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Closed borders and violent histories haunt South Caucasus

Closed borders and violent histories haunt South Caucasus
A woman in front of the ruins of a house destroyed during fighting between Karabakh and Azerbaijan forces in 1993, in the town of Shusha outside Nagorno Karabakh's main city of Stepanakert, October 29, 2009. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
A woman in front of the ruins of a house destroyed during fighting between Karabakh and Azerbaijan forces in 1993, in the town of Shusha outside Nagorno Karabakh's main city of Stepanakert, October 29, 2009. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

LONDON (AlertNet) – “I used to film my friends’ weddings, birthday parties and special occasions. But then the world turned upside down … I started to film their funerals instead,” said Rudik Khojabaghyan, a former soldier living in the town of Goris, southern Armenia.

His next door neighbour and childhood friend, Mihran Mirumyan, recalls mending people’s home-made guns when war came to Goris in the early 1990s. “It’s a tragedy that we lost such good people. That’s what peace cost us, all those lives,” Mirumyan said.

Goris is about 20 miles (32 km) from Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed mountainous enclave within Azerbaijan’s borders that has been controlled by ethnic Armenians – with Armenia’s support – since a war with Azerbaijan. The war tore Azerbaijan and Armernia apart during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.’

Khojabaghyan and Mirumyan’s recollections of the conflict are shared in Memories without Borders, a moving film that portrays the impact of closed borders and violent histories over the past century on people living in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkey.

The Nagorno-Karabakh war displaced more than 1 million people across Armenia and Azerbaijan. About 30,000 people died. Nearly 600,000 Azeris remain displaced – it is not known how many people are still uprooted in Armenia.

A truce was signed in 1994. But peace talks have stalled, tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan are rising again, and skirmishes along the front lines persist. Armenia’s borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have been closed for nearly 20 years because of Armenia’s support of the Nagorno-Karabakh separatists, and its economy is suffering as a result.

“No one wins, we’re wasting time,” Mirumyan said. “You have to live next door, so you need to make peace, otherwise you should sell your home and leave. There should be another way out, some way over the barrier that we fixed here. We negotiate, we meet and discuss, but with no result.”

The war deepened tensions between Armenia and Turkey, tensions that have run deep since World War One. Armenia, backed by many historians and parliaments, says about 1.5 million Christian Armenians were killed in what is now eastern Turkey in a deliberate policy of genocide ordered by the Ottoman government.

Successive Turkish governments and most Turks feel the charge of genocide is an insult. Ankara argues there was heavy loss of life on both sides during fighting in the area.

Sitting on his shaded terrace, Mirumyan points to a beautiful chess set he carved out of black walnut and light pear wood. Each piece is a famous character from Armenian or Turkish history – including Talaat Pasha, one of the senior Ottoman officials during the 1915 massacre of Armenians.

The middle of the board represents the closed border between Armenia and Turkey, he says.

The set took two years to make and is priced at $10,000. “If it’s a Turk buying, I’d probably give a discount. I’d like a Turk to buy it,” he said.


A small number of descendants of Armenians who fled Ottoman Turkey during the World War One killings have moved to Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1990s.

“I can’t say whether what I’ve done is foolish or heroic. It’s quite egoistic,” says Armen, a young man who in 2004 moved to Nagorno-Karabakh from his home in Marseilles, France. His father, who lives in France, has refused to speak to him about his decision.

Armen’s wife Christina is a quarter Armenian by blood, and she too has chosen to make this the basis of her identity. “What do you do to feel Armenian when you live in the diaspora?” asked Christina. “You can go to events. You can sing Our Father in church. You can sing My Kilikia, eat basturma (cured beef sausage) and drink cognac. That’s it.”

Armen and Christina live in Shusha, a town surrounded by mountains and meadows, where they plan to raise their family.

“In the Armenian diaspora they dream of Shushi (Shusha). I’m living the dream,” Armen said.

Back in Goris, sitting in his workshop, Mirumyan muses on state borders. They should be respected, he says. “But, you know, the clock hand drops for everyone one day. No one lives for ever, not even those who create borders.”

Next door, Khojabaghyan opens a box of film tapes. “These are the tapes I got left with. People took the films of the weddings and the parties. But no one took the tapes of the funerals … I’ll have them for the rest of my life,” he says.

* Memories without Borders was made by Conciliation Resources, an international peacebuilding non-governmental organisation. It will be screened in western Europe in 2013. The first public screenings took place in October 2012 in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey

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