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Beyond the Boundaries of Impossibility

28 June 2010 One Comment

When you are born into an Armenian family with terrible stories about a war waged nearly two decades ago passed down by relatives, it usually doesn’t occur to you to think about dialogue, peace or reconciliation. This is especially true when that conflict effectively continues today and when you have grown up with images of atrocities haunting you from time to time. It is also the case when still have fresh personal memories from the bombing of your native village by Azerbaijani artillery deployed near Sadarak, Nakhichevan, in the early 1990s.

And how can you think of any possible engagement with a citizen from the other side when you are standing in a hilltop trench observing the frontline between Armenia and Azerbaijan during your military service in the army? Oblivious of yourself and bereft of your senses, you open fire on Azerbaijani soldiers in search of something badly needed having crossed the non-barbed border demarcated in our imagination. You fire and it is an inexplicable force that makes you do so.

Your Azerbaijani counterpart might simply be loading a mule with the remnants of a bombarded and deserted house, probably to use as construction materials, but it seems like the right thing to do. And as soon as you do pull the trigger of your AK47 you start then filling in the blanks with your own story, seemingly persuasive, to sooth yourself and to ease your conscience. But as the dust settles it proves ineffective and you eventually realize that you failed in cheating yourself as common sense prevails.

Later, with a couple of years of experience in reporting and translation as well an emerging knowledge of conflict and peace-building, you find yourself hoist with your own petard, aware that in all probability you are unable to answer to the simplest of questions:

Why?

Maybe it’s just a simple expression of heroism, the demonstration of courage, or even just idle boasting to show the rank and file that you just prevented the enemy from using resource that you didn’t use either. Maybe it’s the duty of a soldier. Maybe it’s reward-driven ambition conditioned by the possibility of earning just a little praise from your commander. Maybe you can call it by whatever name you like, but whatever you do, don’t call it patriotism. Perhaps it is unmitigated temerity, callousness, immaturity or indoctrination and prejudice.

Maybe these are also some of the most undesirable remnants of war.

Why shoot at each other while serving at the front line unless there is no other choice, especially when in the silence of the night you could instead negotiate with the enemy to reach an unwritten, albeit and judicially non-binding, agreement that would see no single shot fired from either side except in circumstances which leave you with no other choice. And that is what you could do, and fortunately, on frequent occasions, it is.

Now, more than ten years after my military service, I find myself with a few Azerbaijani friends. Not only do we write to each other from our two countries following occasional meetings in third countries, but when we are together for cross-border projects we dine and drink together, offering mutual toasts or finding ourselves out clubbing in Tbilisi, Georgia, the closest neutral venue for coming together. Unfortunately, what also comes to the fore is some kind of discomfort, confusion, shame and regret for what was done in the past.

The first time I came into direct contact with citizens of Azerbaijan was in September last year. Three journalists each from Armenia and Azerbaijan made up a small group on the way to Abkhazia with a Dutch coordinator. Before then I could never have imagined that I’d be sitting next to Azerbaijanis in the same mini-bus on our way to Sukhumi to report on the situation there more than a year after the August 2008 war.

It even made us sometimes forget our own conflict over Nagorno Karabakh when we instead engaged in heated discussions over the Russian-Georgian one as well as its consequences.

I have a photo and in it the guy is me and the girl in front asleep is an Azerbaijani journalist and almost a stranger to me at the time. I remember only her name – Nigar. Packed in the mini-bus like sardines, it was comfortable to put my hands over the front seat. Exhausted after some five or six hours on the road, Nigar must have fallen asleep as her head slipped off the headrest and fell somewhere between the headrest and on part of my hands.

I did not move them, but had but to wait until her head was resting on something else. Our Dutch coordinator noticed what was happening in the back, took out his camera and shot the moment.

But the question I still ask myself is what has changed in me and perhaps what helped me rid myself of some deep-rooted prejudices and stereotypes to think in quite another way. More reasonable, balanced, and most importantly, cautious, I am unwilling to fan the flames of the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh at this level. For better or worse, I instead consider that engagement is the only path to walk down when it comes to the resolution of conflicts.

It is always possible to right past wrongs, and dialogue on an individual level, as well as by civil society, should be brought to life – and the sooner the better. After contact with Azerbaijanis my conclusion is that nothing is impossible, even if it might seem unrealistic to others at first sight.

Sasun Khachatryan

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