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Offside: Football in Exile — The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Viewed Through Soccer

10 December 2012 No Comment

Merdakan, Azerbaijan © Dirk-Jan Visser 2009

By Onnik Krikorian

With 2012 having dashed many hopes for peace in the South Caucasus, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh remains one of the most intractable in the region. Over 20,000 people lost their lives in the war waged in the early 1990s and a million were forced to flee their homes. Around 3,000 have been killed in cross-border skirmishes and sniper incidents since a 1994 ceasefire effectively put the larger war on hold, but organizations such as the International Crisis Group (ICG) warn that the danger of an ‘accidental war’ breaking out increases with each passing year.

But while negotiations to resolve the conflict through the OSCE Minsk Group continue to falter, and not least as both Armenia and Azerbaijan preparing for presidential elections in 2013, a new book by Dutch writer Arthur Huizinga and photographer Dirk-Jan Visser hopes to examine the conflict through the prism of football. Offside: Football in Exile tells the story of two football teams, FK Qarabağ Ağdam and FK Karabakh Stepanakert, and was published earlier this year by YdocPublishing/Paradox.

FK Qarabağ Ağdam is an Azerbaijani football club currently based in the capital Baku, yet longing to return to its home ground in Ağdam. During the war with Armenian separatists over Nagorno Karabakh, the Imaret stadium in downtown Ağdam remained packed for home matches. In 1993, Karabakh-Armenian forces occupied and destroyed Ağdam and it has been a ghost town ever since. The club has become the symbol of hope and pride for over half a million Azerbaijani refugees scattered around Azerbaijan. Sponsored by a Turkish-Azerbaijani holding, it has played in the Europa League several times. In 2009, the team enjoyed an unprecedented international run until it was eventually knocked out by FC Twente (The Netherlands).

The Armenian football team FK Karabakh Stepanakert from Nagorno Karabakh, meanwhile, is banned from professional football. Due to the lack of international recognition for the breakaway Republic of Nagorno Karabakh, football association FIFA does not recognise teams from the region. As a result, FK Karabakh Stepanakert has been isolated entirely. It has lost all but its local relevance and consequently most of its financial means, a catastrophe for the team that was amongst the strongest in the Azerbaijani zone of Soviet Union football.

Baku, Azerbaijan © Dirk-Jan Visser 2009

Interviewed via email for Caucasus Conflict Voices, Huizinga says the idea for the book came after he visited Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Nagorno Karabakh with Visser in 2006. In particular, it was Agdam, an Azerbaijani market town outside of Karabakh proper captured by Armenian forces in 1993 and razed to the ground soon after, that caught their attention. Described by Thomas de Waal, author of Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, as a ‘mini Hiroshima,’ Agdam still remains off-limits to foreigners visiting Nagorno Karabakh as Huizinga and Visser also discovered.

“During our stay in the de facto state of Nagorno-Karabakh we learned about a rather large city, which supposed to be a ghost city entrapped in the Armenian militarized zone close to the frontline,” Huizinga told Caucasus Conflict Voices. “This town was named Agdam and used be one of the larger cities in the Azerbaijani Soviet republic. Although we made several requests to our host in Nagorno-Karabakh a visit to the ghost town was impossible. Back home in the Netherlands, I became fascinated with Agdam – of which back then there was hardly any information available, let alone pictures.”

Enschede, The Netherlands © Dirk-Jan Visser 2009

Huizinga says his interest spiked when he discovered that one of Azerbaijan’s best known football teams was also called FK Qarabag Agdam. In early 2009, again accompanied by Visser, he visited the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, and met some of the team’s players. However, media interest was limited until FK Qarabag Agdam qualified for the Europa Leage and was drawn against FC Twente from the Netherlands. “This sheer coincidence helped to bring the subject into the spotlight of the Dutch mainstream media and brought in the interest of publishing companies about writing a book on the club,” he says.

It was then that the idea of Offside: Football in Exile was born, although, jokes Huizinga, the reaction of Visser when asked to work on the project was at first less than enthusiastic.

“You know I HATE football, don’t you?” the photographer responded. Nevertheless, several trips to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno Karabakh followed and basis for the book took shape. “When researching the history of FK Qarabag Agdam,” continues Huizinga, “we increasingly learned about old friendships and cooperations between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in all sorts of life in and around Nagorno-Karabakh as well as among the football players of FK Qarabag Agdam and the ethnic Armenian team of FK Karabakh Stepanakert. We figured a mirror imaging of both clubs would be a viable way to present the project.”

Museum for Armenians killed during the Karabakh conflict, Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh © Dirk-Jan Visser 2011.

Reaction to the book, which spotlights the fate of three Armenian and three Azerbaijani protagonists, has been favorable, although there has been some criticism, and not least with regards to the chronology of events in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

“Most critical voices concerned the timeline which was added to the book, mainly intended to provide a framework to an unfamiliar public in the West,” says Huizinga in response. “Needless to say, although we have based our research on numerous sources from the region and in the West, we do not claim to write a definitive history on the conflict. Still, we were pointed from different sides to presumably biased interpretations. We think it’s important to create an awareness of the different interpretations of events on both sides, without judging them.”

The writer also says that Paradox, one of the co-publishers of the book, also plans to put the timeline online alongside a blog where others can share information and personal experiences.

Football practice, Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh © Dirk-Jan Visser 2010

In a further attempt to use the book to encourage discussion, dialogue and debate, it is also hoped that photographic exhibitions already held in Europe can be followed up by similar events in the South Caucasus. “Our dream would be to be able to bring the exhibition to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the lush streets of Yerevan and the impressive promenades of Baku, to the refugee settlements of Guzanli and to Nagorno-Karabakh,” he says. Having become fully aware of sensitivities towards representations of the region’s history, we hope to engage and indeed spur an ongoing dialogue involving all communities.”

And there is some reason for hope, Huizinga explains, citing one example from the book in an email to Caucasus Conflict Voices.

One striking story is the story of Levonid. Levonid is ethnic Armenian but born and raised in Agdam. Although people explained the Armenian community in Agdam never fully integrated into Azerbaijani society, they were part of the fabric of the city for generations. Levonid’s father for instance was a popular hairdresser in town. Levonid himself never experienced any problems and even enjoyed a pretty comfortable life as a popular footballplayer. Most of his close friends were prominent Azerbaijani players of FK Qarabag Agdam, in particular ‘club icons’ Adil Nadirov and Allahverdi Bagirov.

In 1977 Levonid moved to FK Karabakh Stepanakert, the football team of the Armenian community in Nagorno-Karabakh. Karabakh Stepanakert at the time played one level higher than FK Qarabag Agdam and “payed it’s state-amateurs” a bit more. As simple as that. At that time, there was no political argument involved in his move, as Levonid explained to us.

In his first season with his new team, Karabakh Stepanakert won the Azerbaijani SSR championship in Baku. Levonid referred to that year as the first time he encountered hatred and discrimination towards Armenians in Azerbaijan. Especially when Karabakh Stepanakert came close to clinching the title. Still, at that time, the hatred was channelled as a strong sporting rivalry, not so much in violence. Every former footballplayer we interviewed has lots of stories about playing teams against teams from the other side. Yes, there were a lot of tensions. And yes, it was hardly possible to win an away game inside the other republic. But still, most players told about the rivalry as a beautiful thing, Those were the games you needed to win. If you did, legendary status loomed.

As conflict brewed in the mid/late ‘80s, Levonid got caught between two fires. Still, he tried to maintain normal relationships with his friends right until the conflict started. Levonid was still involved with Karabakh Stepanakert as a coach when the war started. Karabakh Stepanakert stopped playing football straight away and withdrew from the Azerbaijani Soviet League in 1990. Most players eventually took up arms to fight. This is an important difference with FK Qarabag Agdam. Although the Azerbaijani players requested to be transferred to one of the local militias, the local commanders refused saying: ‘Football is the only thing left to offer to the battered people of Agdam. Football players don’t fight’.

[…]

In his own personal way, Levonid is still passionate about his old club, his old friends and his town of birth. He has kept pictures of the grave of his old friend Allahverdi Bagirov on his mobile phone and made sure at times that the grave –close to the ghost city of Agdam is untouched. He even rescued some footballprograms and stuff from the Imaret-stadium shortly after the Armenians occupied the city, keeping them to the day that he would be able to return them to his old friends at the the club.

Dörd Yol-refugee settlement, Azerbaijan © Dirk-Jan Visser 2009

“We were struck by the readiness of Armenians and Azerbaijanis alike to discuss their shared past and feel there’s indeed a common ground for reconciliation on a level of personal relations,” he adds. “Politically though, it’s a different story. Unfortunately, political standpoints and sometimes hate narratives have pervaded official public discourse throughout the region. A black-and-white, all-or-nothing discourse. When asked about their position towards Nagorno Karabakh, Armenians and Azerbaijanis usually refer to the antagonistic public discourse. ”

“That’s why we feel using football as a middle ground has proved so important: it creates a neutral, positive level of communication in which enemies become opponents, war becomes rivalry and life and death is replaced by goals and famous victories,” Huizinga concludes. “At a time when the future seems bright once again for football fans in the South Caucasus and both Armenia as well as Azerbaijan are catching up in Europe, perhaps football can be a starting point for a positive dialogue once again.”

Offside: Football in Exile by Dirk-Jan Visser & Arthur Huizinga is published by Ydoc Publishing and Paradox and is priced €39.90. The book’s Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/footballinexile.

Nooit een thuiswedstrijd by Arthur Huizinga is also available in Dutch and examines football and the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

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