Dispatch from the Frontlines of Conflict Transformation

By Raffi Joe WartanianDecember 1, 2020

Dispatch from the Frontlines of Conflict Transformation

On September 27, Azerbaijan’s government launched an aggressive military campaign to resolve disputes over the indigenous Armenian enclave of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). After the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan waged a six-year war to seize the region. Their unsuccessful bid was followed by decades of an unstable ceasefire with periodic skirmishes that, with Baku’s most recent offensive, erupted into a full-scale war. With the assistance of Turkey and military supplies from Israel, Azerbaijan took advantage of a moment when the international community focused on a pandemic and an American election. On both sides, hundreds of civilians and thousands of soldiers were killed. Nearly 100,000 Armenian refugees fled Artsakh and crowded into Armenian cities where COVID cases are surging. The November 9 ceasefire, brokered by Russia, resulted in significant territorial gains for Azerbaijan, leaving Armenians around the world, myself included, stunned. In America, I have watched from a privileged distance, questioning my own recent attempts to encourage peace among Armenian and Azerbaijani youth.

In the summer of 2018, I sat in a Yerevan café across from my mentor, a highly-regarded humanitarian worker, and told her I had come to Armenia to launch a project to promote understanding in the region. The goal of our project, Letters for Peace (LFP), was simple: foster constructive dialogue between Armenian and Azerbaijani youth. We’d do so through workshops at the intersection of creative writing and conflict transformation, asking participants to exchange letters articulating their desire for a peaceful future. I once doubted such programs could change major problems, but my attitude had recently shifted while co-teaching a creative writing workshop at Rikers Island jail in New York City.

In the cramped classrooms at Rikers, the writers expressed themselves with urgency, eager to unpack their complex experiences. Through poetry, prose, and rap, they reflected on surviving in violent neighborhoods, underfunded communities, and broken families. Our workshops facilitated a space in the most unlikely of environments to engage, honor, and amplify voices silenced by mass incarceration. The sessions at Rikers taught me what a writing workshop could accomplish, and I started to wonder how such programming could address the darkness hanging over the lands where my own Armenian ancestors had lived for millennia.

Back at the Yerevan café, my mentor peered over the rim of her glasses and asked, “Are you crazy?” Her reaction wasn’t unique. As I told others in Yerevan about LFP, I was met with awkward stares, or a quick change of subject.

Perhaps I was crazy. Azerbaijan was an oil-rich dictatorship that suppressed civil society, quelled political opposition, and scapegoated neighboring Armenia for the country’s woes. What room could there possibly be for constructive dialogue? President Ilham Aliyev — in power since 2003, when he was appointed by his father, Heydar, a national leader since the 1960s — regularly used anti-Armenian sentiment to distract from his mishandling of the economy. Artsakh Armenians seeking self-determination were depicted as aggressive anarchists occupying lands that rightfully belonged to Azerbaijan, a claim based on Stalin’s 1921 regional redistricting proclamation. Aliyev’s distortive rhetoric toward Armenians echoed a regional tradition refined by Turkish rulers of the late Ottoman era, who blamed Armenians and other minority groups like the Greeks, Bulgarians, and Assyrians for the empire’s challenges, leading to waves of Armenian massacres that culminated in the Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915. Because Turkey’s government denies the genocide and still erases monuments of Armenian material culture, the genocide continues.

In Armenia, distrust for Azerbaijanis was also intense. Azerbaijani society was portrayed as brainwashed, parroting their government’s commands and acting on its orders. Armenia’s mainstream media and public officials reinforced these attitudes by disseminating stereotypes and misinformation about the “other.” Armenians decried Azerbaijan for playing puppet to Turkey’s authoritarian strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The “two nations, one state” policy between Turkey and Azerbaijan raised fear of a neo-Ottoman expansion that would overtake the Republic of Armenia in order to establish a contiguous sequence of Turkic nations stretching from Istanbul to Bishkek. The Azerbaijani military’s recent destruction of an ancient Armenian cemetery in Nakhijevan, a nearby region that Stalin had also given to Soviet Azerbaijan in 1921, served as further evidence of the aim to erase Armenian identity from its indigenous land. This longstanding concern compelled Armenian forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh War to seize Azeri settlements to secure a land corridor between Armenia and Artsakh. With the November 9 ceasefire, that corridor has been truncated to a single, yet-to-be constructed road. The necessity of Russian peacekeepers to enforce these new boundaries belies a mutual distrust.

Yet, mutual distrust was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Armenians and Azerbaijanis had, for decades, coexisted as mostly friendly neighbors under Russian and Soviet imperial occupation. That coexistence continues today in regions of neighboring Georgia, and through other projects, organizations, and initiatives that have been cultivating collaboration between journalists, policymakers, and youth in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Perhaps I wasn’t all that crazy to believe in the possibility of broader dialogue.

Months prior to my arrival in 2018, Armenia’s Velvet Revolution — a peaceful, grassroots movement demanding fair elections despite threats of violence by the semi-authoritarian oligarchy — showed the promise of nonviolent grassroots change from the bottom up. Previous administrations had demonstrated a willingness to use the police and military to intimidate and even kill dissenters. Yet protestors clogged the streets of Yerevan. They had less money. They had no weapons. But what they had was the power of their vision for a more just and democratic society. No amount of violence could quiet that spirit, which ultimately compelled the government to meet the protestor’s demands, ushering in a new era of democratic reform. The events of 2018 gave reason for hope. Why couldn’t we channel that very spirit toward transforming the conflict with Azerbaijan?

That spirit was apparent during our Letters for Peace workshops in Armenia. Given the country’s small population — about three million — most of our participants had been impacted by the fighting. One writer had lost a relative in the 2016 clashes. Another had grown up in a border region, often rushing to bunkers to escape shelling and sniper fire. Several writers were themselves former soldiers. What they all hated most was the violence. “We’re not to blame for the actions of our ancestors,” one participant wrote. Her insight demonstrated the frustration toward inherited conflict, and the pervasive militarism that impacted families on both sides. Losing a loved one to needless violence was a fear all too familiar.

In the fall of 2002, my brother took a leave of absence from college and joined the US Army’s Third Infantry Division. For the next two years of his service, we monitored the mailbox, phone, and news, wondering if and when he’d be sent to fight. Anxious and powerless, we watched nightly newscasts where politicians pushed a false narrative about weapons of mass destruction to justify conquests for oil wealth. It was one thing to watch this lie unfold on national television, but something entirely different to look inside my brother’s empty room each night and wonder if he’d ever come home. Ultimately, my brother was not sent into combat, which did little to relieve the overwhelming uncertainty we felt over those two years. I struggle to imagine an entire lifetime of such uncertainty — the experience of Armenians and Azerbaijans in the South Caucasus.

Letters for Peace became one way to process the trauma one endures when a loved one is militarized. Of course, my privilege as an American meant that my brother could serve his division without having to fight. In Armenia, that privilege was rarely afforded. Everyone, it seemed, knew someone who had been on the frontlines. And they wanted peace. This reinforced lessons from the Velvet Revolution, and a tenet of common sense: oppressive, militaristic governments do not represent the will of their entire population.

Our Azerbaijani partners, likewise, expressed a desire for the fighting to stop, and for harmonious neighborly relations to resume. They shared Soviet-era memories from their parents and grandparents about kind Armenian neighbors in Soviet Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, as it was then known. They also conveyed exasperation with the conflict, and, in their own subtle ways, challenged some of the anti-Armenian sentiment they heard growing up.

“I think everyone knows we are just tools in this war,” explained one writer in his letter. Nevertheless, I noticed limited critiques of the regime in Baku, and a reiteration of state-sanctioned talking points regarding the  “liberation of occupied lands.” I wondered to what extent our Azerbaijani partners self-censored, cautious to avoid suspicion from state authorities who operated a surveillance apparatus to marginalize domestic counternarratives. Azerbaijani leaders will likely continue to frame peace as a treasonous idea, and this same distortion may take wider hold in Armenia, where military revenge threatens to become a national fixation exploited by autocrats seeking a return to power at the expense of recent democratic gains.

Letters alone will certainly not mend the conflict, but they represent an essential first step. The voices they amplify speak a common language, a language of shared values: safety, friendship, economic mobility, cultural preservation, and the right of return for displaced refugees on both sides. This common language transcends the limitations of the perceived conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, or Christians and Muslims. Instead, it addresses the actual struggle, regionally and globally, of moderates against extremists, democracy against dictatorship, and nonviolent conflict transformation against the military industrial complex.

“This conflict has been too expensive for both countries,” another participant wrote. “If the resources allocated for the army were spent on education, medicine, and for the increase of welfare, our citizens would have a higher standard of living.” Motivation for such an approach must surpass the status quo. That is why greater engagement from the international community, including the United States, is necessary to support initiatives committed to nonviolent conflict transformation. There will also be a critical need for peacekeeping forces from the United Nations and other international bodies to ensure regional stability beyond Russia’s five-year commitment. UNESCO must swiftly add to their list of world heritage sites some 60 ancient Armenian schools and structures built by the indigenous population that now face the threat of destruction or a historical revisionist campaign. This marks a critical opportunity for UNESCO to meet its mandate for the unbiased preservation of human material culture despite its noteworthy silence in 2019 when Azerbaijan’s military destroyed the aforementioned 16th-century Armenian cemetery in Julfa, Nakhijevan.

Social media also has a critical opportunity. By censoring Donald Trump’s election conspiracies, Twitter has harnessed its capacity to reduce the violence, destruction, and historical revisionism spurred by corrupt ideologues. This principle should be extended to cover Azerbaijani officials using Twitter to commit cultural genocide, as well as Armenian accounts glorifying violence against Azeris. Similarly, Facebook’s move to exclusively outlaw denial of the Holocaust, but not other genocides, only emboldens unchecked denialists who attempt to rewrite the histories of genocides perpetrated against Armenians, Cambodians, Bosniacks, Tutsis in Rwanda, Uyghurs in China, Rohingya in Burma, indigenous tribes in America, and countless others. Extending this standard is urgent in a time of growing misinformation campaigns.

Other international stakeholders must find a way to make Azerbaijan a signatory to the Rome Statute, so that the International Criminal Court (ICC) can investigate and try the Aliyev regime for launching a campaign of total war that violated jus in bello by deploying foreign mercenaries and drones to target schools, hospitals, churches, and apartment complexes. This escalating violence endangered Azerbaijani civilians as well, resulting in noncombatant deaths from attacks perpetrated by both militaries. A war crimes tribunal led by the ICC, or a different impartial body, offers one path toward restorative justice. To prevent this violence from intensifying further, the indigenous Armenians of Artsakh, who have spent decades voting for independence and self-determination, must finally have their democratic rights recognized.

Companies and regimes that sell weapons used in this conflict should face sanctions and other economic penalties, along with a concerted global effort toward military and nuclear disarmament. Urging Armenia and Azerbaijan to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions is one place to start. Incentivizing demilitarization, however, is not purely the domain of governments and corporations. Individuals and institutions can divest from corporations that manufacture weapons causing the death and displacement of civilians in Artsakh, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and around the world. A bevy of search engines have simplified the process of ethical investing.

I fully believe that conflict transformation will succeed if the urgency felt in times of war is sustained in times of peace. There is both an abundance of will and a great many ways to restore regional trust among people who are tired of burying their brothers and neighbors. One of the great tragedies of this recent war is the silencing of those who reject violence and erasure, choosing instead to embrace a common language of decency and love. Why should blood be spilled over borders if neighbors can trust one another? It would be crazy not to ask this question.


Raffi Joe Wartanian teaches undergraduate writing at Columbia University. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun, Outside Magazine, and elsewhere. In 2017, he founded Letters for Peace.


LARB Contributor

Raffi Joe Wartanian’s essays have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, Miami Herald, The Baltimore Sun, Outside, Lapham’s Quarterly, and elsewhere. In 2017, he founded Letters for Peace. He teaches writing at UCLA. 


Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!