Vol. 4, No. 24 (December 15, 2011)

Witnesses and "memorisers" in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Parvin Ahanchi
Lead Research Fellow
Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography
Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences

The children of internally displaced persons who witnessed the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict first-hand are more radical in their assessment of Armenians and the prospects for a settlement than their parents, according to both a set of oral histories gathered from both groups and survey research.  That trend suggests that unless the conflict is resolved soon, the situation could become truly intractable.

The goal of my research is to study relationships between collective memory and individual, the complexities of what is called collective memory, as well as to examine the relationship between memory and history in the Karabakh case.  I argue that the role of both individual and collective memory of the IDPs is to transmit information from the past to the present, to transmit notions of responsibility, as well as provide a perspective to discuss and imagine ways for peaceful reconciliation and transformation of the conflict, or alternatively, a potential framework for imagining further armed violence.

This research is ongoing, but here I want to focus on the question of relationship between the witnesses and those who have learned from them, whom I call “the memorizers,” in forming the collective portrait of the Karabakh communal memory.  Of course, looking at the Armenian-Azerbaijanis ethnic conflict from the historical prospective, the categories of the “witness” and the “memorizer” are dynamic.  Those who witnessed the Karabakh events at the end of the 1980s grew up in the 20th century as memorizers of the events that happened in early twentieth century.  They know about the events of the ethnic conflicts of 1905 and 1918 through what their parents and grandparents told them as witnesses.

Moreover, this division continues.  Though a cease-fire has been declared, people are still dying on the front lines.  The young memorizers are “witnessing” the death of the civilians and especially the innocent children on the frontline.  These violent events of the present “cease-fire” period form youth memorizers into actual witnesses of the consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and war that happened a couple decades ago.  Now we have another case, where children are becoming witnesses of a “frozen,” yet still bloody, conflict.

The Memorizers’ memory about the conflict and war in Karabakh is molded by their impressions from conversations with the elderly, from internet sources, TV, radio, books and newspapers, and, of course, via the schools.  So what they will memorize and how their memory will be formed depends on specific information they receive and communicate.  There is, however, one thing in common for all the memorizers: they have never experienced living peacefully with the Armenians.

One of the most important things I sought to discover was whether the witnesses and the memorizers acknowledged differences among Armenians.  I found that a few people believed that not all of the Armenians are guilty of fanning the flames of war.  Those respondents were convinced that they would be able to live together again in the Karabakh as neighbors.

Occasionally, too, I came across respondents who did not consider all Armenians to be the same.  But most as a result of twenty years of conflict, war, and separation have created strongly held confrontational dispositions.  The key fact, however, is this: Those who had some positive feelings about the Armenians were found only among the elderly witnesses; the younger memorizers have only negative stories about them.  That is not surprising: The memorizers are witnessing their parents’ problem in adaptation to the new environment where they are compelled to live as a consequence of the conflict.  In their daily lives, they are experiencing not having citizenship in the place where they reside. All difficulties of the adaptation period are seen as the result of the conflict and war. So from the early period of their lives they are forming negative impressions of these events and this will shape their imagination and opinion. The predominant and consistent focus coming from our discussions is their desire and intention to return to their homeland.

Both interviews and surveys showed that the children of those who had direct experience with the conflict know precisely where their families came from and the exact date on which their parents became IDPs.  They hold the precise information about parents fleeing the Karabakh cities, villages related to the beginning of the conflict in the Karabakh up to the war time period (1988—1993).  They identified precisely the region, city and villages where the family left and became IDP.  Eighty percent of the respondents’ parents left Shusha and the rest of them were fleeing from different places of the Karabakh. 

One of the key questions to understanding the IDPs’ adaptation and psychological condition relates to their interaction with the local population.  In most cases, the local people were sympathetic toward the IDPs.  This sentiment has been expressed by half of the children, while 28% of them avoided the question.  Seven percent of the children recalled cases when local people did not understand that they had been forced to leave their homes and were thus rude to them.  They also said some local people blamed them for leaving Karabakh and called them refugees and were indifferent to their fate.  As a result, 67 percent of them consider Baku only a temporary residence, while 21% noted they feel they are ordinary Baku citizens and 12 % of the children said that they feel they are IDPs.

There are two small groups whose daily social life is different from the majority of children.  One, (9%) prefer to socialize only with other children from Karabakh.  The second group (12 percent) consists of children who were compelled to socialize only with children from the local communities having been separated from the Karabakh children living in the area.  More than three out of four of the sample said they played with both IDP children and local people. 

The IDP children diverge concerning Armenians.  About half had a positive view of children of the other nationality, but not all Azerbaijani IDPs are ready to live in peace with Armenian children given the depth of the conflict over twenty years, especially since they have no current ties or even contacts with Armenian children.  What is striking is that the overwhelming majority (86%) of the children blame the Russian Army and ultra-nationalistic Armenian groups for the flair-up of the events in Karabakh.  That the children blamed “ultra-nationalists” among the Armenians suggests that they believe there are other Armenians and that opens the possibility to a peaceful settlement with the latter. 

Eighty-six percent of the children said that they regularly discuss the peace process, most with their parents, teachers and friends directly, but in five percent of the cases via Facebook.  In these discussions, 51 percent consider the military option, while 49 percent favor negotiations.

Some respondents also noted that, in their experience, their Armenian neighbors were very sorry that the war had come and that the Azerbaijanis felt compelled to flee.  But these same people noted that other Armenians had been actively involved in preparing for the violence, working with special organizations from abroad for “the sake of greater Armenia.”  Such people, respondents said, showed themselves very early in the conflict by providing Armenian forces with information about the strategic points in Azerbaijani cities.  As far as a future in which Armenians and Azerbaijanis would live together again is concerned, most
were prepared to live with their former neighbors, but not with other Armenians who have moved in since the war began.

The memorizers' opinion largely excludes the possibility of living together with the Armenians in Karabakh again.  My interviews and survey show that the elderly are more tolerant about living together with their former neighbors in the Karabakh.  As I have noted, the memorizers never had the experience of living peacefully with the Armenians.  Undoubtedly, the children's perspectives have been formed by information about the killing of innocent children, women and the elderly by the Armenian ultra nationalists.  Children were "witnessing" the information on TV, press and the Internet about the killing of children on the frontline villages.

As a result, few of the children are ready to interact with their Armenian counterparts, a situation their elders need to counter lest the conflict become truly intractable.  Moreover, the witnesses also need to support the peaceful resolution the Karabakh conflict in their discussions with their children, an attitude that will make reconciliation possible.  For these reasons, older people can and must play a significant role in bringing peace to the region and in helping the children of Karabakh to build a joint future.