1 Dec 2012
Silenced Voices: the Unpopular Armenian Perspective of the Karabakh Conflict
For four months, I have been interviewing members of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Armenia (RoA), curriculum writers, members of the administration, teachers, and community members to understand how peace and tolerance education are implemented in Armenia (in the regions of Syunik, Shirak, and Yerevan). My qualitative research study includes questions about the national curriculum, existence of opportunities to discuss peace and tolerance while teaching and whether the curriculum allows teachers to adjust the materials to include additional resources. One common theme occurring in my analysis has been about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and how teachers can promote peace.
When discussing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, there are generally three positions within Armenian society that I’ve noticed to emerge from the narratives. On the one extreme end is the popular narrative of supporting war, honoring the war heroes, and perpetuating hateful ideas of the “other”. This perspective is infused with the national(istic) rhetoric of the media, including music videos and news articles and inculcated through public education (Zolyan, M. & Zakaryan, T., 2008; Abbasov, I. & Rumyansev, S., 2008; Barseghyan, H. & Sultanova, S., 2012) making it more challenging to find creative space for alternative reasoning. On the other extreme end are the few who do not care about the history of the war and only consider building a future. More specifically, they do not comment on the war but are willing to contribute to restoring peace in the region. I have found that in between these two extreme positions, a small group of individuals have been silenced or marginalized within the Armenian society. One interviewee claimed that, “…we created the enemy…we created this problem…” (Math teacher. personal interview. 11, Oct. 2012) As a result, they are and have been ridiculed and labeled “traitor” within society. I found these marginalized responses to be a common theme amongst many of the interviews conducted in this research.
This article will focus on the silenced stories by identifying 3 themed narratives from 5 individual interviews I conducted during my current research fellowship understanding how peace and tolerance education is taught and understood in Armenia. More specifically, it will highlight excerpts from interviews with individuals from the Ministry of Education, curriculum writers, teachers, and community members who expressed alternative perspectives of the war. I selected five stories that highlight the silenced side. These five individuals described their experience illustrating a story from the past and shared their determination to promote peace within their capacity. Finally, in my opinion, by silencing these voices, we have and continue to prevent the establishment of peace and tolerance within the Caucasus region. It is my hope that we begin to approach the conflict from a fresh perspective in order to truly come up with a resolution to the conflict and establish peace within the region.
A soft-spoken, vice principal
As a vice principal, he has many responsibilities at the school including teaching a math course. For over 39 years, he has been teaching mostly upper grade levels. He proudly inserted that until this day, many of his students return to visit him to thank him for being their teacher. Aside from the conflicts he faces as a teacher, he explained how much he enjoyed helping his students and recalled how they still keep in touch with him years later. He also reminisced about his childhood and shared the following: “…there was a time where there were very close relations (with Azerbaijanis).” I asked if he had close Azerbaijani friends growing up: “(Yes) there were, [friendships with Azerbaijani people] but they are gone now. I don’t have Azeri friends now. It wouldn’t happen now.” (Vice Principal, personal interview, Oct. 8, 2012)
His answers were brief. I could tell he was reliving the memories from the past as he answered my questions. I tried to follow his gestures in order to understand when he was finished answering my questions and how much further we could take the discussion. It is important to note that this math teacher was part of the generation who lived alongside Azerbaijanis and his responses did not include any signs of anger or hateful attitude toward them. The teacher did note, however, that he did not think it was possible to have those kinds of relationships with Azerbaijanis again.
Towards the end of the interview when reflecting on how the Nagorno-Karabagh war impacted his students, school, and community in general, he shared the following insight:
We should not teach our kids about enemies. We should not teach our kids to be enemies with those countries. The opposite. They are your generation, they should be your friends. Its better to make connections with those countries…Now in a peaceful way the conflict needs to be resolved and in our kids we need to teach love so that they don’t have evil. We shouldn’t ruin our children’s air. (Vice Principal, personal interview, Oct. 8, 2012)
This teacher reflected on the role of educators, parents, and members of the community in promoting positive messages of peace for the new generation of children. He says he teaches the youth about peace to rebuild the future since it is important for both countries to understand the significant impact peace would have in society.
The Math Teacher
At the end of each interview, I often ask the interviewees if they have any final comments or closing thoughts. To my surprise, in an interview with another Math Teacher at a different school, he told me,, “thank you.” I laughed and remarked that I had done nothing except ask him questions so I am thankful to him. His response was that tolerance and peace were areas where there is a lot of work that needs to be done.
Perhaps this interview would have carried on past the time that was originally allotted but considering the office closing, we ended our discussion. In retrospect, this gentleman helped me realize the silenced voice population and more importantly, he taught me that victory has no real meaning.
You know war, in any society, no one wants war. The Nagorno Karabakh war, we are ‘the victorious’ the generation that brought this “victory” if we can call it that, this is my subjective opinion. We don’t have a victory. Because this is another major issue for tolerance. This is our generation’s problem.…we helped create this problem, this enemy between nations, it is a very serious problem. For example, my honest opinion, there should not have been a war. [In] this situation there was no victory, I don’t say “Yes for Armenians, May 9th is a victory for Armenians,” that one nation suppressed the other. (Math teacher, personal interview, 11, Oct. 2012)
He continued to explain that by claiming we have victory and they are losers, we are contributing to the creation of more Safarovs. This math teacher not only taught how to solve math problems, but it seemed that his understanding of mathematical formulas and equations helped him arrive at the idea that everyone is equal to one whole number. In regards to the reactions of both Armenia and Azerbaijan’s Governments, the math teacher feels that neither country is directing society in the right direction. For this reason, he is concerned with the renewal of war as he exclaimed, “a country very young, only 20 years old and so this youth of 20-22 years of age are already filled with this poison in this regard just as they are towards us. And the war can start just because of this.” This was clearly the case as many of us followed the news about Safarov’s release which happened to occur around that same time. Luckily, most of the statements made in the media were part of the political rivalry and there was no renewal of the war. The idea of war renewal, however, is always on the minds of Armenians as they hear reports of clashes by soldiers on the border with Azerbaijan.
Furthermore, the math teacher examined the current direction of education and recognized that there are areas that both Armenia and Azerbaijan need to further examine together. Concerned about the new generation who have already “(been) filled with this poison”, this math teacher suggested that we need to reevaluate our approach as a region.
This Caucasus region we need to cooperate so that the society can live together in this region… This is a very, very, serious problem and we are so far from resolving this. Even for the teachers who pass on their opinions or judgments they begin to question, what are you a Turk? Or the Karabagh history teacher will say, ‘We fought the Azeri’s like this, etc.,’ These lessons are not taught in a neutral way and it brings a lot of harm to us and they don’t consider what the harm this causes us. This is showing the new generation who the enemy is and pointing them out that they are our enemy…Neither of us are directing our people towards the right direction. (Math teacher, personal interview, 11, Oct. 2012)
The math teacher points out that in both countries children are taught that they are each other’s enemies – and this continues to do more harm than good in both societies. Several scholars have examined this point raised by the math teacher on the impact of these history textbooks who have noted that in both countries and found the nationalistic rhetoric promotes “othering” and hateful propaganda (Zakaryan, T. & Zolyan, M., 2008; Abbasov, I. & Rumyansev, S., 2008; Barseghyan, H. & Sultanova, S., 2012). Based on these findings, one area to further examine is how to re-write these history textbooks or discuss with Ministries of Education in both countries potential harm impacted on children based on these history lessons.
The Ice-breaker, English Teacher
During my interview with an English teacher, she was eager to show me her classroom with English posters and pictures of the US and other English-speaking countries. That day, the English teacher had taught the color pink and reviewed their past lessons on the alphabet and counting numbers. Prior to participating in my interview one of her colleagues hesitated to participate in my study in which she responded, “What is wrong with you? This is a great opportunity for us! We need to help her so she can help us!” I knew then that my research was not only for myself, but for them to share their stories as well.
This teacher felt comfortable about her ability to teach about peace and tolerance within her classroom. She identified several activities she used in her class in which she taught students how to resolve conflicts. There was one story she was eager to share with me early on in the interview about her experience at an international teacher-training workshop where they met some teachers from Georgia and Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijanis were trying to avoid the Armenian teachers. She explained she always aimed to find common ground with them and even made the effort to reach out.
We didn’t have any hate…I’m not saying we hung out and all that, but until I didn’t reach out to them, it wouldn’t have happened. It was an ice breaker for us. This was a discipline, we were here for an educator project, and needed to include each other…It would have been great if we could listen to each other’s opinions. (English teacher, personal interview, 15, Oct. 2012)
As the English teacher explains, during the regional workshop she took the initiative to break the ice with her Azerbaijani colleagues. She felt it was important for all the teachers to collaborate. When we finished the interview session she disclosed her thoughts on my research because she knew that somewhere, somehow she was glad that her story was going to be told.
Nagorno-Karabakh War Veteran, Teacher, and later Vice Principal
When word traveled in the Shirak region that I was interviewing teachers who taught peace and tolerance, they told me I had to meet this gentleman. Today he is retired, having worked since he was twelve years old in many different sectors. However, his passion was to work with students. The day I interviewed him, he arrived early and was eager to tell me his story.
Sure everyone knew about the conflict from radios to websites to TV programs, etc. and their families their brothers and fathers went to fight. I had students whose fathers died in the war. The conflict, as a nation was felt on our own skin. And those problems were heightening over time, and the Azeris became known as enemies later…I knew that, honestly, the average Azerbaijani citizen had no fault.(War veteran, personal interview, 18, Oct. 2012)
Hearing these words from a former war-veteran made me realize these silenced-stories were all over Armenia. Considering this gentleman who was a war veteran and later classroom teacher convinced me that these stories could come from anyone. He described how they communicated in Russian and that he used stories of his Azeri neighbors as lessons to teach his students. Furthermore, he questioned, what happened to these great relationships, as he explained, “We never did anything bad towards them nor did they towards us.” The reason for this division in his opinion was the fact that nationalistic ideals spread hatred amongst Armenian society towards Azerbaijan.
I conducted another interview with a civil society activist, who is known both in Armenia and the international Armenian community for her involvement in civil society since Armenia gained independence. Her work involves a variety of issues in Armenia. Full of hope and enthusiasm, she seeks ways to improve economic, social, political environment in the country. Her concern over how to confront the intolerance led to questioning the role of media both in Armenia and Azerbaijan. She noted that the role of the government is not necessary. Instead, she questioned the role of media in Armenia:
To be fair, I don’t think we demonize them as much as they do us but this is not a, ‘we are better than they are’ sort of argument. Against the backdrop of extreme vilification and demonization that is now the Azerbaijani policy, people like me sound naïve and stupid and so we have no platform. Against that background, I sound completely stupid when I say being tolerant regarding Azerbaijan and Aliyev then goes and makes Safarov a major. I have no room, no space to talk. What they are doing is encouraging greater intolerance in Armenia for perfectly understandable reasons. I wouldn’t justify it but, man, can I explain it. (Civil society member, personal interview, 20 Sept. 2012)
The discussion on tolerance ends here, she believes. She cannot and does not know how to take it further when she faces ridicule in her own country, never mind reaching out to “the other”. This is the space where many individuals feel they are trapped between moving forward or looking backward.
Based on my research, I have come to realize these voices are from individuals who we pass by in our daily lives and do not get the opportunity to hear their opinions. They are individuals who want to build peace in the region for the new generation and remain positive about the future. For example, of the thirty teachers I have interviewed thus far, only one rejected the idea of a peace education initiative with Turkey and Azerbaijan. The reasons could include fear of being labeled a traitor or marginalization. However, the national(istic) rhetoric is the dominant discourse mainstreamed through the media and education. Interviewees who have expressed their dissent with the war and attempt to approach the conflict differently do so through various opportunities. Few interviewees use public forums as opportunities to challenge the mainstream, which also includes Azerbaijanis. Some described their failed attempts in trying to challenge the national(istic) rhetoric because they do not have the resources to be able to broadly engage the majority of society. To be able to challenge the dominant discourse, one possible approach may be for these groups to be more visible in society. This visibility may inspire others and make a positive change and could spiral into public outcry. Another approach is to exchange stories. As seen by these interviews, when sharing stories of the past, we can begin to rewrite the narratives for the future.
Abbasov, I. & Rumyansev, S. (2008). Ways to perpetuate the past: analyzing the images of ‘others’ in Azerbaijani history textbooks. In L. Vesely (Ed.), Contemporary history textbooks in the South Caucasus. Prague: Association for International Affairs. (pp. 33-56)
Barseghyan, H. & Sultanova, S. (2012). History Lessons in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Institute for War & Peace Reporting. Issue 631
Palandjian, G. (2012). The ABCs of being Armenian: (Re)turning to the Armenian national identity. In J.H. Williams (Ed.), Re-( Imagining) the Nation. Sense Publishers. (forthcoming)
Zakaryan, T. & Zolyan, M. (2008) The images of ‘self’ and ‘other’ in textbooks on history of Armenia. In L. Vesely (Ed.), Contemporary history textbooks in the South Caucasus. Prague: Association for International Affairs. (pp. 11-32)
 Research for this article was supported in part by a fellowship from IREX (International Research & Exchanges Board) with funds provided by the United States Department of State through the Title VIII Program. Neither of these organizations are responsible for the views expressed herein.