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A personal history of trauma: thirty years of depression

17 September 2021
Photo: Larissa Sotieva.

This series explores the phenomenon of societal trauma through the personal stories of Armenians and Azerbaijanis, how this trauma manifests, and how it contributes to ongoing conflict dynamics. In the final chapter, a woman displaced by the First Nagorno-Karabakh War tries to come to terms with the personal, emotional scars left by that conflict, and what return to a long-lost home might mean. 

The woman speaking to me is a teacher. She says she has never followed politics, but in spite of that politics came into her life anyways. Her family was never the same.  

She considers herself fortunate not to have lost loved ones in either of the two wars over Nagorno-Karabakh. Still, all the pain and injustice she has witnessed sit deep inside her. All the sorrows of the last thirty years feel heavy in her chest and are an emotional burden she has been carrying around with her everywhere. In many ways, it appears to have robbed her of the joy of life.

Before the first war, she had lived in Fizuli. It was 1992, she was twenty-six, recently married, and had only just finished settling into a tiny flat with her husband when terrible stories from the town of Khojaly reached them. There was nothing in the media, but information spread quickly by word of mouth. Their neighbours were fleeing, but she and her husband were reluctant to leave their cosy little new home, which they had put so much work into. In any case, they had nowhere to go. She had two aunts in Baku, but one of them had already taken in thirteen people, and the other seemed to have fallen out with the family, perhaps deliberately, in order to avoid an influx of visitors.

Around that time, her father-in-law went missing — last seen driving his old Moskvich. Her mother-in-law was quick to take an optimistic perspective, saying ‘if he’s still alive, he’ll be back soon. He can reach an understanding with the Armenians’. After two weeks, they began to receive phone calls demanding a ransom. 

Their case was not unique. Many were travelling to Azerbaijan’s border regions to search for relatives who had disappeared, hoping to find them, or at least get news of their whereabouts. Those areas were rife with rumours as everyone tried to help each other out with information. After several months, they were able to exchange her father-in-law for an Armenian officer. Even now, thirty years on, she still remembers his name – Alexander.

On his return from captivity, her father-in-law spoke little – especially to her. But one day she overheard a conversation he was having with friends. What she heard confirmed her belief in his persuasive skills. When Armenian fighters had taken him, prisoner, they had ripped out the gold crowns from his mouth. But, after some convincing, they had agreed to return the crowns, keeping only the gold plating. 

She knows that he suffered terribly while in captivity. So much so that he made a promise to God that when he was set free, he would crawl home on his knees as a sign of gratitude. He didn’t like to talk about his suffering but often spoke about the son of their old Armenian neighbour Misha, who had recognised him in prison and would sneak in bread for him.

When she got pregnant, they finally decided to leave Fizuli, not long before it fell to the Armenians. Today, she has three grown-up children, all born in different cities and countries. The last thirty years she devoted to them, and to teaching. She deliberately distanced herself from political and social life to avoid more trauma – this way, she hoped, she could keep her peace of mind and calm. Only when she met people from Fizuli would she become animated, eagerly entering into discussions and talking about details from the past, her street, the large mulberry tree at the crossroads, the vivid colour and beguiling scent of the lilacs…

Everyone missed Fizuli. From time to time, she chats to her best friend from school, an Armenian who moved from Fizuli to Moscow years ago. Occasionally, they write to each other through the ‘Odnoklassniki’ social network. Once, her friend wrote “curses upon those who took away the happy life we had in our little town.” She believes her friend was referring to Armenian nationalists.

When the second war erupted in September 2020, details and vivid memories from the first began once more to rise up in her awareness. Once more, her body trembled with fear, terrified of the anticipation of the unknown which she had learned during the first war. Once more, it was all there before her, just as if the old war had been yesterday as if those thirty years had never happened. This time around, again, she says, everything was exactly the same. The only difference was that this time it wasn’t her own classmates getting killed, but those of her children.

She can barely remember, as though in a haze, the evening of 10 November, when her sister called her to tell her to quickly turn on the TV because the President was making a victory speech. She only remembers going out at two in the morning and wandering around Baku for hours. That was the night of liberation. That night, she realized that she had lived her life in solidarity with the lost souls who had wandered the streets of Fizuli, hoping for news of their children or relatives. All those thirty years, she had never allowed herself to be happy.

She is sad that victory was gained at such a high price. If, in the first war, a lot of people had gone missing, in the second, many were wounded and maimed. She can see that the victory these young lads achieved has not brought them the sense of liberation that she feels yet tries not to show. She is even a little embarrassed of hugging her son, knowing how many mothers can no longer do this. 

She tries to help the victims of the war, but her possibilities are limited. What is needed, she understands, are well-trained experts and an efficient referral system which could help save people like her friend’s husband. Returning from the war, he had stopped speaking and now just pounds his head against the bed.   

Today, as part of a special government programme, lists are being drawn up of all those who wish to return to Fizuli. Everyone she knows has put their name down, apart from one woman. She derives a lot of comfort from the knowledge that her town has been returned, and that people will soon be able to move back. At the same time, she realizes that going back may bring disappointment, as things will not be the same. The town she left thirty years ago no longer exists. All these years, she now realizes, she has lived in the hope of eventually returning not only to her hometown but also to her past life. 

But it will be a different town now, she says. It will no longer be the town of her childhood and youth that she has missed so much in these last thirty years. She doesn’t yet know what it will be like to live there again, but she definitely wants to try — maybe there, she will finally find peace of mind.

These articles are part of the Healing Collective Trauma initiative implemented by Indie Peace and funded by the European Union. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of Indie Peace and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Toponyms used reflect the toponyms used by the subject of the article.

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