The war of 2020 has left Nagorno-Karabakh devastated. Soon after the ceasefire agreement of November 9th, I got contracted by the Institute of War and Peace Reporting to travel to the region to record the post-war situation. Because I was not an Azerbaijani citizen anymore, my electronic visa had been delayed for almost three months to investigate my newly acquired Dutch citizenship. So I had decided not to wait any longer and applied for an Armenian visa to travel through Yerevan. I arrived in March of 2021 with a small suitcase and fear of the unknown. After 33 years of separation, I was finally home. I was born in Armenia but could not be raised there due to the centuries old enmity that separated us in 1988. I felt my grandparents’ spirit walking with me, holding my hand and smiling at me through the unusual sun that was shining through the March frost. I was home at last. In a home that had been taken away from me not because I had committed a crime or betrayed it somehow – but because I represented a culture that was branded hostile.
At the passport control a young woman in her 30s greeted me with a forced smile and an automative “Welcome to Armenia.” She led me into a room where an official with a higher rank was waiting for me. The official reached out a hand and showed me an empty chair. I sat down and started observing the room. There was an Armenian flag on the table, a rather old one, a pen handle like my grandfather used to own, a couple of notebooks and a large map of Armenia. I was surprised they did not have an oversized picture of their president or prime minister, a minor difference that I was used to in the official cabinets of Azerbaijan. “The president is not a god here, not even an apostle" I told myself, and smiled at my own joke. The officer took my passport and on a serious note said: “So, are you Dutch, Mrs. Abbasova?” -“Now I am, Sir.” I replied.
“What about before?”
“Before that I was a refugee from Armenia.”
“I was born in Vardenis and Armenia kicked me out when I was four years old.” Although I sounded brave, in my heart I was not sure if I was supposed to say all of these things.
“So, who are you by nationality then?”
“I do not accept the concept of nationality, Sir. I am human and I want to stay that way.”
He stood there looking at me in a loud silence.
“Where in Vartenis are you from?”
“Basarkecher,” I replied using the town’s Azerbaijani name.
“It is called Shaven now!”
“Good for you.”
“You know it is a dangerous trip for you, don’t you? If you meet an angry Armenian who knows you’re Azerbaijani, it wouldn’t end well for you.”
“I am not Azerbaijani, I am Dutch!”
“We have to send security with you and for that you will have to be briefed at the National Security Office in Yerevan. “
“ I don't want security. I will rent a car and drive there myself. “
“You can’t pass through the border control to Lachin. Besides, you are a guest here and we want you to get back home safely.”
“ I am not going back for a while”
“Your invitation is valid for only three months.”
“They will extend it if I need to stay longer.”
“If you survive mines and such.” He smiled and looked at me to see if I appreciated his joke.
“I will survive!” I said promptly.
“Hmm!” he puffed, took a handle off an old phone and said something in Armenian to the speaker on the other end.
A minute later a young soldier came in and saluted the officer.
“We have a guest from the Netherlands and I want you to accompany her wherever she goes until National Security sends someone permanently. Understood? Full protection. You respond only to me. She is your guest!“
“Yes, Sir!” the soldier saluted again. He turned back in a soldierly way and left.
My officer, who I later learned was the head of the Yerevan Airport, took a bottle from the bottom drawer with two small glasses and demonstratively put them on the table.
“Armenian cognac. Pure one.“
“ I don't drink on missions, Sir!”
“You do when your elders tell you.”
He poured a cognac in a small glass and handed it to me.
“Mrs. Abbasova, welcome to Armenia – welcome home!”
The young soldier was waiting for me at the door. In an automatic manner he pulled the suitcase out of my hand and started dragging it towards the exit. He was not wearing his official suit anymore, but grey jeans and a sheepskin coat. I assumed that he had to look casual while accompanying me to Karabakh to not cause suspicion. I was not sure what to expect, or what not to expect. All I knew: I was home and all it had to offer, was its welcome, even if that included a pain that was long due.
I hadn’t experienced a Caucasian winter for years. My lungs took in the cold gas filled air of Yerevan like a long awaited medicine. After putting my suitcase in the trunk, the soldier led me to the back seat of the car. As soon as we sat down, I asked for his name and he promptly said: “Vahe!” “I am Zam, nice meeting you!” I said with a smile. He nodded in confirmation and started driving. I did not ask where and he didn’t say. We drove through plains and after thirty minutes of driving he turned the car to a village.
“Try not to speak too much as my family doesn’t need to know you’re from Azerbaijan”, he said. “We’ll stay with them for a day or two until I pass you over to the National Security.”
“I could have stayed in the hotel. You didn’t have to bring me to your home.”
“No one would help if someone decided to kill you at the hotel. As I said, try not to talk too much. I’ll tell them you’re Dutch. Understood?”
He took my suitcase out of the trunk and led me through a squeaky turquoise iron gate into a large yard. The snow under my feet felt like crystal beads. The gate was rusty on the edges and it lacked maintenance.
Thousands of times I had imagined my trip back home to Armenia: what I would do, how much I would cry. I imagined myself falling to the earth, to cry my eyes out while kissing the land I was so brutally taken away from. But I could not. I just could not cry. I was frozen, paralyzed. I could see, I could record, I could write what I saw as a journalist, as a filmmaker. But no matter how much I tried throughout the whole trip, I could not cry. Nothing that I saw was able to take the four year old girl out of the porcelain cover I had made for her to survive. Not the burned houses, broken lives on top of each other, young birches and pines so brutally cut, nor the gravestones destroyed, young lives bled to death in vain. She was buried so deep that even the hardest human disaster I observed in Karabakh was not enough to uncover her, to expose her to the light of the world. She just didn’t want to come out – maybe she was already dead.
Gone far before I started the life of a refugee child. It took me three years to finish documenting my observations from Karabakh and there were millions of situations in which I wanted to cry. But the pain that was trapped inside me was so grave, there was no way for it to come out without shattering me into pieces. I wanted to believe that I was ready to let that tumour explode, right there on the native land, to let that infestation flow out of me, to cleanse me, to lighten my weight. But the truth is, I was not even sure if the pain I had fed for so many years, was actually still in there. Maybe it was guilt, that led me to imagine my pain and kept feeding it with memories and stories to forever be a victim.
Three years later and it’s winter again. I’m recalling the first moment I stepped out from the airport. The air outside was brisk and the snow under my feet was crispy. Again I stand there to take it all in.
This article is an extension of the festival, Re:Writing the Future, taking place from February 25 to 28. It is going to be published in print in the Extrablatt of the upcoming issue of Arts of the Working Class.
This publication was made possible by the DAAD ARTISTS-IN-BERLIN PROGRAM, as part of its engagement with ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network.
The publication was edited by Mohamed Ashraf and Elisabeth Wellerhaus.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Asiae Tabula III: Colchis, Iberia, Albania, Armenia major, by Claude Ptolémée adapted by Michel Servet, 1535, c Bibliothèque nationale de France