With the war over, Azerbaijani villages and towns are not currently in danger of being shelled – yet people living there still carry difficult memories and suffer from war trauma.
The town of Terter in Azerbaijan was the most heavily attacked location in both the First, and Second Karabakh Wars. Even after the ceasefire of 1994, Terter was regularly shelled for many years, with civilians getting killed and wounded. Nonetheless, the town survived, defying occupation in the 1990s. Its people refer to it as a “hero city”. For some thirty years, Terter was the site of large-scale military action, and the psychological state of its population deserves particular attention. For thirty years, Terter lay on the line of contact. During the war, it was on the very frontline, with some villages in the region a mere two or three hundred metres from Armenian troops.
They say that women and children are the most vulnerable psychologically, yet we do not know the full impact on the men of life between war and peace. Local medics say that many children in the region suffer from kidney failure, epilepsy, speech problems, and cancer. For many women, life in constant fear has contributed to breast cancer.
“I first realised what war is, in April 2016. The so-called four-day war showed me, what a huge tragedy this is. Our house in Gapanly village was hit by a shell. Then, the war of 2020 made me lose the will to live. It’s been three years now, but I still don’t feel myself. I get angry when my children are noisy, I shout at them, then I calm down, hold them tight and cry,” a woman from Terter told me.
In Terter, parents take their children to school and collect them at the end of the day. For such a small Azerbaijani town, this is highly unusual. Before the war of 2020, I visited a school in Gapanly village near Terter, and spoke to the headmaster and pupils. They told me that sometimes, when there was shooting during lessons, the pupils from the top floors would be sent to shelter in the trenches around the school.
The latest war shook everyone in the region. “The horror of war came so close that when it finished, I had to seek psychological support. It was just unbearable – losing your loved ones one after another, being in constant fear, feeling that anxiety when talking to the families of missing soldiers…” another woman from Terter admitted.
Amid fear and uncertainty, both children and adults may fall prey to the cult of the military out of a natural desire to defend themselves.
Zulfiya Kulieva is from Terter. She is currently studying psychology in Türkiye. During the interview, she revealed that even today, the children of Terter are living with fear. Since the war, their interest in the military has grown. This might be due to victory, but could also be caused by fear. Amid fear and uncertainty, both children and adults may fall prey to the cult of the military out of a natural desire to defend themselves.
Even after the war ended, people did not know what would happen next. As Zulfiya said: “The people I spoke to in those places were unable to fully get over their trauma. Because they did not get timely psychological help, they’ll be feeling the effects of all this for the next ten years.”
Zulfiya says that during the war, people were unable to mourn their dead properly. “People would lose their loved ones, but during the war they were unable to give them a proper burial, to grieve, to mourn them. When the war ended, they returned. Their homes and fields of crops had been destroyed. People would go back to normal life without having had the chance to live through their pain. They simply acted as if nothing had happened.”
When I asked children what they want to be when they grow up, they all said they wanted to join the military. It seems their trauma actually made them love this profession.
A social worker, Sanubar Heydarova worked with women and children with trauma in Terter during and after the Second Karabakh War.
“When I asked children what they want to be when they grow up, they all said they wanted to join the military. It seems their trauma actually made them love this profession. There were no other answers, it was as if other professions simply didn’t exist… And this was true of the adults, also. I really noticed that the people in those parts had a special relationship with military uniform. If a man was labouring in the fields, for instance, he’d always be wearing army trousers. Some would be wearing army shirts, too.”
During the interview, Sanubar told me that the people she met in Terter had never seen a social worker or a psychologist before.
Today, the areas around Terter have been liberated. The danger of war has receded. Now, the state must undertake systematic work to help improve the psychological state of the people who have lived with war their entire lives. The local population needs more experts capable of working with people with trauma. Conditions must be created to allow civil society to work on transforming the traumas of the last thirty years.
Author: Seymur Kazimov with contribution from Indie Peace
Photo: Seymur Kazimov, Terter, October 2020
This article is part of Indie Peace’s initiative on Collective Trauma, funded by the European Union. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of Indie Peace and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Toponyms used reflect the toponyms used by the subject of the article.