The Challenges of Multiple Perspectives on the Azerbaijani-Armenian War
Disclaimer: Aroha Mackay authored the piece referenced in this article in a previous issue of the Observer. She is also on the Observer staff as an Opinions Editor. Because of this conflict of interest, she had no role in the writing or editing of this article.
In a previous issue of the Tufts Observer, a group of Armenian students reflected on their experiences dealing with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. One of the students mentioned noticing how some of the deceased soldiers were close to their age, and how they could have been their relatives. Unfortunately, I know what it feels like when your immediate relatives go to war. In fact, nearly every single family in Azerbaijan has a relative who fought for the return of Azerbaijani territories.
As the only Azerbaijani student on Tufts campus, I needed an incredible amount of support and guidance to gather my courage to write this article. Studying in the US has been a life-changing experience for me, both personally and academically. Perhaps the most salient feature of my life in the US revolves around the notion of how misunderstood my country is by the American populace. I feared my concerns would be trivialized, since most people either don’t know much about Azerbaijan or are misinformed.
Azerbaijan’s relationship with other nearby countries like Iran, Georgia, and Turkey has evolved over the years and continues to move forward. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been involved in a military conflict since the late 1980s due to the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. The occupation of this Azerbaijani territory caused the displacement of nearly 1 million Azerbaijani citizens.
In 1992, the creation of the Minsk Group by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe drew international attention to the conflict. The countries that were members of the Minsk Group were obliged to provide a framework for a peaceful resolution, obtain conclusions for the cessation of armed conflict, and promote the peace process. Despite the ceasefire signed in 1994, the occupation continued and no progress was made in terms of peaceful resolution of the conflict. Nearly three decades of unresolved tension finally exploded into an armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia on September 27, 2020, which lasted for 44 days.
With all of my family and friends in Azerbaijan, I barely slept over the course of those 44 days. My focus and attention on my studies were the first to suffer. I had to constantly check my phone to make sure that my hometown hadn’t been hit by missiles. In order to filter through the war propaganda from both sides, my friend and I established a system where we would read media reports from both sides and a third-party resource and then average out the information to make sense of what was going on in the area. Only after knowing an agreement was signed between the parties was I assured of my family’s safety and able to sleep again.
Before and after the war, I suffered from anxiety over the one-sided representation of the conflict in the US media, most of which portrayed Azerbaijani people as aggressors and ethnic cleansers. The majority of media resources neglected to recognize the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh has never been independent of mainland Azerbaijan, according to the international legislature. Notably, this entire situation leaves Azerbaijan at a delicate crossroads in terms of its reputation worldwide as it determines its true allies and enemies. As I go about my daily life in the US, I find myself struggling to articulate a proper defense of my country because it is important for me to offer people some understanding of the situation.
The efforts of the Tufts community to become more diverse and inclusive helped me to recognize and acknowledge my bias about this conflict. One of the most important lessons I learned was the danger of a single story, introduced to me by Professor Linda Beardsley’s “Story in Education” course. I adopted this concept in both my personal and academic life, which allowed me to critically reflect on my preconceptions and explore new points of view.
I was born and raised in Azerbaijan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is a painful wound on my sense of national identity. As a citizen of a country at war, I was exposed to a single-sided narrative about the conflict and the Armenian nation in general. This is understandable; when a nation’s people are dehumanized it is easy to project hate and anger because of the crimes of its representatives. However, being raised in a multiethnic and multicultural family, I was aware that such representations were not definitive reflections of the truth. Living in the US for the last two years has also exposed me to previously untold narratives and created dissonance in my awareness.
No matter how hard I try, the Khojaly Genocide—one of the most violent incidents in the history of the war—pervades my thoughts. On a freezing, snowy night, Armenian forces entered a small village in the mountainous region of Karabakh and committed unspeakable war crimes against unarmed civilians. I was raised to commemorate this dark day in my nation’s history, to remember and pay respect to the lives of the people who were killed by separatists. I believed that such stories need to be passed onto future generations, but without the single-sided fear and hate that I was raised with.
Now that Nagorno-Karabakh has been reunited with mainland Azerbaijan, I hope that mutual recognition of the past will happen so that we can move forward. As I have learned to see more than a single perspective, I hope that this narrative will enable others to see Azerbaijan in a different light than that which the mainstream media shows. I hope for more cross-cultural conversations to take place before one makes any biased judgments about a person who identifies as Armenian or Azerbaijani. Reflecting on my personal experience, I know for a fact that such conversations can be eye-opening and refreshing—maybe not to change one’s perspective dramatically, but at least to acknowledge a previously unknown narrative.