In the shadow of decades-old scars and trauma

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

The story by Arzu Geybullayeva was originally published in French by Le Temps. The original in English is republished by Global Voices. 

It was past midnight, in a city I call my second home, when I sat together with two friends, also journalists, immersed in a heated discussion about Israel’s war on Gaza. The place was buzzing with people, and mellow jazz beats played in the background, but it was just our table, trying to make sense of what was happening, the world’s response, drawing parallels from the recent past and the wars and conflicts we have covered in our lifetime as regional journalists, of which there were plenty, given where each of us was from – Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

Two hours in, the two of us, unhinged, still stood by where we see the world order – guided by the powerful few, getting ahead in their political status hoarding, at the expense of the people who have no power at all. The “isms” and excuses, the leadership, which lack accountability, and total disregard for human lives.

Our third friend, pressed — our mere existence and our ability to see the bigger picture was still better and signaled a possibility for a better future. We did have the power, after all, the power of understanding, humility, and compassion towards one another.

In a normal world, whatever that may mean these days to you, these qualities could have been traits to be proud of, but in this world, it feels like a burden. Because, in this world, unless you dehumanize “the other,” you are not worthy of your roots, you are a traitor.

So why bother? When no one wants to listen, and drowning in misinformation, with power-hungry leaders at the helm, why bother proving anything to anyone?

Is it worth healing the deep scars and the decades-long trauma in this madness?

I keep thinking of this question as I watch, read, and listen to the coverage of Israel’s war on Gaza and how the world has been divided into yet another us vs. them narrative, neglecting history, and context, and instead, engaging in dehumanization of proportions, the world has never seen before.

So will we ever heal? Let me be frank. We won’t. Had someone asked me this question 15 years ago when I first got involved in conflict transformation and reconciliation work, I would have said, yes, there was hope. But as I look back at my roots, and how my country’s government failed to heal wounds through dialogue and reconciliation and chose instead, violence, hate-mongering, and war, so no, we won’t heal. We have not managed in 30 years, and we won’t manage now.

It's bleak. But it is also the truth.

Generations were brought up after the first Karabakh war, and Azerbaijan’s defeat, on the premise, that revenge, for displacement, war crimes and atrocities is the only answer.

That revenge arrived on September 27, 2020 – the second Karabakh war.

At the time, in a personal essay, I wrote, “We [were] a generation of war, who grew up on war rhetoric, anger, frustration, and a looming question — when does this war end? For decades we watched as both sides used and abused this conflict for political gains. In Azerbaijan, we watched how internally displaced Azerbaijanis were degraded, and forced to live in conditions that were and remain far from humane. Because giving them a better life would take away a bargaining chip, used by the same leaders negotiating a resolution. The very same leaders, who grew more corrupt with each year they stayed in power. The same leaders who kept promising, but would never deliver.”

During the 44-day war in 2020, they finally delivered on the promise of returned land, together with thousands of body bags of soldiers.

At some point during the second Karabakh war, as I worked with the CNN International team reporting on the war, I gave up trying to talk about the human toll and the importance of human life. In the words of Norman Finkelstein, from a recent interview with Chris Hedges, “It seemed pointless and purposeless.” I recused myself from writing about the war, its impact on the society, and the moral destruction it left behind.

Perhaps this would be the last time loved ones leave for the front, people thought. Alas, that turned out not to be true. With no peace agreement in sight, hollow promises of co-existence, and futile diplomatic meetings, fears of another war loomed. Then came the blocking of the Lachin Corridor, when a group of so-called environmentalists started what would turn into a nine-month-long occupation. Slowly, Armenians in Karabakh were cut off from essential needs, it was a humanitarian crisis unfolding right in front of the world’s eyes. And on September 19, 2023, the 24-hour blitzkrieg operation into Karabakh, changed the status of a conflict that lasted for three decades.

Nagorno-Karabakh, as it was once referred to, was no more. Nearly all, of Karabakh’s 120,000 Armenians decided to flee because none trusted the government of Azerbaijan. I was young when thousands of Azerbaijanis fled their homes during the first war; now, I watched a similar exodus, up front this time.

We are a generation of war, that will live in the shadow of the wars that left scars beyond repair. We won’t heal, not in our lifetime anyway. Because nothing has changed.

Thirty years did nothing to change the faith of the people of Azerbaijan and Armenia.

John Steinbeck once said, “All war is a symptom of a man’s failure as a thinking animal.” The thinking animals of today’s world order, in decision-making seats, with armies, and more power than ever before, have resorted to wars, because it is easier, especially when one side is more powerful than the other.

Neither Azerbaijanis nor Armenians deserved to live through this. Just as they did not deserve to grow up, live and grow old, with enmity and hate towards one another, that lasted for generations and will remain until perhaps one day, it will change.

I often wondered about a different scenario for our countries – strong leaders, committed to peace, with genuine international support, navigating through the complex geographical, regional and political hurdles, deciding that the faith of the people was far more important than a grip on power. That wishful thinking did not last long. Eventually, I realized, the difference between the people wanting a better future and those in power, deciding on our behalf, is that we let the ghosts of the past torment us, they don’t. And so tormented by the past we will continue to live, in the shadow of decades-old scars and trauma.

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