1 Aug 2010
Bridging Armenia and Azerbaijan
If you want to see how much the Armenians and Azerbaijanis have in common, then you should give them a chance to sit at a dinner table, jointly fulfill amusing tasks, spend leisure time and have fun together. That is what the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation did by organizing the Imagine 2010: Armenia-Azerbaijani Retreat and Dialogue program bringing seven young activists from both sides to spend eight unforgettable days together in a splendid resort area in Georgia.
Give the chance and you will see them taken by surprise as they discover numerous similarities in their daily lives, traditions, habits and use of colloquial language–very often oblivious of the enmity, hatred and divides that exist between the two nations more than two decades now following a political turmoil and a horrendous war over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The daily agenda in the Imagine program was quite tight: dialogue, brainstorming sessions and debriefings, when we could discuss historical events face-to-face with our Azerbaijani colleagues that mostly contributed to the escalation of tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan, presenting our approach over the ways of settling the Karabakh conflict and improvement of relations with Azerbaijan.
The trainings on social media, journalism and writing we participated in are also worth mentioning as I am sure they are of great importance and will greatly benefit our further activities.
Eventually, we were set upon game-like tasks, which I should say we performed quite successfully together. They also showed us how important dialogue and correct communication are in carrying out joint tasks as well as building trust and respect towards each other.
Last but not least, I attach much importance to the off-program discussions I had with some of the Azerbaijani guys over the conflict and relations between the two countries and societies. It is one thing when you speak in front of a whole audience–the setting makes it more formal–but it is quite another when you talk to an Azerbaijani tête-à-tête frankly, like human beings rather than citizens of your respective countries.
I had before the program some face-to-face contact with a few Azerbaijani journalists. But little did I know then that I would one day share a room with an Azerbaijani guy for eight days, share sweets, drink some good Georgian beer and wine, watch select films till late at night and discuss various themes together.
Realistically, given the notorious experiences of the past we had, I would have considered such a scenario almost impossible before. But what is of the essence is that you become more convinced that not all Azerbaijani guys are Ramil Safarovs–and that is what gives comfort–as you live with them and treat them for their human characteristics rather than for national background.
Albeit some compatriots of mine may take a dim view of what I say, and it is not too much of a problem. I even started to take a shine to some of them as I captured the essence of their mindset and world outlook, clearly aware of having discovered open-minded people with an alternative way of thinking.
There were some moments during the project when almost all of us found ourselves in a hornet’s nest, in loggerheads with each other and with intransigence and irreconcilability on the offensive, especially when it came to history. But they would smoothly die away once the discussions over.
Truly, what really struck me about Armenian and Azerbaijani youth within the program was the farewell morning: bear hugs along with schmaltzy scenes and with emotions running high among participants, including me, facilitators and trainers, as well as promises to keep contact and to try and see each other as soon as possible, though none of us was sure that we would meet each other in person anytime soon unless lucky enough.
Still, what I came to realize after this project is that such initiatives are quite fruitful. By bringing young activists from two conflicting countries together in a friendly entourage deeply-rooted stereotypes are broken, enabling us to get rid of trigger-happy and mind-numbing prejudices we inherited as we grew up and also undermine the dehumanized and inimical character of the other side often abused for propaganda and indoctrination.
Ironically, when I cast a retrospective look at those eight days spent with Azerbaijani guys and dwell upon it, it begs the question: If we are so benevolent towards each other and could during those eight days build such close ties, why can’t we come to common ground, get over our nationalistic views and live a tranquil, happy life or rather a full life as one of the Azeri participants put it, implying the wider sense of the word, even if we do not live together as one community as we once did?
It is not about driving the hamster’s wheel when it comes to establishing relations between the societies of neighboring states living in no-war-no-peace conditions. This program was one such step aimed at bridging the existing gap between Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Even if one single person learns just one thing due to the project–though I am sure they learn more–then it bodes well, and the icebreaking efforts are bound to succeed.
Maybe we need more imagination while spending efforts to establish and cement ties between Armenian and Azerbaijani societies? Or maybe programs by Imagine should occur more frequently?