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Caucasus: Frozen Conflicts, Forgotten Lives?

This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.

Overshadowed by the conflict in the former Yugoslavia at roughly the same time, the three conflicts waged in the South Caucasus in the early 1990s remain as neglected by the international media as ever. Over a million people were forced to flee their homes as war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh, while nearly half that figure were displaced when Georgia lost control over its two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia at roughly the same time.

True, a resurgence in fighting over South Ossetia culminating in the war between Georgia and Russia in August 2008 might have made international headlines, but the plight of refugees and IDPs in the South Caucasus rarely does, once ceasefire agreements are signed.

Meanwhile, in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as the breakaway territories of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh, the local media rarely deals with the problems facing refugees and IDP communities unless they can be used to propagandize against the ‘enemy.’

Instead, refugees and IDP issues are generally covered by international development and humanitarian organizations themselves, usually in the interest of raising awareness among donors. Meanwhile, none of the three conflicts show any sign of being resolved in the near future, further casting a shadow over the fate of those displaced by war.

Ethnic Armenian refugee from Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian 1994

Ethnic Armenian refugee from Nagorno Karabakh © Onnik Krikorian 1994

However, as new and social media empowers more people in the region, even if only in terms of access to information, some of the voices of the refugees and IDPs themselves can finally be found online. An example of this can be found on iDP Voices, a project supported by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, and Panos London.

Containing the stories of 29 IDPs from South Ossetia and Abkhazia collected by interviewers and presented in text and audio form, an electronic version in PDF format is also available for download.

When did you last listen to a displaced person and grasp the impact of displacement? Did you ever think what it means to lose close family members in conflict, lose all your belongings and to be uprooted from your place of origin? [...] These direct voices have the power to cut through prejudice and political agendas, they speak for themselves.

The focus is on universal human experiences and responses, not specific political issues. By reading what the displaced people themselves want to tell us, we may learn what is important to them and what issues they are particularly concerned about. [...] It allows us to glean the reality behind generalised notions of displacement. The stories stand alone with little analysis added – their power lies in their offering of images, a voice, sensations, feelings, hopes and dreams. [...]

One such voice is Teah, a 30-year-old Georgian who fled Abkhazia and who says “she dreams of an “ordinary life” for all Georgians and Abkhazians, who must “forgive each other everything.”

[...] I try to speak to both Georgians and Abkhazians. It is impossible to hate each other; we have made enough mistakes without adding that one as well! We should forgive each other and ourselves too. And one more thing: there has to be the will on both sides to achieve more trust and good relations. One party alone cannot solve anything.

I think these borders [between Abkhazia and Georgia] should be opened so that people can communicate with each other. Dialogue comes first, that can lead to trust…

[...] Only after talking about our own tragedies did we truly learn about each other and start to love each other. It took time to trust each other.

It was when we believed that we understood each other’s pain, when this moment came, that we could sit down and talk openly – without aggression, without accusations.

Such narratives told entirely from the first person are rare, however, although there are some exceptions. For example, international donors have funded the airing of refugee issues on local radio stations although these are often short lived, and one young ethnic Azeri refugee wrote two guest entries for own personal project which also forms part of Global Voices’ Caucasus Conflict Voices coverage.

The first was written in English before being voluntarily translated into Armenian, Azerbaijani and Russian:

[...] I was only four when I left Armenia, but in retrospect I don’t know whether that’s fortunate or not as I am unable to remember everything I left behind. But I do remember our house, our garden, the playground, my friends, my apple tree, and the rooster which I loved so much.

After arriving in Azerbaijan I used to dream about our house and walking in the ruins of our village. At some point, however, everything just faded away. Even so, my family have never lost their belief that one day we will go back home. We believe that two neighbors who have lived together for centuries will come together again even if evil has never left them alone and always whispers hatred.

[...]

In Azerbaijan, we kept ourselves apart from the local culture for many years and couldn’t adjust back to our ethnic roots. Being treated as a stranger made it even more difficult. Azerbaijanis from Armenia segregated themselves from the rest as a result and united among themselves. Discrimination towards us was everywhere. It was in the kindergarten I went to, in the primary school, and even in our social life.

[...]

This war made me a Peacemaker although I am very new in this area. My struggle is more complicated, however, because on the one hand I have to help those who are in conflict, and on the other help myself.

But if most refugees and IDPs are deprived of a voice in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, their stories are at least conveyed from time to time in independent media projects online. One example is a recent blog-based project conducted by the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation (ICCN) and the European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI)-Caucasus.

Originally written in Russian, but also translated and available in English, one post co-penned by an Azerbaijani and Georgian journalist offers an insight into the hopes of refugees and IDPs in their own countries:

“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. [...]

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.

The sentiment is not peculiar to Azerbaijani refugees and IDPs, and can often be heard from their Armenian counterparts who were also forced to flee during the tit-for-tat expulsions and mutual ethnic cleansing that defined the Karabakh conflict. However, the reach of such narratives remains small given relatively low Internet penetration and usage in the region. Television, the main information source for most citizens, remains particularly off-limits for alternative narratives on conflict.

Even so, videos including the stories of refugees and IDPs, such as these on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict rounded up by Global Voices here and here, are at least available online. Unfortunately, however, what few projects did exist to empower refugees and IDPs themselves through new and social media do not appear to have succeeded. Nevertheless, as Internet penetration increases, the potential is there.

This post is part of our special coverage on Refugees.

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