Azerbaijani and Georgian Refugees: Hopes for the peaceful resolution of conflict
Refugees from South Ossetia, Tbilisi, Georgia
By Ilgar Velizade and Zurab Dvali
More than 20 years have passed since the escalation of conflict in the South Caucasus, and the balance of power and interests in this restless region of the planet remains fragile. This situation occasionally leads to new hotspots as well. The large-scale wars conducted during the last two decades as well as the continuation of armed clashes led to thousands of casualties and the displacement of several hundreds of thousands as refugees and IDPs, especially in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
These people, their fathers, grandfathers and ancestors lived in the valleys and gorges of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Karabakh, but now they are forced to look for refuge in the larger towns and cities of Georgia and Azerbaijan, which are very different from the areas where they used to live before. Despite the fact that many years have passed since the majority of them re-settled, they cannot adapt to their new place and they still continue to consider it as temporary accommodation. They became refugees before our legal codes knew any relevant regulations, and only later on state and international organizations created a legal framework for their status.
Near Baku, the settlement of Ramani was built several years ago for refugees. 400 families out of the 450 settled there come from Shusha – a town in Nagorno Karabakh. After they left their home in 1992, they initially lived in a resort complex in the village of Zagulba, not far from Baku. After this, a special settlement was created for them, and they were provided there with all accommodation requirements, including furniture. But for the people who live there, especially for those of middle age and the elderly, you may easily recognize their discomfort and nostalgia.
For example, 50 year old Sabir remembers: “The air of my native Shusha, can you really compare it to the air of Absheron, which reeks of oil? When we were young boys we walked down the ravines to Shusha, and sometimes even to Khankendi (Stepanakert), we went there and we went back as well. It was no problem for us! And the distance was 12 km. And here, you can walk a couple of meters and when you breathe you almost feel like dying.
I remember we played football with Armenian children who were our neighbors. Not like an ‘Azerbaijani’ team against an ‘Armenian’ one. No, in our team there also were Armenians, and in the other team there also were Azerbaijanis. All were happy. Then when we grew up, we worked together at the same car repair shop. I remember, I had a co-worker named Artur, he was a great person, and he always helped me during difficult moments. When I was ill or whatever, even at home, he helped. I can say that those who started this conflict must be responsible for it. If we once upon a time lived together, we can live together also in future.”
An elderly lady, grandma Nisa, added: “I am already 70 years old and I have experienced everything. I saw a lot of sorrow and death. I do not want this to be repeated. I really hope that my grandchildren and their children will return to the homes of our ancestors, and that they shall live peacefully with Armenians as it used to be before, many years ago. We have been suffering for many years; we need to find the strength to resolve peacefully our conflict.”
Surprisingly, in every place in Azerbaijan we visited, everybody we met there, both refugees and other people, talked about the absolute necessity of a peaceful resolution of the conflict and of their desire to return to the home they left once. They spoke of their readiness to live peacefully and in a good-neighborly spirit with their previous neighbors.
“Good neighborhood,” I was told by one refugee from the settlement of Dashalti in Nagorno-Karabkah, “this is when the people live not on the ‘other side’ and are divided by a line, but when they live near and next to one another, when they set up family, they visit one another and national identity does not matter in the least. For many centuries it was believed that the land belongs to those who live on it, who work on it. The rest was invented by the politicians. Who can take away from me my land, my Karabakh? Karabakh is always in my heart. And if this is in the heart of Ashot or Aram, I do not see any problem with it. This means that we must live together. And I strongly believe that this day will come.”
Experience shows us that those who saw with their own eyes sorrow and worry and felt in their own hearts the trouble of their native country will never accept that it is lost. But at the same time they never want to repeat the same horrors, and they never strive for war. All the refugees who talked with us in Azerbaijan want to go back to their small native land and to live peacefully with Armenians.
Shusha, Nagorno Karabakh
We were interested to learn how refugees in Georgia think, and if they think in the same way too. It seems they never have any feeling of hate or disgust when they start to remember their peaceful days in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. Their strong emotions and love for their native lands prompts their memories of home, of their youth and their neighbors. When you drive in the direction of Gori from Tbilisi, you will see on the right side the village of Tserovani with a huge refugee settlement composed of single apartments. This is just a horrible picture.
The sad events of August 2008 led to another 50 000 refugees from South Ossetia, who remained homeless. There are just several settlements like Tserovani in Georgia. So where are the refugees supposed to go? What to do? How to live? The majority of the villages in South Ossetia are destroyed. The huge apple gardens, for which the region was famous, are now devastated. Russian troops ensure that no Georgians are crossing the administrative border. However, this is still where the graves of their ancestors lie.
We talked with a Georgian refugee from the village of Tamarasheni named Otar, and we asked about his plans for the future. “And what can I say,” he replied immediately. “I have an Ossetian daughter in law, her name is Nana and her surname is Plieva. She is married to my elder son. We have Ossetian relatives and nobody ever was imagining such a situation. The enemies were invented only after all of this. I think that there is still time needed, they need time and we need time, but we shall definitely reconcile. In the Caucasus there is no one who is closer than us (Ossetians and Georgians).”
In the fall of 1993, the Georgian population of Abkhazia had much more in common with Abkhazians than with other Georgians. The train line Sukhumi-Sochi-Moscow very well indicated their common interests for contacts, career, study, and business. Not many of them went to Eastern Georgia, and not often, most only went to Tbilisi to see their relatives there. The local inhabitants of Sukhumi, despite of differences in ethnic origin, spoke one common language: Sukhumian. This is a sort of synthesis of Russian with Georgian-Abkhazian-Armenian words and with their own anthroponomy. The word “Vasia” is added at the end of every sentence. Why “Vasia”? Who was this Vasia that he is always remembered by all of Abkhazia? History, unfortunately, remains silent about it.
Anyway when I, as a resident of Tbilisi, left for a holiday in Sukhumi or Gagra, I always had difficulty to tell two friends from each other, Abkhaz Ruslan Demiania and Georgian Ruslan Demenia, both residents of Sukhumi. They looked, dressed and talked in the same style and surely always applied “Vasia” to every sentence. I am remembering this, and despite these 20 years of conflict over Abkhazia it is difficult to understand how local Georgians and Abkhazians could be enemies. Even an accumulation of quite obviously objective grievances may be resolved through compromise and does not necessarily lead to a situation of armed conflict. However, for southerners, as we know, it is at times difficult to hold back emotions.
I have one friend among the refugees – I purposely do not want to mention his name because for me they are just Sukhumians, they were like this and they shall always be. They are Sukhumians for me, children from Sukhumi, even those who were born after the war and who have been already raised here. During their childhood they were told many times where their homes were, which streets their houses were located in. They know where their parents’ school was and how “Brekhalovka” looked like, where the best coffee in the world is made. And – crucially important – why they must go back to their homes. All refugees thinks so, not only people who live in poor conditions. Even a good job, an apartment in an elite district of Tbilisi could not make my friends Tbilisians. This is not their style, neither their mentality nor their way of life.
All the meetings and all the talks always end with the same question – when? It does not matter how long you keep the germ of a tree in the water – it shall still dry up. Land is needed, where the tree may enlarge its roots in order to blossom. And for them such land is “there”. They live with a single thought, and this is the thought of going back home. Not to their apartments in Tbilisi, not to the collective centre, not to the settlements built for them, but to the Home which they left behind the Inguri river. And these refugees now number more than 200,000. The word “home” for them means not only the house which they left a long time ago, but their native land. It is difficult to imagine that they shall ever stop thinking about it. Each of them has the hope that her or his neighbor, school friend, colleague and even the unknown Abkhazian one day can understand and forgive, as they have already asked to be forgiven. This is the only way which will lead people toward mutual understanding and peace.
A friend of mine, Mamuka, has two daughters, who were already born after the Georgian-Abkhaz war, and they have never been to Abkhazia. However, they say of themselves that they are “Sukhumians”, mentally they are there in Sukhumi, as are their parents – and here they are just temporarily. This feeling is something they are being brought up with, and to refuse this reality would be equivalent to self-annihilation. This is their tragedy and their power at the same time. There is something biblical in it. The years may bring them a possibility to return to their homes – let’s not say that history does not know such examples.
This post was produced as part of the project “Media Cooperation and Peace Journalism in the South Caucasus” implemented by the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation (ICCN) in cooperation with the European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI) – Caucasus.
Ilgar Velizadeh is the Bureau chief of RIA-Novosti in Baku and Zurab Dvali is the Producer-in-Chief of broadcasting in national minority languages, Georgian Public Broadcaster, Tbilisi.
Onnik Krikorian of Caucasus Conflict Voices was one of two trainers at a project workshop held in Famagusta, Northern Cyprus, in September 2011. The original article, written in Russian, is available on the project blog, the Caucasian Circle of Peace Journalism.
The project’s Facebook group is here.