This is an essay I wrote for one of my grad school applications. It’s also an efficient way to tell you about a upcoming trip of mine that gives me chills.
This time next month, I will be living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Bilasuvar, Azerbaijan. My neighbors will be victims of war, forced to flee their homes in the occupied Nagorno-Karabakh region and still unable to return. I will be staying with an IDP family and living through the difficulties of camp life: substandard housing, unreliable utilities, the freezing temperatures of winter. Throughout my stay, I will be conducting interviews with camp residents and working to collect and share the stories of everyone I meet.
I am organizing this trip myself, with the assistance of contacts in the Azerbaijani microfinance institutions with which I currently serve. This is not part of my work as a Kiva Fellow. No one has asked me to go. I am doing it because the echoes of Karabakh have troubled me ever since I arrived.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous, majority Armenian region of the Caucasus that sits within the borders of Azerbaijan. Since 1991, it has been occupied by Armenian forces, the legacy of a destructive war between the two nations that left the region in ruins. Hostilities ended in 1994, but the conflict remains a suppurating wound. Over 800,000 Azeris were driven from their Karabakh homes by warfare and ethnic cleansing. Those Armenians who remain live amid vast fields of rubble, the unreconstructed remains of a region where both ethnicities once lived in peace. The ceasefire is constantly breached, turning villages near the frontline into ghost towns menaced by snipers. Fourteen percent of Azerbaijan’s territory remains occupied, and Armenia’s economy has been all but crippled since 1993, when its long borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan were closed.
These are the sorts of conflicts easily swept under the rug, even by the politically aware: frozen disputes between obscure countries over unknown plots of land, with little chance of either intensification or resolution. Yet I have never felt myself more deeply enmeshed in a war. Here in Azerbaijan, the memories of Karabakh are everywhere. Two of the microfinance institutions I work with specifically target Nagorno-Karabakh IDPs, and many of my coworkers’ lives were destroyed when Armenian forces occupied their hometowns. I hear the Azeri tales of massacres and atrocities, and I shudder… and then I walk among the apartment blocks in Baku and shudder again to imagine Armenians being hurled off these balconies during the 1990 anti-Armenian pogroms. Karabakh haunts me wherever I go.
It is not enough for me to accept what I’m told. It is not enough to read books, to monitor propaganda from both sides of the frontline, to bounce between the biases of my interlocutors in a blind search for truth. I need to see with my own eyes: to gain an intimate, personal perspective on extreme poverty, on the miseries of war, on all the hardships dismissed by others as thankfully beyond their comprehension.
This is what I am going to Bilasuvar to find. I feel driven to understand the lives of those caught up in the Nagorno-Karabakh war – and through understanding, to discover what it is I still need to learn before I can return to help.