“Talking with each other, not about each other”

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh was settled formally in a ceasefire agreement 21 years ago. How does the current generation perceive the conflict? Many of them grow up either in Armenia or in Azerbaijan without ever meeting people from the “other side”. But there are some who try to get in touch despite the existing organisatory obstacles. We met Bakhtiyar and Tatev in Yerevan and asked them about their personal experiences.

The following interview is a montage of both conversations

In the end, what was your motivation for engaging in peace-building and conflict transformation?

Bakhityar: The main reason why I got engaged was that the conflict was always present in my life and that I saw the war. I am an Internally Displaced Person from Füzili, one of the seven regions which had been occupied besides Karabakh. In 1993, a few weeks before Füzili was going to be occupied, me and my family had to flee. I was six years old then. The war was a catastrophe for me personally and I do not want further generations to live through the same catastrophe which me and others had to endure.

What do these meetings look like?

Tatev: Since the borders are closed, the seminars can neither take place in Armenia nor in Azerbaijan. Hence, the meeting a second meeting takes place, where we talk about the future. However, we don’t try to solve the conflict but reflect on and plan projects in the future.

How did you, personally, experience your first encounter with Armenians/Azerbaijanis?

Tatev: Although I had been open to meet Azerbaijani people, after the first day on history telling I thought “I hate you even more, now!”. After the second day, we were all in each others’ arms. Listening to the individual stories of those involved helped me to understand that the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh caused the same hardship on both sides. I could hardly wait for the re-encounter. Euphorically, we were making plans for the future. Today, we are friends.

Bakhtiyar: For the first time, I met Azerbaijani people in Istanbul at a seminar in 2007. I lost family during the war, thus, I had a hard time just saying “hi!”. It took several meetings until I understood that I had to change. I realized that the situation is very different from what we got told growing up. The first step was to kill my emotions. Maybe it has to do with my trauma but I realized that being too emotional – either positive or negative – isn’t good for me. That’s how I learned to cooperate with Armenians in a constructive manner.

Bakhtiyar, you have become involved in organizing meetings of this kind. What is your experience with Armenian and Azerbaijani youth, today?

Bakhtiyar: From my own experience, I know the process and I know that it takes time. Hence, I can relax, lean back and observe. I don’t judge radical youth. It is sad, but it is part of the process. At the end, they are crying in each other’s arms, hoping to see each other again. The last day is the best part for me.

Are there many of you? Is it difficult to find participants for this kind of event?

Bakhtiyar: Unfortunately, peace-building and conflict transformation are not popular in Azerbaijan, since the government is very active in creating an enemy stereotype. But I do not judge anyone who believes what the government is saying. Nearly everybody in Azerbaijan has been affected by the conflict personally.

Tatev: Unfortunately, the situation is the same in Armenia. We are a circle of people from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Karabakh who actively exchange thoughts, ideas and information. Sadly, it is a small group of people that would benefit from more continuity.

How did family and friends react, when you told them about your meetings?

Bakhtiyar: To be honest, I do not talk too much about this with my parents. Even when I go abroad to meet Armenians they don’t ask. They know what I do but they don’t comment on it.

Do your activities have a negative influence on your interactions with state authorities?

Tatev: In Armenia it is neither supported nor hindered. But many of my Azerbaijani friends deleted me on Facebook during the last months. They are afraid because many of their friends have already been imprisoned

Bakhtiyar: True, a lot of people act this way. But I think that’s a form of self-censorship. Of course, representatives of the government have questioned me before. But as long as they don’t impede on my work, that’s pretty normal for me. A bigger problem is that Azerbaijan has frozen the money of almost all NGOs in the country. This also affects the “Society for Humanitarian Research”, which I work for.

Despite all the obstacles, why do you still work in peace-building? What do you expect from the meetings?

Bakhtiyar: I don’t believe that our work will solve the conflict. But we have to learn how to communicate with one another, otherwise a peaceful conflict settlement will never work. I hope that we can built a basis so that the conflict can be settled one day.


Lisa Westphal conducted the interview and Julia Scheurer translated it into English. This article was first published in a slightly altered version on boell.de.