In our series on collective trauma, we have been driven by the principle that understanding one’s own trauma is a first step in its healing. We also believe that the theme of societal trauma can be a point of mutual interest for dialogue across the conflict divide. We are therefore pleased to be able to share two articles by Armenian and Azerbaijani partners, in cooperation with inmedio peace consult (Germany), who have been conducting narrative interviews with war-affected women in their respective communities as a first step in such a process.
This article, authored by Seymur Kazimov, shares extracts from interviews collected by Ulviyya Babasoy, a gender expert working with local communities in Barda, which came under attack during the 2020 Karabakh war.
Another article by Gohar Abrahamyan and Julietta Arustamyan with extracts of interviews with displaced Armenian women can be read here.
Women bearing the physical and psychological burden of war.
In 2020, at the time when the whole world was engaged in the fight against the pandemic, struggled to survive fearing to get infected with the Covid-19 virus, on September 27, the residents of the front line zone of Azerbaijan started their morning with the roar of rockets. They would be hearing this hum for another 44 days – morning, afternoon and evening.
When Almaz, an internally displaced person (IDP) living in Shikharkh settlement of Tartar city, woke up to the sound of rockets fired at the settlement, men and women were shopping from a car selling groceries in front of a 5-storey building. “It was about 8 am, and when I woke up and looked out the window, I saw people running away. I still hear the cries of children who have not yet fully woken up in the morning and ran down the stairs to the basement without being able to get dressed.”
This settlement was built for IDPs during the ‘First Karabakh War’. It was one of the settlements that received the largest number of shells in 44 days. 34 out of 37 five-storey residential buildings, were completely or partially destroyed. The shells also targeted a secondary school, a kindergarten, a music school and public catering facilities located in the settlement.
Avaz Hasanov, chairman of the Humanitarian Research Public Union, conflict expert says that for many years they have been working with people living along the Azerbaijani-Armenian border and the former front line, and were engaged in developing those people’s capacity to solve their community’s problems.
“In cooperation with ‘Inmedio Berlin’ and with the financial support of the German Foreign Ministry, we have taken many initiatives to identify community activists in the regions and improve their dialogue skills. The traumas the peaceful inhabitants of the front line received during the military operation, which began on September 27, prompted us to work with them and show the first support in a short time.”
Ulviyya Babasoy, a gender expert experienced in working with local communities in Barda, better perceived the suffering of women affected by the consequences of the war. “I was in Barda when the rockets were launched. I don’t know, sometimes it’s hard to put into words. Especially after October 27-28 … I felt the despair of people the most then.”
As a result of artillery shelling of Barda city and surrounding villages, 29 civilians were killed and 108 were injured. In this tragedy, 8 women were killed and dozens of women working in the store and passing by on the street were injured. Ulviyya decided to record the thoughts and memories of women who were traumatized during the military operations.
To analyze the post-war situation, a survey was conducted among women living in Barda, Agdam and Tartar. Ulviyya, who was directly involved in the process, said that her priority was to study women’s views. Because attitudes towards women in the regions are not always pleasing.
Ulviyya adds that it was very difficult for her to listen to what women had gone through. “I hated everything, anger filled me. I even regretted that I asked these women to tell their experiences, but then changed my mind, saying to myself, No, everyone should listen to these stories.”
Ulviyya says that it was not easy for the women themselves, they talked about what had happened with tears in their eyes. The interview process had to be stopped and the recorder was switched off several times.
As the situation on the battlefield of the Azerbaijani and Armenian Armed Forces became tense, the surrounding areas were not left untouched by the devastation of the war. The cities of Tartar and Barda suffered the most, and consequently, there were some women among the victims. 57-year-old Adila describes the incident she witnessed:
“My son wanted to stop the car and go to a cell phone store. All of a sudden I heard a terrible rocket explosion. I saw how my son fell to the ground, it seemed to me that the shell hit him. I was at a loss and could not open the door of the car, which made me scream. Looking back, I saw people running to the burning car. My son got up, opened my door and ran to the burning car. When I got there, I saw Fuad’s body covered in blood. His body was fragmented, his eyes were still open. Several days ago they came to visit us in the village. He worked with my son together.”
“My college friend and her father, who were wounded by shrapnel from a rocket fired at Barda, were lying on the asphalt with injuries. People hurried to bandage their wounds and gave them water. Police, firefighters and an ambulance arrived. I trembled for two days because of the horror I saw, and my father took me to the doctor as he got worried. When the doctor said it was caused by stress, my father sent me to Baku so that I could overcome my shock in a quiet place.” The tragedy her friend faced on the way to work did not pass by the 23-year-old girl’s mental state.
Residents of villages near the front line refused to leave their homes, despite being under rocket fire. Families took their children to villages far from the front line and to the homes of relatives living in the city center, and returned by themselves. When they heard rockets, they had to hide in a man-made trench shelters. People did not want to leave their farms and homes. A 41-year-old woman and her husband had to watch the horrors of the whole war from a trench shelter.
“I had never seen a trench shelter in my life. I stayed in it for 44 days. On the night of September 27, five minutes before 12 noon, as a result of a shell falling on a neighbour’s territory, the soil poured into our trench. We thought the shell had hit us, and again, thankfully, my family and I escaped unharmed.”
A woman from Barda will never forget October 27 of the last year. On that day, a shell hit the village where they lived, she lost her husband, and herself was wounded in the head. Her daughter’s fingers were also injured and still does not function.
One woman’s son returned from the war wounded, now he has psychological problems; another’s brother was killed, another’s brother-in-law, another’s son … How did women carry such a burden? They have been traumatized from all sides – morally, psychologically and materially. There are those who are deprived of everything and lost hope in life. What they had owned for years disappeared in 44 days…
“On October 19, a rocket hit our yard. Our house was destroyed. My mother, me, and a television journalist who was sent on duty to the area and was near our yard that day were injured. I returned home because my condition was good. My mother stayed in the hospital. On November 4, my eldest son, born in 1995, who volunteered for the army, was martyred. We buried him in the Alley of Martyrs in Aghdam region. My whole world fell apart.” A resident of the Banovshalar settlement, built for IDPs in Agdam, does not really like to share her grief, as she feels that others are also suffering.
“I saw Aysu and Ophelia’s bodies covered in blood. I took the dead body of 8-year-old Aysu in my arms … I lost consciousness and did not know that I was also injured, then I got to know in the neighbour’s house that my arm was bleeding .. Believe me, if a shell fell on the place where I dried my clothes after washing, I swear, I would either turn into a colander, or they could not find a single piece of my body.”
There are those who so far had seen the horrors of war only on television and in films and then experienced them in real life. There are also those who have not lost anyone or any property but suffer from the war as well. Although psychological support is provided, that is not enough, they want it to be sustainable.
All women say the same words that the war is not over and will continue to take lives for a long time. “While the liberated areas are being cleared of mines, it is unknown who else will be blown up by landmines.“
The post-war period is even more difficult than the war period. During the war, only those who have lost their loved ones suffer, including those who have lost their property. And the post-war period covers the entire society. The decisions made by governments affect everyone, regardless of whether they favour war or not.
The euphoria period ends, and we face reality. There is no improvement in the psychological state of the women mentioned here. After the war, a group of psychologists and social workers worked with them in the framework of international projects, but it turned out to be insufficient. Because this work must be done under the direct control of the state, and the process must be sustainable.
According to Ulviyya Babasoy, “women suffer the most from the war, but their opinions are not taken into account.“
Among our interviewees, there are women whose family members fought in the war, or whose son was killed, or who were injured in a bomb blast in their village, or who took refuge in shelters. The war impacted negatively their lives and psychology. It seems that the consequences of the 44-day war will remain in their memory for a long time.
Seymur Kazimov, in cooperation with the Humanitarian Research Public Union, Azerbaijan.
Indie Peace republishes this article in memory of HRPU founder Avaz Hasanov, who dedicated his life to addressing the consequences of the Nagorny Karabakh conflict. A great humanitarian and peacebuilder, Avaz will be sorely missed.
This article is re-published with permission of the project ‘Restoring Readiness for Dialogue after the 2020 War’, implemented by Civil Society Institute, (Armenia), and Humanitarian Research Public Union, (Azerbaijan), in cooperation with inmedio peace consult (Germany) and funded by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed and toponyms used in these articles are those of the authors, and were not commissioned by Indie Peace.