27 May 2020
Review of Parts of a Circle: History of the Karabakh Conflict
As I was born in 1993, I did not see the Nagorno-Karabakh war but it has certainly affected my life. I was born into a family of engineers who were not from Nagorno-Karabakh or its environs. All of our neighbors were forcibly displaced people, from either Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh (NK). I grew up thinking that our home was just one part of a regular apartment block. Only later did I realize that my parents were just students during the NK war, and only after learning a bit of Russian, I realized that общежитие (in transliteration obshezhitie) actually means “dormitory” or “student halls.” The student hall where my parents lived quickly became a residential building for forcibly displaced persons as the conflict unfolded, yet everyone referred to our building as ‘dormitory’ in Russian. My parents sent me to a Russian-speaking school, like many other Bakuvian parents at that time, with the hope of seeing me grow up into an enlightened person in the future.
Tamillakhanum taught alphabet in the first grade. She had left her home in Shusha, in Nagorno-Karabakh, and came to Baku to seek work. I remember my mom often came to her aid with the traditional bottle of reviving cologne when Tamillakhanum had a tearful episode, which usually happened after a mention of Shusha. It was she who made me draw a group of Armenian soldiers being crushed under the tracks of a tank bearing an Azerbaijani flag.
In 1998, four years after the ceasefire, Heydar Aliyev won the presidential elections. Aliyev was revered by my forcibly displaced neighbors and their children as well – whenever they saw a helicopter in the sky the children would be silent and tell others that, “Heydar baba came to check on us! Behave!” The funny thing is that when we saw an airplane, the same children believed it was Allah visiting us! It seemed that that Heydar Aliyev was second only to Allah in their hopes and dreams to return to Karabakh.
But for my part regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, I never understood what the big deal was. If it was an invasion, I couldn’t understand why a country would just seize another country’s lands and force out its population. If it was secession, I asked myself, what difference would changing your citizenship make? These were the questions I asked myself in my mid-teens. Like many youngsters of my age, I was indoctrinated with hatred towards Armenians and until I moved to Turkey to attend university 10 years ago, I didn’t even think of how I might see things differently. It was only then that I began to take an interest in peacebuilding and realized that what we lacked is proper documentation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Documenting a conflict is never easy, especially when it has not yet ended. A group of local media and peacebuilding organizations, including the Media Initiatives Center (Yerevan), Internews Azerbaijan, and the Humanitarian Research Public Union (Baku), supported by the London-based peacebuilding organization Conciliation Resources, has recently attempted this in the form of a feature-length documentary, Parts of a Circle: History of the Karabakh Conflict. The documentary is based on a series of three documentaries, filmed earlier, that were jointly produced over a period of 5 years. There is consequently a risk here that commenting on this film might appear to be akin to judging a book by the merits of its summary. But I’ll try my best.
At first I thought, this is just another orientalist attempt by Western intellectuals who would pass judgment on the conflict by picking one side at the end. Yet it was not. The film tries carefully to avoid the sharpest points of a double-edged sword. The film is surely targeted towards an international audience, although I suspect its exposure is doomed to be limited to only an interested audience, i.e. the “Caucasus watchers.”
The film’s positive significance lies in its use of both Azerbaijani and Armenian teams in its production. Usually documentaries reflect one’s parties view more strongly than the other, be it Armenian or Azerbaijani, creating an imbalance between narratives. Yet balance itself is not necessarily a desired stance for some, particularly government officials and nationalists. I thus implore the makers of this film to not feel discouraged by the complaints that may be heard from government officials on all sides involved in the conflict. After all, it would be in their best interests to be the narrators of their own story, not the third side. I can’t imagine what difficulties the makers of this film endured and I suppose they knew that criticism would come.
It is possible that the other three films in the series offer more in-depth information on the background, but choosing the year 1988 as the starting point for a documentary on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict seemed odd to me. The history of enmity over Nagorno-Karabakh is not just 32 years old. It is true that much of this history had been forgotten by Azerbaijanis, as a forcibly displaced man from Aghdam in the film remarks, “Nobody understood why the Armenians wanted to secede…” It must be horrific to be unaware of the crime for which one is punished. Nevertheless, I think the pre-Soviet history of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations should have been covered as well. The international audience of this film deserves to know that both Armenia and Azerbaijan existed before the Soviet Union, and that their diplomatic representatives operated in respective countries. There were active Armenian and Azerbaijani political parties that came to power, and there were even Azerbaijanis and Armenians among the members of parliament in both countries. Yet they experienced inter-communal massacres and pogroms in 1905 before either modern Armenia or Azerbaijan came into being, fought a war of their own after World War I, and had their own peacemakers.
Those peacemakers, typically intelligentsia but also mullahs and bishops, deserve recognition so that the viewer may understand that despite the fact that enmity and hatred have long histories in the region, there also exist stories of peacebuilding and mediating efforts waiting to be told. Through learning about their experiences, we may come up with new solutions, be they temporary or permanent. If nothing else, telling their stories would generate a glimpse of hope.
Viewers have to understand that the NK conflict did not come about overnight but was a process encompassed by a century of socio-political developments. I hope that the other films from the series will touch upon these issues. Armenians and Azerbaijanis of my generation do not have another hundred years to wait, and we have a perfect opportunity to be remembered in history forever, by solving a conflict more than a century old.
 In Armenian – Shushi (eds.)
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