We live in a region called the South Caucasus, region with three neighboring countries, countries with similarities in culture, mentality and traditions. One would say it is the best condition for these countries to live peacefully and in security, to cooperate and create close ties with each other. Yes, it could have been like this. But unfortunately when it comes to reality, we have 2 countries (Armenia and Azerbaijan) with a gap that sometimes seems irreplaceable, with mutual hatred, envy, and societies full of stereotypes and pessimistic approaches towards the future. On the other hand, everything is not as hopeless as it might seem at first glance. There are those who live in these societies, even if they are the minority, but are able to step forward of that established stereotypes, and make their ways to the future without that huge burden in their backpacks.

These people can set good examples for the others, examples of friendship and cooperation. We picked up two persons, one from Armenia and another from Azerbaijan, which belong to that minority and want to share their stories here with you.

‘I am proud to have Azerbaijani friends and they are very important people in my life’

“History is rubbish,” once told me one of my friends in Armenia when we had a conversation about Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and historical facts around it. He is also one of those people whose opinion about Azerbaijan and the Azerbaijani nation has been notably changed after face-to-face meetings with them. His first experience with Azerbaijanis is especially special and impressive. That is why I asked his permission to write a post about it and luckily for me, he didn’t mind.

I studied with him for four years at university and among our other friends, I dare say, he had the most radical, sometimes even nationalistic views on history and conflicts. “Azerbaijanis are a barbaric, old-fashioned (primitive) and very cruel nation,” this was his opinion about our neighbors some years ago. But then something happened out of the blue, which made him change not only his stereotypical attitude towards the other side, but also his general outlook on life.

Here’s his story: “In the summer of 2007 I was participating in a regional youth project in Tskhneti, Georgia. The first day we were doing some introductions and ice breaking activities, and one Azerbaijani girl especially drew my attention when she said that she’s an atheist. I was really surprised to hear that from an Azerbaijani girl. She was criticized by the Azerbaijani group for her out of the ordinary way of thinking, but this instead stirred a great desire in me to get to know her better. I found many common things in our characters and views when we were talking later that evening.

I felt that there is something very special in this girl and yes, I liked her.  But I was doing my best to get rid of that idea. That was the time when I especially had controversial and conflicting feelings inside me. Falling for a girl from a rival nation, I thought then, is a betrayal towards my nation and my own ideology.

While I had a big fight with myself, luckily for me she was courageous enough to take initiative and say the magic words ‘men seni cox sevirem’ (‘I love you very much’ in Azerbaijani). It took me more than 10 minutes to respond and I put it in this way: ‘Being still devoted to my national ideology, I also confess that I love you.’”

To my question, “What exactly did your personal relationship with that Azerbaijani girl change in you and in your attitude towards her nation,” my friend gave three concrete answers:

In the end, he added that “I am proud to have Azerbaijani friends and they are very important people in my life.”

You are probably interested what happened to this couple later. So, they spent a wonderful week together in Georgia during that project. Then after some time they met once again in Tbilisi. I remember my friend repeatedly telling me that those several days were the happiest days in his life and cursing the current situation that didn’t allow them to be together and share much more happy moments that they could have shared.

‘We should stop pretending being the only victim in this conflict’

I had a talk with an Azerbaijani young person who was sharing the opinion of the majority of the Azerbaijani population about Armenians before having a chance to meet them in person and to check whether this opinion was right or wrong through their own experience. Here’s the story:

“Before having a chance to meet with Armenians, I always had that stereotype of ‘enemy’ in my mind. I was thinking that Armenians were dangerous — you never know what to expect from them, and the best thing to do was to avoid having any kind of relations with them.

The main reason to think so, for sure, was the ongoing conflict between the two countries and the changes that the conflict brought to our lives – the war of 1991-1993, casualties, occupied territories, IDPs and refugees and so forth.

When I first met them, I was scared. I couldn’t predict the way we would greet each other or our attitude towards each other during the first meeting. My feelings were a mixture of anxiety and mistrust.”

As it happens to mostly all people when they meet the “other side” in person, my friend also went through different, sometimes even contradicting feelings, but in the end his opinion about Armenians wasn’t the way it was before.

“After we met and talked for about a few minutes I actually started to wonder whether those guys were real Armenians. They were nice and we also had the same attitude towards them. The reason of this behavior (being nice) was, probably, that we forgot about our nationality and, for a few days we behaved not like normal Azerbaijanis and Armenians would do, but as human beings. It was obvious that we had preferred not to touch the issue of conflict and problems we had between our countries since we all knew that even mentioning something related to the conflict could bring about contradictions.”

When I asked, “How do you see or how would you like to see the future with Armenians,” my friend preferred to answer the second question and the answer was rather inspiring:

“I would, definitely, like to see the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolved and peace being established between the two countries. I want people to live together as it used to be before. I want both sides to be satisfied with the results of the negotiation process and start trusting each other. None of the sides will ever forget the changes conflict brought to our lives but we (Azerbaijanis and Armenians) should bear in mind that we have to look to the future, we should stop digging into history and changing it, we should stop proving that the opposite side is wrong, we should stop pretending being the only victim in this conflict, we should stop playing for the others and with the help of others. People are tired of war on both sides. It’s time to be ourselves. It’s time for peace to be achieved.”

Fortunately there are more people with this kind of different thinking in both societies.

Hopefully their number is increasing with time.

Because this is what we need for the peace solution, for a peaceful future: alternative approaches, alternative ways of thinking.