Safura’s birth was greeted with shootings. And a cannon launch.
“A rocket fell into the hospital yard, doctors and hospital staff ran away - only mothers and newborns were left,” tells the Azerbaijani teacher, recalling the memories that her mother has shared with her over the years.
Over two decades on nothing has changed. The 1994 ceasefire that officially ended the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh has not silenced weapons, as shootings remain a daily staple in the village near the border of Armenia where the 25-year-old teacher works. For her, however, there is no enemy.
“I do not hate Armenians, I think people are not to blame,” sighs Safura (not her real name). “The other side also experiences violence. [History shows that] any conflict, either on a small or large scale, can be resolved peacefully. I help my students to love people, not to consider anyone an enemy.”
It is not an easy endeavor. The unresolved conflict means fear for those living close to the border: peace is an abstract, and potentially dangerous concept as it can lead to being accused of being “non-patriotic.” Safura’s attempt to build some kind of understanding is a slow, subtle process of repeating how pain affects both sides - the results are to be seen in the long term.
“The conflict impacts their daily lives and [shapes] their thoughts on peace. When shootings violate the ceasefire, the feeling of hate increases. Every day, in the school corridors they see pictures of villages in ruins due to the shootings from Armenia. This also contributes to the negative approach towards peace,” adds Safura who travels to her school every day from the larger town where she lives.
The armed conflict, which claimed an estimated 30,000 lives, lives on and children are constantly reminded of it as schools in each village display maps of the region, photos of victims, and images of the soldiers - “the martyrs fallen for the motherland.”
“I am trying to encourage students to be pro humanity, I tell them that wars are political issues. Ordinary people do not play a role in warfare, innocent people should not suffer,” adds Safura who maintains that schools, and education by large, should be free from political ideology.
For decades the rhetoric around patriotism mostly focused on the Nagorno-Karabakh war of the early 1990s, but when in April 2016 the war flared up again, the balance tilted - it was no longer part of the country’s history as stories from the frontline flooded the news.
One of the residents of the village where Safura teaches lost his life fighting during the 2016 armed confrontation and his death is commemorated every year with theatre plays and mourning songs.
Her pupils mostly share common values with their teacher in regard to peacebuilding.
“One day a pupil from the 6th grade came to me and said, ‘I went home and thought that I should love Armenians too, and I should not look at them as enemies. But no matter how much I tried, the Khojaly tragedy [massacre of Azerbaijanis in February 1992], the brutal death of children, and other stories remained in front of my eyes. This idea is wrong, we should hate Armenians because otherwise similar miseries can come to us later as well.’
Apart from basic geography, the pupils' knowledge the people living on the other side of the border is close to zero - the few kilometers separating the Armenian and Azerbaijani villages are an insurmountable distance. The separation, the regular shootings, and the constant war propaganda contribute to feeding the segregation.
The very few who happen to know an Armenian person have a different perception.
“The father of one of my students has an Armenian friend living in Azerbaijan. [He says] this man is a mechanic, every time his father visits him, this boy accompanies him. This child’s approach is different towards Armenians,” explains Safura as this man is a real person not a faceless enemy.
Safura remains optimistic about the future. However she believes that the only way to engage children and to shape their vision of peace is a more profound and unbiased knowledge of the conflict.
“I noticed that when pupils dig deeper and try to understand what war is and [the pain] it brings with it, they become “pro-peace,”” she says. “I see it among people my age as well...humanism is increasingly a value for the young people.”