenly appear in the hilly landscape, Artak likewise turns the conversation to the history of the city. Before the war, more than 90,000 people lived here, mostly Azerbaijanis. After the exodus, Aghdam became a ghost town. Today, the ruins are a prohibited area – there are still many land mine zones here. Only a hardened few still have their vegetable gardens. The students, many of whom want to be agriculturists, talk shop, discussing what they want to grow. When the conversation turns to the Azerbaijani refugees, Artek says only, “they can exaggerate the figures if they want to.”
In Azerbaijan, but also in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, many parts of the media repeatedly exaggerate their own casualty figures. At the same time, the actions of their own side in the war are often glossed over, or war crimes denied completely. Such were the propaganda claims made over the two most well-known massacres of the conflict, in Sumgait and Khojali. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis murdered their fellow countrymen and then proceeded to attribute their actions to the other side.
Time after time
When, after half an hour, the bus reaches its destination, there are already around 80 people standing next to the gravelled road. The many children amongst them are wearing their school uniform, a dress or white shirt, and have brought flowers. The majority of them are holding placards with the slogan “Remember and Demand”, or pictures of forget-me-nots on them – the flower has become a symbol of the 100 days of remembrance of the genocide. Forget-me-nots were the first flowers to grow in the Armenian regions of the Ottoman Empire after the deportations.
Once the last bus has arrived, the procession gets underway. Before it has travelled even 50 meters, it comes to a halt, as the mourners stop to place their flowers at the base of the memorial. They include 74 year old Jenya Arepetian, one of the survivors of the attack. When the Azerbaijani forces arrived in the village in 1992, she fled, running the 25 kilometer distance to safety. Her parents and her husband did not survive the onslaught.
Arepetian was born in Maragha, but has spent almost half of her life in Azerbaijan. After their wedding, she and her husband moved to Baku. There she worked for 30 years as a cook in a nursery school. Her three sons were also born there. “We had a very normal life. There was no enmity; we had a lot of Azerbaijani friends.” At that time, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as constituent republics of the Soviet Union, both belonged to the same state. In the 1980s almost 400,000 Armenians lived in present-day Azerbaijan. During the war, more than a million people were forced to flee to the other side; 390,000 Armenians and 750,000 Azerbaijanis were expelled.
Jenya Arepetian, however, had already left Baku in 1988. After the massacre in Sumgait she no longer felt safe. In February 1988, an Azerbaijani mob killed at least 26 Armenians in Sumgait, a suburb of Baku. The situation rocked both republics, the hatred intensified. Arepetian returned to Maragha. Many Armenians today consider Sumgait to be a renewal of the genocide. Arepetian agrees, “The Turks have invaded us time after time. 1915, 1988 and 1992.” Her stare is hard, her voice bitter. Four years after leaving Baku, the violence again caught up with her. This time she left without even packing a case. “Once I left Maragha, I had practically nothing.”
“Us against them”
In Baku she still lived in a separate apartment, with heating. After fleeing, she was glad to have a discarded bed from the neighbours. Starting over was difficult, nobody gave her any money. Arepetian has lived ever since off her small pension and support from her son, who had left for Moscow a long time before, in search of a better job. She did not remarry; “I had my children,” she says – her children and the hope of a safe place to call home. “Nahorno-Karakh belongs to us.” Her younger son is in the army, trying to defend this home. It seems as though nothing from her 30 years in Baku remains, as though all her friendships have been forgotten. Arepetian no longer has any contact with her old life in Baku. “What would we talk about? They killed my parents and my husband. For me, that’s murder.” Grief leaves no space for any nuance.
Yet a few minutes later, all the bitterness has vanished. Whilst commemorative speeches take place on the podium, whilst Artak takes one photo after another, Arepetian chats to young volunteers from Argentina, sharing kisses and invitations to lunch. Arepetian, known in the village as Aunty Jenya, draws people to her, attracting even strangers with her warmth. The indiscriminate hatred of “the Turks” seems almost schizophrenic in contrast.
The war has not only torn Arepetian in two; there still exists an “us against them” mentality, “Turks versus Armenians.” Nor Magarha is a showpiece for what, behind closed doors, some Caucasus experts call the “Turkish trauma” – the genocide of 1915. Azerbaijanis are often held in equal measure responsible. The fact that so many Azerbaijani refugees experienced the same fate as the people here is, today at least, not acknowledged by anyone.
Instead, the “Defenders of Motherland” on stage invoke the necessary security of Karabakh: “We are ready, we are here to defend you,” cries a youth, who looks to be about 19, from the platform. He himself describes his organization as “a kind of scout group”. Indeed, the organization organizes youth camps, though they are militarily patriotic. Their uniforms are resplendent with machine guns.
As the group of students makes its way back, the mood is still noticeably unalloyed. For the return trip, a road stop is planned for Shah Bulart, an 18th century fortress. Behind its polished sandstone is a recently furnished museum, displaying archaeological findings from the historical city of Tigranakert, whose ruins were unearthed close to the fortress. A short while later the bus passes once again by the Aghdam ruins. Nobody gets out here, nobody takes any more photos.
Translation by Jayne Goss.