Stories of coexistence in times of war

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

This visual report was first published on Abzas Media. An edited version is republished here under a content partnership agreement. 

Marneuli, a region of Georgia, is home to ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians — all citizens of Georgia — across several of its villages where they live side by side, together with Georgians. The region and its co-populated villages over the years have become a prime example of peaceful co-existence.

Abzas Media traveled to Marneuli to interview Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Armenian residents who shared their stories of living side by side. What matters, say residents, is mutual respect and a language of understanding. Preferably at a table, with local delicacies.

During the visit, residents who spoke to Abzas Media say, no one here asks where you are from.

“We go to weddings together and attend funerals together. We drink and eat together,” explains Georgian resident Razhden Jujunashvili in an interview with Abzas Media.

Another Georgian resident, Rezo Kupatazde also fluent in Azerbaijani tells Abzas Media that all three communities live well together and respect each other.

This is unusual in the region which has witnessed decades of cross-cultural conflict and tribalism.

The Nagorno-Karabakh area has been under the control of its ethnic Armenian population as a self-declared state since a war fought in the early 1990s, which ended with a ceasefire and Armenian military victory in 1994. In the aftermath of the first war, a new, internationally unrecognized, de facto Nagorno-Karabakh Republic was established. Seven adjacent regions were occupied by the Armenian forces.

The tensions lingered over the following decades. In 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a second war that lasted for 44 days. That war changed the status of the region. Azerbaijan regained control over much of the previously occupied seven regions and captured one-third of Karabakh itself.

This war did not put an end to tensions and hostilities. Over the following three years, mutual accusations of ceasefire violations continued unabated. So did mutual hostile rhetoric at the government and local levels, diminishing any prospects for peace.

On September 19, 2023, Azerbaijan launched a military offensive into the formerly disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The offensive lasted 24 hours and ended with the government of the de facto state's capital Stepanakert/Khankendi surrendering, accepting the truce agreement outlined by Azerbaijan and Russia on September 20. On September 28, the government of Nagorno-Karabakh announced it would dissolve itself by 2024. More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians have fled the region since September 20. Meanwhile, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on October 5, condemning the “unjustified military attack” and noting that the attack “was in violation of international law and human rights.”

“Force, not diplomacy, has decided the course of this conflict since it first flared up,” wrote Tom de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, a long-time observer of the region and author of the book “The Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War” in his analysis of the recent hostilities.

Places like Marneuli illustrate that a narrative of peace is possible outside the conflict zone.

Back at the village, Misha Aslikyan, an ethnic Armenian from Marneuli, speaks to the importance of finding a mutual language. He is fluent in Azerbaijani, as well as Russian and Georgian.

In an interview with Abzas Media, Misha recalls an episode during the second Karabakh war when he offered a ride to three ethnic Azerbaijani men from Bolnisi, another city in Georgia. “It was late at night, and there were no cars, so I picked them up. We started talking. They talked about the [second Karabakh] war. They said [Azerbaijanis] had better relations with Georgians [assuming Misha was Georgian]. Then, at the end, as I was dropping them off, I told them I was Armenian. My phone rang, and I answered it, speaking in Armenian. They were shocked. Then, as they were getting out of my car, they apologized.”

Misha wants to see the same language of understanding between the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan:

Not one inch of land, not one political statement, not one ideology is worth a human life. Unfortunately, our society sees human life, as cheapest commodity. I am always for peace and believe, that no matter what problems one may have you can resolve them at a table.

For now, Misha's wishes remain distant. On October 4, the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, canceled his visit to Granada, where the president was scheduled to meet his counterpart, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, at the European Political Community (EPC) summit. Addressing the country delegates at the summit, European Council President Charles Michel invited the leaders to meet in Brussels by the end of October 2023 instead. Separately, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili offered to host the leaders of the two countries in Tbilisi as an alternative. It remains to be seen whether Georgia, where ethnic Azerbaijanis and Armenians have lived peacefully together for decades, would influence the language of mutual understanding between the leadership of the two countries as well.

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