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The “Talking about peace in times of war” Nagorno-Karabakh edition

The “Talking about peace in times of war” Nagorno-Karabakh edition
By Weekly Focus (beta archive) • Issue #5 • View online
This newsletter was part of the beta version of n-ost’s Weekly Focus and originally published on October 14, 2020. 

“It’s hard to talk about peace in times of war” and “It’s impossible to do journalism now”. These two quotes very much illustrate the atmosphere of our editorial meeting last Friday and the overall circumstances that this week’s newsletter team, including our three Armenian and Azerbaijan colleagues, was facing.
Since the beginning of the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war, an immensely hysterical and manipulated war discourse spilled over the societies of both countries, causing massive self-censorship inside the public arena. Furthermore, a new restrictive media law in Armenia made our colleagues think twice about publishing something under their name (one of them decided to stay anonymous). And inside the repressive authoritarian regime of Azerbaijan, it’s virtually impossible to publish critical journalistic voices without putting them in danger. (That’s why most of them, like our author, live in exile.) 
All in all, we were lucky to find journalists who are trying to keep their heads above the enormous wave of hate and are brave enough to make the voices of reasons heard despite their hostile legal and social environments. Those reporting from the “outside” are also facing special problems and dilemmas, as the examples by our authors from international media illustrate.
During our discussion it became clear very quickly that everyone felt a strong need for perspectives that don’t get much coverage these days: reflections on the very (im)possibilities of a peace discourse, the hardships of reporting about the war and the focus on the humans trapped in it. 
Christian-Zsolt Varga, this week’s coordinating editor
This week's editorial team: Mariam Nikuradze, Anonymus Author, Arzu Geybulla, Gulliver Cragg, Yuri Manvelyan
This week's editorial team: Mariam Nikuradze, Anonymus Author, Arzu Geybulla, Gulliver Cragg, Yuri Manvelyan
🇬🇪 Writing about peace during war
The international editorial team of Open Caucasus media in Tbilisi. Photo: https://oc-media.org/
The international editorial team of Open Caucasus media in Tbilisi. Photo: https://oc-media.org/
More than two weeks ago, our team at OC Media woke up to a war and since then we have stopped perceiving time in a normal way. Instead of weekdays, we now count days full of wondering how many more days of war we must report. 
From the beginning, the challenge was to not get sucked into the never-ending information flow brimful of propaganda, reports about shelling, and dead bodies. These came hand in hand with statements and endless accusations which, at the end of the day, don’t really contribute to peace, our main value. 
Instead, our entire team, including our Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists, decided to find the missing voices for peace, a small group of those from both countries who are now being marginalized as never before. Talking about peace during these days of war is very unpopular, but very brave. 
We, too, as a media organisation, are criticized heavily from all sides for publishing these voices of peace; for not taking one side or for not covering another side enough. And it is hard to keep our hopes up that this polarized and hysterical war discourse will soon subside. When we published the news about the ceasefire last Friday, many people were upset because they wanted the war to continue (and, in the end, they got what they wanted, unfortunately).
It is difficult to continue working normally when every day I hear how family members and friends of our team members on both sides have gone to the frontline. That they live with the fear of losing them any moment or hearing that they’ve actually lost someone to this war – and that, despite all this, they continue reporting, staying committed to our values and quality journalism.
What has given me hope during those seventeen very difficult days? After publishing those first voices for peace, we started receiving letters from more and more of those who wanted their pro-peace voices to be heard too. Maybe, after all, there are a lot more of them than we thought. And maybe, by giving them an opportunity to speak, we can take one real step closer to an actual peace. 
Mariam Nikuradze is a co-founder and executive director of OC Media. She has more than 10 years of experience in journalism and documentary photography.
Mariam Nikuradze is a co-founder and executive director of OC Media. She has more than 10 years of experience in journalism and documentary photography.
🇦🇲 War of attrition
As I follow the news about the war, I put pins on the only map of Armenia and Karabakh that I could find in Yerevan bookstores when the war started. On it the Artsakh Republic is made up of 7 districts whose boundaries are lined in dark rose. The soviet era Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region is impossible to identify, as is the security zone around it. Only the Armenian names of the cities are available on the map. Some of the names are familiar, and some of them are unknown to me.
I mark towns in the South and the North, towns that have been taken and overtaken many times over the last two weeks, each time at the expense of huge human losses. The mountain my cousin is taken to protect has no pins on it. He must be safe for now; I console my helpless soul. 
These tourist maps, as well as public schools, museums, political elites have been denying the conflict for much too long. This denial was a sleeping volcano. It had to erupt on September 27, to remind us all of the urgency of finding a solution to the conflict. Young, and underprivileged boys are the first to suffer the consequences. Those boys, who were raised in culpable denial, are now being asked to become martyrs and volunteer to fight for “life and death”. But their sacrifice can’t be explained by the failure of both sides to solve the conflict. It is to be explained for the sanity of the living:   
War on terrorism, 
War for democracy,
War for sovereignty, 
War for the revolution, 
War against genocide.
Boys, pick the one you consider worth dying for. Don’t desert, become a hero.  
Public schools, maps, the elite have not let you to question whether the war could be avoided, why the future is doomed, or why the past trauma is not treated. 
Public schools, maps, museums don’t want boys to know about the war of attrition, the exact type of war that is happening right now.  
Anonymous author
Anonymous author
🇦🇿 Choosing political aspirations over human lives
Translation: “Damn your love for war. My uncle’s 19-year-old nephew was wounded on the front line. He was hospitalized but all that his family is told is that he is not dead. They are told, “Don’t come, he is in intensive care. You won’t be allowed to see him anyway.” [When] his dad heard the news, he had a heart attack. Yes, tomorrow, my uncle’s son will be just another “martyred father” to you. It would mean nothing more than that to you. But he was born on the land not occupied by Armenia and raised not on the opportunities the geographical territory you call homeland has given him. His father raised his son, having worked for years in basements in Turkey as a porter for hire. That bullet that hit that young man also cut right through a life that was sacrificed for him. Those best years, lost in basements, sacrificing his health and well being, in order to raise a kid whose life can end with one bullet. Don't you understand that by calling 19 to 20-year-old soldiers thrown in masses in front of bullets, “martyrs”, turning people's deaths into statistics and then holding a victory orgasm at their expense, makes you criminal, barbaric, unscrupulous and immoral?!”
Translation: “Damn your love for war. My uncle’s 19-year-old nephew was wounded on the front line. He was hospitalized but all that his family is told is that he is not dead. They are told, “Don’t come, he is in intensive care. You won’t be allowed to see him anyway.” [When] his dad heard the news, he had a heart attack. Yes, tomorrow, my uncle’s son will be just another “martyred father” to you. It would mean nothing more than that to you. But he was born on the land not occupied by Armenia and raised not on the opportunities the geographical territory you call homeland has given him. His father raised his son, having worked for years in basements in Turkey as a porter for hire. That bullet that hit that young man also cut right through a life that was sacrificed for him. Those best years, lost in basements, sacrificing his health and well being, in order to raise a kid whose life can end with one bullet. Don't you understand that by calling 19 to 20-year-old soldiers thrown in masses in front of bullets, “martyrs”, turning people's deaths into statistics and then holding a victory orgasm at their expense, makes you criminal, barbaric, unscrupulous and immoral?!”
When Zahra (whose name has been changed) , a 37-year-old Azerbaijani journalist currently based in Turkey, shared this story of her cousin on Facebook on October 4, she was full of anger. Anger against this war in which innocent young men are dying. Anger for almost having lost a relative. She cursed the war and the human cost of it. Zahra was also angry with supporters of this war.
But little did she know hers was not a plea many shared. It wasn’t long until those among her Azerbaijani facebook friends who are in favor of the fighting, started commenting, harassing and shaming her under the post.  
“Zahra, if you don’t want your son to die as a martyr, let us fight our war and take back our territories”. 
“By calling Azerbaijan a ruin, it doesn’t make you any different from Armenian {…} it is your life that is a ruin.” 
Zahra’s case is not an exception. Mass national support for the war pushed concerned Azerbaijani citizens to the sidelines – and turned them into targets. From direct harassment, to countless posts on social media platforms shaming every man and woman who are expressing their concerns about or against the war. 
There is no interest in hearing anything else than united support rallied behind the government. Social Media is flooded by a mix of patriotic posts dehumanizing Armenia for attacks on civilian homes, criticizing international media for their lack of “objective” coverage, news of slain soldiers and celebratory posts of captured territories. 
The majority of Azerbaijanis choose not to talk about human suffering because a greater cause is at stake – liberating what rightfully belongs to Azerbaijan. A sentiment, voiced repeatedly by government officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, who refuses to release the numbers of killed Azerbaijani soldiers.
In his interview with CNN Turk, he said, this was confidential information – and that it will only be released once the confrontations come to an end. When this would happen remains unknown especially in light of fresh ceasefire violations on both sides.
Arzu Geybulla is Azerbaijani freelance journalist based in Istanbul. She is a contributor at a number of online media platforms focusing on the Caucasus and is founder of the Azerbaijan Internet Watch project (https://www.az-netwatch.org/) documenting information controls in Azerbaijan.
Arzu Geybulla is Azerbaijani freelance journalist based in Istanbul. She is a contributor at a number of online media platforms focusing on the Caucasus and is founder of the Azerbaijan Internet Watch project (https://www.az-netwatch.org/) documenting information controls in Azerbaijan.
To be or not to be at the scene
The French TV channel France 24 is one of the few media with reporters on both sides of the line of contact. But not everything went as planned. (Screenshot: https://twitter.com/gullivercragg)
The French TV channel France 24 is one of the few media with reporters on both sides of the line of contact. But not everything went as planned. (Screenshot: https://twitter.com/gullivercragg)
Last week, France 24 encountered a problem: our team in Azerbaijan was filing reports from towns that had been shelled, with interviews of distressed locals and at-the-scene pieces on camera. Though my colleagues were careful to note that they were accompanied by an Azerbaijani government official at all times and used phrases like “they wanted us to show you this…” to remind viewers of the constraints, it was clear that the damage and suffering were real.
Meanwhile I and my colleagues – team Armenia – were in Yerevan, sending reports about volunteer soldiers and displaced civilians – but no shots of war damage on the Nagorno-Karabakh side. We weren’t able to travel there because both the de facto authorities and our own bosses felt it was too dangerous. In short, we couldn’t show what was probably the worst-hit city in the conflict – Stepanakert (or Khankendi in Azeri) precisely because it was being so badly hit.
It wasn’t exactly the problem the channel had anticipated when deciding to strive for balance and send teams to both sides: we had thought restrictions on the Azeri side would hamper our work there, while in democratic Armenia reporters would be freer.
At the Nagorno-Karabakh “embassy” in Yerevan, a man claiming to be plenipotentiary ambassador lambasted us for showing more footage from the shellings of Ganja (Azerbaijan) than Stepanakert. “Give us accreditation then!” my colleague snapped. Within half an hour, we had our cards. Ultimately though, a Covid scare meant we had to stay in Goris, on the Armenian side of the border.
Someone tweeted that if I was 100km away from Stepanakert, my counterpart on the Azeri side should also stay 100km away from wherever was shelled. I’m not sure the Azeri minders would have liked that idea… But anyway the channel’s decision is not to try to match correspondents’ distance from the scene km for km, but to try to send someone into Nagorno-Karabakh soon, and in the meantime, make up for our absence with agency footage. It’s not an easy call to make, though.
Gulliver Cragg is correspondent for France 24 TV, based in Ukraine, also covering Belarus, Poland, Hungary and sometimes Armenia, where he witnessed the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” that brought Nikol Pashinyan to power.
Gulliver Cragg is correspondent for France 24 TV, based in Ukraine, also covering Belarus, Poland, Hungary and sometimes Armenia, where he witnessed the 2018 “Velvet Revolution” that brought Nikol Pashinyan to power.
🇦🇲 Double talk
"We will win" – a war poster in the streets of Yerevan with the most popular slogan and hashtag in Armenia right now. (Photo: Yuri Manvelyan)
"We will win" – a war poster in the streets of Yerevan with the most popular slogan and hashtag in Armenia right now. (Photo: Yuri Manvelyan)
The public discourse is totally controlled by the military and there is no chance to do journalism here now if you are a native journalist from Armenia. We have a new law, that if something is published and the military is not okay with it, you can be punished. We saw what happened with Moscov journalist Ilya Azar from Novaya Gazeta. They made an example of him. The infos and quotes he gave from people he talked to? Everyone can hear these voices, opinions, facts here! This is nothing new to anyone. But you can’t read or see it in the media or on social media – there, almost everyone just repeats the military slogans. 
The only hope I have is that the majority of the people stay silent. And keeping silence never means that you agree. We can’t hear the people who lost their relatives, their voices are hidden. But during everyday conversations with people in kitchens, on the streets and in safe places, you get a very different picture. This is not what you can see on Social Media, where it is very noisy now and very unsafe if you don’t take part in it. I collected fragments of private conversations, that I participated in or witnessed:
Businessman, 42: “Our children need to become citizens of a normal country. Arsen (a well-known bank manager) took his family to the US two days after the war started.”
Doctor, 37, male: “The former defense minister speaks on television as if we do not know that he built a house with 48 rooms for himself.”
Artist (35), female: “I read Azerbaijanis. They seem to sincerely believe that Karabakh is their land.” Former soldier (32), unemployed: “I have no land at all.”
Refugee from Karabakh, mother of four, 35: “I don’t understand the noise about the bombing of the church. Isn’t it better to bomb churches than houses?”
Jeweler (42), male: “The All-Armenian Fund for the needs of the army raised $90 million despite the fact that there are a hundred people in Yerevan at the moment, for whom this amount is a tenth of their fortune.”
Former soldier, taxi driver (about 25): “I was called to the recruiting office and don’t know what to do. I didn’t live well enough to die now.”
Accountant at the Ministry of defense, female (52): “Since the beginning of the war we have been on duty 24/7 at the Ministry of Defense. In the new building, the chiefs have offices equipped with sofas and showers, ordinary employees have to sleep on chairs or, at best, on folding beds.”
Officer wounded a week ago (41): “Volunteers often interfere with the military: they do not obey, they leave positions when they please, they are capricious.”
School teacher, female (29): “My friend died eight days ago, and his name appeared on the lists of the dead only yesterday. We don’t know more than half.”
Loader at supermarket and taxi driver, male (32): “I will go to war only after the children of the oligarchs.”
Bank manager, male (51): “Yesterday, 4 Gelendvagen were sent to the front. And they are not ashamed - at an average wedding there are at least forty Geliks.”
Mother of two, former journalist (35): “Provisions are often not delivered to the soldiers, they are left for 1-2 kilometers to the posts. A friend’s son died while trying to deliver water to the soldiers.”
Shop owner, veteran of 90-th Karabakh war (60): “The most terrible thing will begin when the participants in the war return and will pretend to be heroes and demand their piece of power. We have already gone through all this.”
Schoolboy (12): “Most of all I do not like that at school every morning they make us stand up to listen to the hymn and shout at those who do not sing.”  
Yuri Manvelyan is a journalist of Epress.am news outlet, which focuses on problems of nationalism, militarism and homophobia.
Yuri Manvelyan is a journalist of Epress.am news outlet, which focuses on problems of nationalism, militarism and homophobia.
What we were reading, watching, listening
The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict — Meduza
We are a generation of war | openDemocracy
Europe’s Longest-Running Conflict Can’t Be Ignored - Carnegie Moscow Center - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Opinion | To stand for peace, in spite of everything
Nagorno-Karabakh’s Myth of Ancient Hatreds | History Today
Anti-war Statement of Azerbaijani Leftist Youth
Parts of a Circle, The Summary Film
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