As an Azerbaijani, I have to speak out about my country’s ethnic cleansing of Armenians

The Guardian, UK
Oct 9 2023

Ruslan Javadov

We are raised to hate and fear each other, but I want my voice of hope to reach the displaced children of Nagorno-Karabakh

The world has just seen an end to centuries of Armenian existence in Nagorno-Karabakh. All ethnic Armenians have left the disputed region, travelling in a caravan of cars over the border to Armenia. The Armenian children now displaced will hate the Azerbaijanis, just as I once hated the Armenians for what they did to me. I was a victim of the first Nagorno-Karabakh war in the 1990s, when it was Armenia that was victorious, and it ethnically cleansed all Azerbaijanis from its lands. I am speaking out, hoping to be a small pebble, lodged in this endless cycle of violence.

Before the first war, inside Azerbaijan’s borders there existed the “Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast”, a majority-Armenian island, so to speak, of mountainous land, with the culturally significant, majority-Azerbaijani citadel Shusha right in the middle. Concentric circles of alternating ethnicities radiated outward from Shusha; Azerbaijanis surrounded by Armenians surrounded by Azerbaijanis and Azerbaijani Kurds and so on – a great inconvenience for emerging nationalist narratives. Being Armenian and Azerbaijani became oppositional and mutually exclusive. Neighbour went against neighbour, and eventually state against state, with their armies wreaking havoc on the other.

Nagorno-Karabakh votes to secede from Soviet Azerbaijan – archive, 1988
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During that war my first childhood memories were formed. I remember walking down a dirt road in my father’s village at dusk when the sky suddenly turned bright as day – bullets flying above my head. I remember attending the burial of my 18-year-old uncle, and being scared of the graveyard, where the eyes of the dead stared at me from pictures on their gravestones. He had been drafted into the war and had died there. I came to understand from the adults’ conversations that he had stepped on a landmine and had his legs blown off. He had then shot himself in the temple before his friends could get to him to stop him.

My mother’s family, Azerbaijani Kurds, hailed from the mountainous district of Lachin. I was told we had a big, beautiful house there, with many windows. My mother fondly remembered how my great-grandmother would take her on horseback up the rugged cliffs. It felt like flying, she would say. Armenian forces ended our ancestral existence there, ethnically cleansing everyone who was not Armenian. I never saw our house, never got to fly on horseback, and never saw Lachin, except in the news with its new Armenian name, “Berdzor”.

Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh arrive in Kornidzor, Armenia on 29 September. Photograph: Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters

In school, I learned that the Armenians were villains responsible for all our tragedies; this was not hard to believe given what my family had been through. The Russian empire, we were taught, had transported them into our country as a loyal Christian population from Iran after the conclusion of the Russo-Persian wars in 1828. We learned that the Armenians were conniving tricksters never to be trusted. On TV, I heard Armenians described as “the abominable enemy” and “vandals”. The horrifying pogroms Azerbaijanis committed against the Armenians in our major cities were denied, minimised or explained away as being organised by the Armenians to make themselves look like victims, garner international sympathy and justify starting a war of occupation. The ethnic cleansing of Armenians by Azerbaijani and Soviet troops during the infamous events of 1991 was never even mentioned. Nor did we ever hear about the wilful and systematic destruction of Armenian heritage in Azerbaijan.

I have since come to learn that the Armenians were fed the same types of messages about the Azerbaijanis. We were labelled “Turks”, with obvious traumatic associations with the Armenian genocide, which made us guilty for a crime in another land by another people. The cultural, religious and linguistic differences between the Caucasian Azerbaijanis and Anatolian Turks, who had in fact fought wars with each other, did not concern the Armenian nationalists. We were nothing but barbarian invaders from central Asia with no history and no culture.

After our horrible fate in the 1990s, hatred seized Azerbaijan, and destroyed us. The current president, Ilham Aliyev, took power in 2003 and curtailed free speech, with the notable exception of hate speech against the Armenians. An Azerbaijani is always welcome to hate the Armenians a little more and to blame them for all our problems. The first family has been accused of benefiting from state contracts and business deals; Aliyev has even benefited from the plight of those in Karabakh, using our suffering to legitimise his endless repressions.

‘It’s a ghost town’: UN arrives in Nagorno-Karabakh to find ethnic Armenians have fled
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Aliyev would have you believe that the Armenians are leaving Nagorno-Karabakh of their own free will – a lie. The Armenians know well what sorry destiny awaits them if they stay. This process is, of course, ethnic cleansing.

I left Azerbaijan 15 years ago, displaced this time not by the Armenians but by the cruelty of those who were supposed to love me and protect me. I fled domestic violence after my father tried to kill me for being gay, and there was no person or institution in Azerbaijan that could protect me. I am as displaced as a person could be, and, through my words here, I may never be able to visit Azerbaijan again for fear of persecution. But I am compelled by my conscience.

I want Armenian children being forcefully displaced from their homes to hear the words that would have once meant everything to me: I am sorry we failed you. One day, when you understand what happened to you, hatred will start to drip into your heart, and you will want to seek vengeance. In that moment, take my outstretched hand and let me guide you back to our shared humanity. For the only true “us” and “them” lies between the perpetrators of violence, and those who reject it.

  • Ruslan Javadov is a pseudonym