A week on the frontline

Author: Gular Mehdizade

Illustrator: Leyla Ali


- Did you come to film the bombing?

- No, your village, you have a beautiful village.

- Yes, my grandfather says, “Shekerbura is more beautiful” (referring to the village of Shekerjik, two kilometers from Fuzuli ). We will go there, come and film it. But do you know how many bombs they drop? If you want, I can count them for you, I'm not afraid. When I was three years old (referring to the “April War 2016”), I was scared, they took me to the doctor, now I'm used to it…

That was 7-year-old İnji, who lives in one of the settlements built for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Gayidish settlement, located on the Azerbaijani side of Fuzuli.The district is a good example of the patchwork de-facto divisions in the area: the western half of Fuzuli, including the capital (which is also called Fuzuli), fell under the control of the Armenian Army in 1993. Other settlements in the district remained in Azerbaijani control.

Inji was talking, seemingly unaware of how terrible his words were. Why should a seven-year-old child get used to the sound of bombs?..

On the same day we went to the Horadiz settlement in Fuzuli. The children and women had already been evacuated for safety. A middle-aged man on the side of the road shook our hands when he saw us looking around. These days, everyone is five times more compassionate and more helpful than usually. People offer their help even if you don’t ask for it. The man invited us to his house. He covered his yard with metal siding. We sat down, and his brother joined us. 

Meanwhile, the terrible sounds of artillery shook the support beams in the makeshift covering. Bombs were fired from somewhere, bombs were dropped somewhere. After talking for 15-20 minutes, one of the men looked at me strangely and said, “We are used to it, what happened to you? You seem not afraid of it. We have been talking for a long time, I see, your facial expression does not change. Really, why aren't you afraid?”

“I'm used to it,” I said. 

Yes, like Inji, I'm used to it. After all, my childhood was spent with these sounds in the background.


MEMORIES OF THE 1990s


When I had to leave the town of Fuzuli, I was two years younger than Inji. Some nights my dreams were disrupted by my grandparents' words: “There is shelling again, take the children to the basement quickly.”

I'm used to it. That's what hurts. Twenty-seven years have passed, and little girls are still “getting used to” that sound. However, a normal person could not sit quietly in such a situation, drink tea, eat, chit-chatting…

When I heard about the resumed fighting on September 27, I was in Gabala for an interview. Gabala is far from the conflict zone. The morning began with calls from people living on the frontline. They said a war had begun. Ten to 15 minutes later, official information began to spread. As a journalist, I read the news of both sides - Armenia and Azerbaijan. The parties blamed each other. 

At first, I took it as a normal ceasefire violation. During the day, I heard that some villages-- Fuzuli and Jabrayil--were retaken by the Azerbaijani army. When I heard the name Fuzuli, I had very strange feelings. People congratulated me, but I didn't know if I was happy or not. I had mixed feelings. At that moment, all I could do was decide to go to Fuzuli. 

When I arrived in Horadiz in the evening, the sound of bombs shook the ground. For security reasons, women and children were evacuated from the border villages and placed with relatives in remote settlements. Some said “We have been displaced for the second time.” But it was like a joke, they laughed... And I was watching them stunned.

They also made fun of the fact that they slept in clothes at night: “We are displaced and we sleep in clothes at night, what can we do?”, Tarana, a woman who hosted me, said.



HOW DO I FEEL?


A day later, early in the morning, our film crew began searching for residents of the villages retaken by the Azerbaijani army. I asked them how they feel. In fact, I was kind of looking for their answers to help me decide how I felt. Each time I received an answer, I listened carefully, to see if their words expressed what I was feeling. How do I feel? There was no answer inside me... I was caught between my journalistic identity and my Karabakh identity. I also know that wars are not without losses…

I felt happy at the end of the day, but at the same time I was sad because of the bloodshed. I have always been against war. I thought wars were against humanity. Then I got angry with myself for being happy and tried to keep my composure. The villagers did not leave the TV all day. Everyone was happy, the mood was very high. I have never seen our people so happy. Naturally, there were a lot of people who cried in front of the camera. And others who were happy to stop being an IDP.

There was a lot of news, we worked hard. In the meantime, I looked at social media posts written by my Armenian colleagues, with whom I participated in international training and courses on conflict studies, as well as worked with through the international media. How were they reacting to what was happening? How about our independent journalists?

It is very difficult to be neutral in such situations. I have always tried not to share anything that hurts the feelings of the other side, not to follow propaganda. I deleted the status I wrote on a social network several times without sharing. I kept it to myself. It is difficult to do that in such a situation. This challenge is felt in the posts shared by independent journalists on both sides.

On October 17, friends on social networks congratulated me that Fuzuli is now under Azerbaijan’s control. It was like I was daydreaming, I didn't know what to write or how to answer. That day I was going to work in one of the quiet cafes in Baku. But first, I had to visit a bank. I gave my ID to the operator at the bank, and the girl looked at me and said, “Congratulations.” I stopped and looked up at her when she added, “Your home address… It is Fuzuli town.”

It was as if I woke up. As I left the bank, I looked at the address on my card. Yes, the address of my house, which had been inaccessible for years, no longer seemed too far away. That day I shared my address and expressed my happiness on Facebook. I felt a bit embarrassed, because there is a war underway, and it is not without losses. I felt ashamed of my joy against the background of those losses.

FEARS OF...

I could write that, yes, but there are many things I can't write about openly. 

One of them is that I am saddened by the death of innocent people on both sides. Currently, my reaction to it will be probably very bad. One of the things I can't write is that the fighting should go to the end, finish, so future generations won't see war. That could be perceived as calling for war. But we are really tired. Living in a war-torn country is not easy. Sometimes I want to say stop, make a peace agreement. It is also difficult to say that now. I’ll be misunderstood, as society does not understand those who say “No war”...

Coming back to Fuzuli again. The other village we visited was Babi, which is very close to the conflict zone. People were happy that we came to speak about them. Everyone invited us into their homes, they offered us tea made on the stove and by samovar. When my interviewee spoke, she started to cry, saying, “That's right, our land is being taken back, I'm happy, but people are dying, I want peace.”

That woman was just as confused as I was. She added that she was worried about the future of her children, the soldiers on the front, the village, everything. I hugged her. For the first time in 12 years, I hugged my interviewee and my eyes filled with tears. For the first time, I was as confused as the people I was filming. Even during the filming, I still did not know where to start or where to end. This time my job was like making a film about my own life…

The vast majority of people living on the border of the conflict zone are happy about what is happening, and very few are confused. 

Those who are confused ask the same questions I do: what is going on? Will it stop? If it stops, where will it stop? Is this situation normal? 

I wanted to plug the ears of the children living in all those areas, but I didn't know how I could gather them all up in a car and drive them away from the area, or how to erase these last days from their memories—or erase the first five years, and the last week, of my memories as well.




Check out how the war has affected our Armenian colleague: War through the eyes of a fact-checker



Disclaimer: Chai Khana is sympathetic to the views and feelings of the communities on both sides of the conflict. We understand that some of the material in this edition may offend readers. Our hope is that by giving journalists a platform to write honestly about their experiences during these difficult times, we will help foster dialogue.


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