Karabakh: From an Expat Point of View

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By Gemma Bianchi Slater

Azeri Observer Editor

These past few months has seen the country of Azerbaijan re-open its oldest wound, by facing its biggest threat since the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in 1992-1994, when its region of Karabakh and 7 surrounding regions were taken over by Armenians, who forced over 700,000 Azeris out of their homes in the most degrading manner, coercing them to live as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) for almost 30 years.

This territorial war has been, and still is a contentious issue, due to the way the Azeri’s were so poorly treated. This is a country that has suffered multiple threats to their way of life, since Azerbaijan won their independence over the Soviet Union in 1991. 

The new phase of this fractious conflict lasted for 44 days, from Sunday 27th September 2020 to Tuesday 10th November 2020, when Azerbaijan fought to reclaim their land once again.

During this period, every person living in Azerbaijan was faced with apprehension as the war waged on, especially considering it was thought this would be over in a few days. However, as it became clear to the rest of the world of Azerbaijan’s sheer determination, the stoicism of each Azeri citizen is to be recognised and commended. They never gave up hope, fervently believing in their right to win back their territory. Knowing deep into their bones that Karabakh was justly theirs to reclaim, and would do anything to ensure their birthright was protected and the IDPs would get to go home once again.

As it happened, martial law was implemented, along with a curfew that restricted anyone to leave their homes from 9pm-6am. The schools were forced to close for two weeks in October because of the fear of schools being attacked. Rumours were flying about how the city of Baku could be targeted, despite the fact that Karabakh is nearly 400km away. There were also rumours that expats could be kidnapped (particularly Americans) and we were to be extra vigilant. However, after the peaceful city of Ganja was attacked – twice! – the people living in Azerbaijan could not take anything for granted that they would be safe. It was a really scary time and one that I didn’t share too much with anyone back home, for fear of my parents’ worry. They were already concerned from watching the BBC news back in the UK.

However, despite the rest of the world watching in horror as videos of tanks being blown up were shown on international media, the Azeri’s never faltered in their strength or their determination. Their dedication to their country, their patriotism, was something to watch in awe. Even as I drove through the streets of Baku, the sheer number (and size!) of flags displayed in every shop window, apartment building and office building was unbelievable. The country had turned into a sea of red, green and blue.  Almost every car on the street had the Azeri flag emblazoned across the car’s bonnet and hung on car mirrors, and back windows. The beautiful Heydar Aliyev Center was lit up each night with the floating flag, to match the Flame Towers.

I haven’t even mentioned the music. Every radio station blared out patriotic ballads and tunes, with the voices singing about ‘Azerbaijan’ in melodious tones. The catchphrase ‘#karabakhisazerbaijan’ was on every billboard and poster, not to mention the explosion on social media. Never before have I witnessed such a dedication to patriotism than I have in Azerbaijan. The Azeri sense of pride never ceases to amaze me. As an English girl, born and raised, I had always thought of myself as a patriotic British national, until I came to Azerbaijan! A nation to be so proud of their country is to be revered and preserved.

For example, the day that Shusha was taken back, I happened to be in the street of Torgovi (Ed. note: Unofficial name of one of the central streets in Baku) with my friend Clair, as we had plans to meet for dinner on that Sunday afternoon. As I met her in Nizami Park and we walked through the main Fountain Square area, we were taken aback by the large crowds that had gathered in celebration, coupled with cheering and chanting, with flags being waved excitedly. The atmosphere was charged with electricity and magic, as Clair and I expressed to each other in wonder, how we were witnessing history in the making.

The solemnness from their faces – of anyone, young or old, Azeri or expat – had been replaced with wide smiles and laughter, so obviously full of pride and elation. Anyone would have thought the war had already been won, the way they were jumping and shouting enthusiastically. Even as I travelled back home, the partying kept going. Banners raised, horns beeping, people hanging out of car windows and sunroofs, singing and shouting excitedly. 

When I was woken up at 3am in the early hours of Tuesday 10th November 2020, with the sound of car horns beeping continuously, I smiled to myself knowing that the war had been won. That day, every Azeri I congratulated, took these compliments deeply and thanked me profusely for my good wishes, as if I had just congratulated them on winning the Nobel Peace Prize for their country – it was as if it was their own personal victory. And it is! It is personal. Deeply personal. Ask anyone, and they can name their son, or their brother, their cousin, who has somehow been connected to this war.  During this conflict, I remember a mother was crying in the street outside of my very building, howling words of despair. My Azeri friend, Shukran, later translated for me, she was crying, “I told you not to go!” One can only presume, she was talking about her son who had been sent to the frontline. Witnessing these kinds of events is heart-breaking; devastating. How can this war not be personal?

Nevertheless, Azerbaijan is a strong country, because of the people.  If you speak to anyone about Covid-19 to any Azeri, they say, “Virus, what virus?  If we can cope with war, then we can cope with anything! ”In the year of 2020, how many countries can say that they have fought a war (and won) and one of the biggest viruses known to mankind all at the same time?

I myself, am proud to have witnessed such a momentous and historical event during this country’s history, and carry such a deep respect for each and every Azerbaijani citizen. I can honestly say that living in this country is both an honour and a privilege.

#karabakhisazerbaijan