In Turkey and the three countries of the South Caucasus, nearly everyone has experienced the pain of conflict.
But while people in the region may dream of peace, many prefer to speak of war. Efforts to resolve military conflicts and rebuild relations are often marginalized; the few brave enough to seek peace are frequently dismissed as traitors.
The stigma can be even worse for female peace activists, who must overcome the region’s conservative stereotypes about the role of women.
Three young female activists - Hamida Giasbayli from Baku, Maria Karapetyan from Yerevan and Pinar Sayan from Istanbul - are pushing back against these taboos.
While the challenges they face at home differ, all three share a common goal to achieve peace, no matter how impossible it may seem.
Their dream of peace brought the three of them together and now, through their cooperation with the ‘’Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation,” an independent, non-political organization, they are using their personal experiences to challenge local stereotypes. They are also leading the next generation of peacebuilders by creating opportunities for young people from the South Caucasus and Turkey to meet.
Hamida Giasbayli, 26, has been working for peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia for the past eight years. Her interest in conflict resolution stems from her own childhood in Baku, Azerbaijan, where her parents enjoyed close friendships with people of all nationalities. That ended with the Nagorno Karabakh war, however.
Hamida’s mother and father refused to break ties with friends simply because they were Armenian but they were unable to preserve their peaceful life and treasured friendships. They eventually emigrated to Israel for several years to escape the conflict.
Hamida notes that while she has not directly faced the horrors of war, she has been forced to live with its consequences - and that is not a fate she wants to pass on to future generations.
“I don’t want my children to die in a war or have to face the horrors of war. I was born during the war. I didn’t see it but I have seen the consequences, what it did to people and what it did to society.
She says it was frightening to see the impact of the conflict on her country. “I was extremely scared of what was happening. I couldn’t understand why there was so much nationalism, why there was so much trauma. And now it’s very difficult for this [young] generation to understand the older generation, which has lost so much.”
She says it is really important to build a bridge between the two generations, so young people can “understand what happened to them and how we can move on.”
Hamida’s desire to help her country build peace pushed her to live abroad and learn about other conflicts and peacebuilding efforts.
She notes that her time as a volunteer at a Syrian refugee camp in Austria helped her understand that the implications of war are the same everywhere.
Hamida says her time at the camp was “a major transformational moment” in her life, and it helped her realize that conflicts were not unique to her nation or to the South Caucasus.
Today, she says, Azerbaijani society tends to view women as “soldier producers.”
That mindset makes it challenging to be a female peace activist, Hamida says. But she is pushing back.
“There is a popular stereotype that, since there is a Muslim majority, women in Azerbaijani society are not emancipated or don’t have their own opinion. There is some truth to that: obviously there are women who cannot raise their voice, who don’t have enough capacity or platforms to address their issues.
“Some women are leaders in our society, however, and I am one of them. It’s frankly a challenge to be a woman and to be a leader in this society - especially when it is such a sensitive issue.”
She notes that when she writes articles or publicly speaks about her views on the conflict, there are people who perceive her as a woman whose “place is in the kitchen” and who should not “speak about serious stuff.”
But Hamida is confident that this mentality is “becoming less and less popular.”
As her experience grows, she says she is beginning to realize there are benefits to being a female peace activist.
“I work a lot with border communities, with IDPs and refugees. And a lot of times, because these people need some psychological assistance, it is easier for them to talk to women about sensitive, emotional things, and their traumas. So in a sense I can see there is a benefit to being a woman.”
Maria Karapetyan, 30, lives in Yerevan, Armenia. She says the ghost of the conflict is impossible to ignore as it impacts everyone’s lives in the country.
Maria says seven years of peacebuilding has influenced her own understanding of the conflict with Azerbaijan.
She notes that when she first started, she “could sense the lack of communication between our societies … and at that point it seemed to me that the information I had was the [absolute] truth - that we were right and they were wrong.”
Today, Maria says that the lack of communication remains a challenge, but she now realizes that there is “right” and “wrong” on both sides of the conflict, and the “exchange of truth has become an exchange of truths.”
Years of state-run military propaganda have resulted in a society that has little time or respect for peacebuilders, who are often considered dreamers at best or, at worst, traitors to Armenia’s “national interests,” she says.
Feelings run even deeper when women are fighting for peace.
“According to society, women don’t serve in the military, they are not soldiers, fighters, or defenders of the motherland, so they don’t have much say in the resolution of the conflict. The result is that women are silenced,” she says.
The message women receive, Maria notes, is “since you [women] don’t participate in the defence of our borders, your voice has little value.” She notes that, as a result, while women are generally more open to alternative solutions to the conflict, few of them are involved in peacebuilding.
Pinar Sayan, 33, lives in Istanbul, Turkey. She became involved in peacebuilding between Armenia and Turkey four years ago, after she visited Yerevan as part of a program focused on creating dialogue between the two countries.
“People think that peace is the lack of physical violence, and that is not true. I have a more comprehensive understanding of peace: peace is about justice and equality,” she says.
“We cannot have a healthy society when some people are constantly oppressed due to who they are,” she says, stressing that peace is at the heart of creating a health society.
As a peacebuilder, Pinar wants to help find a solution for the problems that violence creates.
She believes fundamental changes are necessary to end violence in societies, not only physical violence, but “all types of violence, which are largely created by the patriarchy, nationalism and social economic differences. All of them create conflicts”.
Currently Pinar coordinates a project for Armenian and Turkish historians researching textbooks for school children in their respective countries. This is part of peacebuilding, because history is an essential part of conflict resolution, she says.
“In both countries history is taught in a way that is very militaristic and very nationalist. That leads to each side viewing the other as the enemy. So if we want to change the situation, of course we need to work on the topic of education as well.”
Pinar is realistic about the challenges that lay ahead but she believes that even if progress seems impossible, it is important to try.
Sabina Abubekirova contributed to the reporting from Azerbaijan
October 2018, The 'Peace Builders' edition