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Opinion | Back to the ‘no war, no peace’ limbo

5 November 2021
Illustration: OC Media.

By reversing the dynamic of ‘the victorious’ and ‘the defeated’, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War revealed illusions and hypocrisies that suffused Armenia’s dominant narratives about the conflict. But despite this clarity, a new dynamic between Armenia and Azerbaijan has not developed.

I had a ₼0.20 coin an Azerbaijani friend gave me some two years ago. I was keeping it in my wallet, separately from the other coins, so that it wouldn’t be seen and wouldn’t fall out somewhere and put me in a bad situation.

About two months ago, I took a taxi from central Yerevan to my home on the outskirts of the city. When the taxi got to its destination, I felt something fall from my wallet. It was dark in the car, and my first thought was ‘okay, I won’t find it’, but then I asked the driver to turn on the light anyway. I looked down and saw the Azerbaijani coin. I grabbed it as fast as I could. I looked in the driver’s eyes with fear — he, of course, had no idea of what just happened. 

I thought about what would have happened if I didn’t ask him to turn on the light. This poor driver would find an Azerbaijani coin in the back of his car, and would most probably think that some Azerbaijani had appeared in Yerevan and was his passenger. Perhaps, this Azerbaijani, who may have been a spy, even left the coin in his car on purpose…

Doubtless, this would be more logical than thinking that there was an Armenian girl who was keeping an Azerbaijani coin because it was a gift from a friend. Why would anyone in Armenia have an Azerbaijani friend? It would have been strange over the last three decades, but especially now.

I still have a hard time realising we went through a war a year ago. From time to time, the memories of the last year blur and it seems like when we talk about the war we are still referring to the 1990s. I have a hard time realising the changes the war and its outcome brought to our society. 

In a single day, Armenian society, united during the war as never before with near-complete faith in both its leaders and an ‘impending victory’, was broken in two. As Armenian society turned in and against itself, the old narrative that sustained not only the war’s illusions but the illusions of the previous thirty years, sustained a series of near-fatal shocks.

First, there was the pure shock of an unexpected defeat, despite signs that were present since the first day of the war, and even before. Then, a little while after, there was the realisation of the many facts hidden from us not only during the war itself but over the past 30 years. 

Finally, there was a realisation of the material reality of it all. The lost territories, the refugees, and above all, those thousands who we would never see again, the acquaintances, the friends, the classmates, the brothers, the fathers, the sons, the husbands, the lovers. 

Isn’t it ironic?’

Of all the Armenian reactions to the defeat, what really struck me was the reaction to the sudden ‘change of places’. For the last three decades, we were convinced that we Armenians are peaceful and that we don’t hate the Azerbaijanis as much as they hate us. We wouldn’t kill a sleeping person just because he is Azerbaijani, we thought. We just wanted peace, and they were the ones who wouldn’t agree.

But I have realised that you cannot measure the collective feelings of the ‘winning’ side and the ‘losing’ side with the same scale. Even if the Azerbaijanis had more hatred, it could be explained with the trauma of the first Nagorno Karabakh War, with the lost territories, the 700,000–800,000 displaced people. 

But our side never thinks about that. We have never considered what the annual celebration of the ‘Liberation of Shushi’ looked like to the other side. When we talked about Azerbaijanis hating us more than we hate them, we didn’t think of our dozens of songs and films about the victory, about our victory museum, about our history books and school books, and even street art.

‘Them’ hating ‘us’ more or not wanting peace as much as we wanted it was always explained as the product of their ‘barbaric and violent nature’, while we, we were just those ‘poor people’ who wanted nothing more than to live in peace. 

I remember a man who had for years talked about how hateful Azerbaijanis are and how they were not at all ready to make peace. More recently, he told me how it was ironic that some Azerbaijanis speak of opening borders and normalising relations, now that they have gotten everything they wanted — that they somehow expect us to agree to ‘peace’ but only on their terms. 

All I could think when he said this, was: but weren’t we doing the exact same thing? If ‘they’ didn’t want peace because they were barbaric and violent, how come we have such a hard time now agreeing to the peace Azerbaijan suggests? How come peace and normalisation of relations come with no justice when it is comfortable for us, but we want both peace and justice when we are on the losing side? 

A parallel reality

Before the war, the blinkered ‘patriotic’ narrative seemed to have a monopoly in Armenia, though a second parallel narrative, telling a different story, still survived in small gatherings and quiet kitchen conversations. 

After the defeat, this second narrative has emerged into the sun. Since the end of the war, there has been a flourishing of new peace initiatives, new cross-country dialogue — often bringing together those who have never before been involved in peacebuilding.

Looking at all this, I can’t help but wonder — what if they existed before the war?

What if there were these initiatives during the clashes in July 2020, or even earlier, what if there were these kinds of inclusive, open groups, with thousands of members five or six years ago, would there still have been a war? 

But perhaps such thinking is too optimistic. Would the existence of such groups stop a new war now if the tensions rise again? Would these people in these groups be able to fight against incompetent governance or immeasurable greed? 

When I saw photos of Azerbaijani schoolchildren wearing t-shirts with the faces of dead soldiers and holding posters that read ‘Zangezur, not Syunik’ — referring to recent irredentist claims by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev on Armenia’s southern Syunik province — I could only think: how could anything stop this? 

[Read more: Opinion | The enduring lies of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict]

Thousands died in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, it is only too easy for those with power to continue to feed the desire for revenge. The first war gave birth to a generation of trauma, is it too late now to stop a new generation from inheriting the trauma of the second war? 

Seeing all these new peacebuilding initiatives, groups and programmes, I wanted so much to convince myself that the deaths of those people, every single one of them, was not for nothing at all. I wanted to think that at least now people will understand the cost of this conflict, and the cost of our hatred towards each other.

I thought that maybe the ones we lost in this war would be the last to die because of this conflict. Such hope is premature. It seems we are stuck again in an old limbo of ‘no war, no peace’, and any misstep, or prolonged inaction could lead us down the path towards another catastrophic war.

I hope we can escape this all, towards something. But in the meanwhile, I try to imagine a day in the future when I won’t feel like a criminal for having an Azerbaijani coin in my wallet and instead will have the freedom to visit Azerbaijan and use it.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

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