Yelena who in 2013 left her native town of Askeran and moved to Pyatigorsk, a city in Russia’s northern Caucasus where her husband’s family lives, says that outside Nagorno Karabakh, Armenians and Azerbaijanis live peacefully side by side. As memories of the war hunted her, it was a difficult learning curve.
“There were two fruit kiosks near our house, one next to the other. Nadya, a refugee from Prjamal [a Karabakhi village], worked in one, in the other there was Elmira, an Azeri. I would always buy from Armenians; I feared Azeris, I wouldn’t trust them, I couldn’t even greet them out of politeness. One day Elmira gifted me with strawberries as she saw that I was pregnant. I politely declined, perhaps she didn’t even realize what the matter was. Now, after living [here] for long time I’ve accepted the idea that this is a different country, a different society, with different human relations, where for example, it is normal for a Karabakhi to bake zhingalov hats (flatbread) and for an Azeri to sell it.”
Elmira eventually left and was replaced by an another Azeri woman.
“She often gives fruit to my three-year-old daughter Tamara. [Now] I don’t mind,” she concludes.
Yelena was four when in 1988 her mother, Alla, joined the movement calling for the independence of Nagorno Karabakh from the then-Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) of Azerbaijan and annexation to SSR Armenia. In February 1988, a few days after the Karabakh National Council had requested to Moscow to transfer the region administration to Armenia, clashes broke out in Askeran, making the town of the starting point of the boiling conflict.
When the Soviet Union melted the call for independence turned into open war.
Alla, who was then 26-years-old, joined the fight together with her brothers. She was one of the approximately 25 women who enrolled as soldiers in the conflict, according to history accounts. She was also a single mother, a rare instance in the highly conservative society.
“I was 21 when Yelena was born. I had no husband, so I raised the child by myself, with the help of my sister and my parents,” Alla, now 55, recalls. “I would leave the house [and my daughter] for long periods during the war.”
The conflict shattered little Yelena’s life.
“I was very close to my uncle Arayik. One day I was told he had died. He was alive the day before, we had walked together and talked. Then all of a sudden, he was gone,” sigh Yelena. “It was then that I realized what the war really was, though older people had been trying to explain it to me for a while. I also remember thinking that all that [suffering] had to end. Everyone had to live on. After Arayik’s death his son was born, and they named him Arayik too. Still, it was not my Arayik any more”