ose who were forced to flee their homes as a result of the Armenian occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory represent an important and as yet largely untapped resource of information about that conflict and the formation of ideas and identities of a far broader community about the war. To remedy this lacuna, I interviewed elderly Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Shusha about their experiences, elderly now because all were 30 years of age or older when the conflict began in the late 1980s. This article provides some preliminary findings from that research.
By telling their stories, the Shusha IDPs are involved in constructing what scholars call “communities of memory.” These communities of memory, or shared experiences, bind Karabakh IDPs across economic and geographical lines, but they are not monolithic. Instead, they vary at least somewhat along class, gender, generational, and location lines. In my conversations with them, I was especially interested in learning about the way in which the individual IDPs used their memory to give meaning to the traumatic and life-transforming events they experienced.
So far, I have conducted 84 interviews with Shusha IDPs, as part of a larger and continuing project on Oral History Archives of the Displaced Witnesses of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Occupation and Displacement. In addition to these interviews, I employed a questionnaire to record characteristics such as personnel data (name surname, DOB, nationality, social origin, home town address, education and profession), as well as information on geography of settlement, deaths of relatives, adaptation processes, access to humanitarian aid, and their more general views on the conflict.
These voices to highlight the conflict and occupation from multiple sides go behind and beyond of an entire set of documentaries, archival pages, and published articles and books, to tell real life stories. With all their diversity, they are voices that, whether excited or sad, blame, demand, and call for justice. In almost all cases, those I approached were pleased to share their personal histories and memories of the conflict, something that they indicated gave them a rare chance to share their feelings with a larger public.
Do not ask me, “Who I am: IDP or refugee!
Do not ask me, “How are you doing?”
Just hug me warmly from all your soul
And do not ask me, “How are you doing!”
-A Song Popular Among the IDPs
Despite the last line, I found they were willing to talk about that, especially as I myself was born and raised in Shusha before studying history in Moscow and then returning to Azerbaijan. Many of those with whom I spoke were very emotional about what they had gone through but gradually calmed as they realized that our conversations were giving them a chance to create a historical record about the events of the past.
My very first respondent, a 65-year-old woman cried when I asked her to speak with me. “This is unbelievable,” she said; “finally, [ordinary people are being asked] to give their opinion. We left our places almost 20 years ago, and nobody has bothered to ask us how we are doing, how we became IDPs, how we managed to survive. Every year, we hear officials talk about this on television and in the newspapers but now an ordinary old woman is being asked for her views.” Other interviewees expressed similar feelings.
Another common theme running through all the interviews was a desire to “be back home” as soon as possible. Many cited the Azerbaijani proverb that “one can put a city in another city, but not a family into another one.” And they often referred to their “stable” lives in Soviet times, a period when their relations with Armenians were not always bad. Indeed, positive feelings toward some Armenians have continued with respondents recalling that not all Armenians behaved badly toward Azerbaijanis.
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.
Perhaps the most moving testimonials concerned the sense among respondents that “time stopped” for them when Shusha was occupied on May 8. Azerbaijanis had begun to flee the city even before that because of rumors of an imminent air strike. But the violence of that and the mass killings have left a deep impression in the minds of the IDPs. While they would welcome peace and a return to the status quo ante, they cannot forget and in most cases cannot forgive what happened. But some noted that among the victims were not only Azerbaijanis, but also Armenians.
As for Azerbaijani efforts to defend Shusha, most respondents recalled that there was great enthusiasm, but little order. The Armenian attackers were well-equipped, thanks to Russian help, and disciplined, possibly because of their service in combat units of the Soviet military. The Azerbaijanis who were generally confined to construction battalions before 1991 did not have real military experience. Many respondents noted, however, that both sides seemed to be waiting for guidance from Moscow concerning what they should do next.
People from Shusha ended up not only in other parts of Azerbaijan but also in Russia, and even in the West. Those who had been villagers suffered the most because they generally ended up in cities. They are still in a waiting game, hopeful that things will return to normal and fearful that conditions may become even worse. The respondents say that their properties in Shusha are valuable but cannot be sold, and they also say they want to hold them for future generations if things work out.
All the Shusha IDPs with whom I have spoken work hard to maintain ties with others from their area, using the Karabakh press, the Shusha newspapers, and telephones. Significantly, they reaffirm their ties not only on traditional holidays and family events, but also on black days when their cities and villages were occupied. That, too, defines how they think about the past and hence about the future as well.