Gaza, Karabakh, and the narratives of intractable conflict

News about Gaza is everywhere. Because I live in an alternative media bubble, and because Ireland is a bastion of solidarity with Palestine, my news feed has been littered with articles and cartoons and videos unanimously condemning the Israeli airstrikes. Because these articles are also intent on calling out the bias of mainstream western media, I know that there must be another narrative out there, one which seeks to justify this latest madness and boldly declares it to be commensurate with whatever road map for peace in the Middle East we’re on at the moment. I know it in theory, but I can’t conceive of it in reality, and I don’t want to.

At the same time, I’m reluctant to enter the propaganda war. It’s not that I deny the appalling indifference to human suffering implicit in the actions of the state of Israel. It’s just that the more the press reports appear to be playing the numbers game, the more they seem to become detached from the true horror of the thing, the inestimable loss of lives, the humans behind the statistics. As the use of drones ratchets up the death toll in Gaza, parts of the pro-Palestinian media become dependent on Israel’s disproportionately violent response, using it to sustain their over-arching narrative on victimhood. They become hostages to their own argument.

The other problem with playing the numbers is that it allows to media to be silenced as soon as the violence deescalates. One of the phrases that bothers me most at the moment is the one about thing being the worst violence in Gaza since…2012. Oh, right. Seems like only yesterday that it was 2011, and I was reading about the worst violence since…2009. Is it really accurate to think about this in terms of conflict cycles? If you and your family were living in the Gaza Strip, would it not feel a bit more…continuous? Would you really draw such a clear line between the physical violence, and the structural kind? And anyway, isn’t it only when you begin to plot the scale of the structural injustices, that the real difference between Gaza and Tel Aviv becomes obvious?

Thinking about this has awoken some of the sleeping dragons in my research on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, and now seems as good a time as any to write about them. My intention isn’t to draw parallels between the two situations – although some might be interested to know that the Caucasus is being increasingly drawn into the general orbit of Middle Eastern conflicts (think Syrian-Armenian refugees settling in Nagorno-Karabakh; think Azerbaijani youths joining Syrian opposition groups, including ISIS). Rather, I find myself preoccupied with some of the issues that I’ve been tiptoeing around for the last few years. These are the questions of territory, belonging and homeland, which ultimately present the key to unravelling the nexus between gender, ethnicity and conflict.

“It’s about land,” Robert Fisk assures us in his latest article on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I’ve heard the same sentence a lot in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. It’s touching how many of my friends there seek to reassure me that this isn’t an ethnic, or – God forbid – a religious conflict. No, it’s just a squabble over a piece of land. We don’t hate one another – don’t Azerbaijanis and Armenians live peacefully together in Georgia, and Moscow, and further afield? It’s just a simple question over who has the right to control the past, present and future of Karabakh. And then they throw in a curveball: if it wasn’t for Russia, we could sort this out easily. “Could you really?” is what I usually want to say to that. In the 1990s, maybe. But positions appear to have hardened so much since then. A more common critique of the negotiations process nowadays is that the governments couldn’t sell a compromise to their respective populations if they tried.

Nonetheless, dig a little deeper and you do find the colonial motif all over this conflict. Many Azerbaijanis see Armenia-and-Karabakh as a joint proxy for Russia. In Martyrs’ Alley, on a hilltop in Baku, victims of the Karabakh war are interred alongside the civilians massacred by the Soviet Army in January 1990. A common narrative in Azerbaijan is that Heydar Aliyev (‘grandfather of the nation’) traded Azerbaijan’s stake in Karabakh’s future for an independent energy policy and economic ties with the west. While the ruling elite has grown rich on the profits, most of the population still holds Russia accountable for the fact that hundreds of thousands remain displaced and destitute. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, it’s been rumoured that Azerbaijan can expect to receive Karabakh as a ‘reward’ if it returns to the fold – and yet I doubt that very many people would be satisfied with this hypothetical trade-off. Meaning: even if there are many who would die for the chance to return to their long-lost towns and villages, in this instance they would also feel mistreated, disempowered, and pushed around by the powers-that-be.

Armenians tend to be even more ambivalent about the situation. On the one hand, it’s clear that Russia is making undesirable encroachments on Armenian independence, and using Karabakh as leverage. On the other hand, Russia does remain, in the eyes of many, the sole guarantor of Armenia’s – and thereby Karabakh’s – security. And this matters because many Armenians see Azerbaijan as a proxy for Turkey, not so much in political terms as in cultural ones. Sooner or later, almost every Armenian I ask about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict seems to find themselves inexorably drawn towards the question of the Armenian genocide – even though Azerbaijanis rightly protest that from their perspective, the two are unrelated. An Armenian might say: it’s not about hating Turks, it’s about resisting Turkishness. It took me several months of living in Armenia, looking up every day at the glistening snows atop Mount Ararat, to even begin to understand just how large the links between territory, identity, and survival loom in the Armenian mentality.

While there will be plenty of people who disagree with this characterisation, I can at least say that I feel a deep and genuine sympathy for both perspectives outlined above, even if they turn out to be nothing more than illusions. But it doesn’t stop there. One of the articles that left the deepest impression on me in the last few days was Marwan Bishara’s opinion piece on journalistic responsibility, in which he deftly explains the crucial difference between balance and objectivity. If you’re to believe what Bishara says, the trick is to begin by establishing facts, and only afterwards attempt to make sense of them without prejudice. It sounds easy. Yet as a researcher, you know how hard it is to pin down a fact, or to weave it into a narrative. You know that every fact you select is vested with moral significance, and that Bishara’s advice only works if you believe in a moral absolute.

You might say, for example, that Karabakh has historically been populated by various tribes, including its current pretenders. You might say that it has a special place in the collective memory of both groups. You might say that Armenians have always viewed it as an injustice that Karabakh was consigned to autonomous status within Soviet Azerbaijan. You might say, quite simply, that in the late 1980s, “tensions broke out” between the two communities. That thousands of people committed acts of terrible violence; that up to a million people fled their homes in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. That while Karabakh Armenians live the illusion of statehood, Azerbaijanis maintain the myth of imminent return, which has led to internally displaced people remaining a group apart, a society within a society. That Azerbaijan has armed itself to the teeth in the last few years (coincidentally, a great number of those arms have come from Israel); that Karabakh is allegedly one of the most militarised zones on the planet, in terms of soldier to civilian ratio; that the rhetoric of war-readiness on both sides is appalling, whether it’s scripted as attack or defence.

Beyond that, what can you say about this sad and messy conflict? In both Armenia and Azerbaijan, I encounter people who tell me that “there are people dying every day on the border”. Officially, international organisations put the number of people – mostly soldiers, occasionally civilians – killed in ceasefire violations at about 30 per year, which is more like one a fortnight. But I know people who believe that a far greater number die every year as a result of the accidents, poor healthcare, suicides and brutal hazing rituals characteristic of both armies. I also know that ceasefire violations occur so regularly that you might as well ask: ‘what ceasefire?’ – even if they are not always fatal. So does it matter, what the actual death toll is? Is it not enough to live with the constant shadow of death on the horizon? And yet the surprising thing is that people normalise the situation. They forget to think of it as particularly strange or unusual. (It reminds me of when I moved to Belfast and was shocked to realise the frequency with which bomb scares still occur. While I was wondering why we never talked about this down south, the people around me were just tuning into local traffic reports to plan which detour to take on their way home.)

A consensus has formed in the so-called expert community since 2008 (and the Russo-Georgian War) that to refer to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh as ‘frozen’ is dangerously misleading. And indeed, in addition to the fact of regular skirmishes taking place along the border, one also has to think of the greater shifts taking place in the societal makeup of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Karabakh (as well as a general shift from the ‘post-Soviet’ paradigm to something as yet undefined, but undeniably present in the Ukrainian crisis). If it used to be convenient for academics to bracket Nagorno-Karabakh – along with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria – in the category of ‘breakaway regions’, the inconvenient fact is that after twenty years – a full generation’s growth – these places have achieved something more akin to ‘broken-away’ status, even as hundreds of thousands of the displaced, as well as the merely dispossessed, cling to the idea of return. How do you deal with this in your writing?

Well, if you’re the author of the Bradt Travel Guide for Armenia, you refer to the area as ‘the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’ throughout, conferring on it just enough legitimacy to make it sound both safe and exotic to western tourists. If you’re an academic who needs to build bridges with all parties, you know it’s safest to avoid unnecessary use of the word ‘republic’, even when prefaced with an exculpatory ‘self-declared’. Likewise, you know not to refer to Karabakh as ‘Artsakh’ in front of Azerbaijanis, or as ‘occupied territory’ in front of Armenians. And when you do encounter these terms, you see them as little red flags, warning you that you’re probably about to read/hear something that could be classified as ‘bias’, even though the rest of it usually turns out to be perfectly innocuous. Eventually, it all seems increasingly like six of one, half a dozen of the other, but you still find your vocabulary shrinking, and your discomfort growing.

The trendy thing in academia these days is to talk about the ‘de facto states’ – signifying an interest in the development of autonomous political and civil institutions, where many would prefer not to acknowledge their existence. For some, this is the most painful fact of all to have to confront – that 20 years of suffering on one side is the same as 20 years of development – albeit painful and isolated development – on the other. Armenians routinely refer to being in a ‘post-conflict’ situation, despite a crippling blockade; Azerbaijanis seldom do, despite a soar in national wealth. And yet the one thing that they seem to agree on – some fervently, some dispassionately, and some with the greatest reluctance – is that international law is either obsolete or at the very least impotent. And here again, I return to Palestine, this time in an excerpt from field notes dated July 2013 (the context is an informal conversation with a woman from the Caucasus):

“…and she said that when they went to Israel (…) she lost all faith in international relations. When she saw how Palestinians were living, have been living for decades, how one day you can leave your home and come back in the evening to find it bulldozed, and the international community just turns a blind eye, and how Israelis can’t go through the wall because they risk receiving a prison sentence, how they try to stop people from being friends even…”

And it’s true, isn’t it? The whole world is concentrating its attention on Gaza right now, and will that make one bit of difference? And yet that’s the job of the peacebuilders. To remind people that the circumstances they live in are not normal, and moreover, that they are not fixed, but alterable. To explain to people not only that they should do something about this, but also that they are capable of doing something about it. And the peacebuilders have to carry out this job irrespective of whether or not they genuinely think that people can make a difference – not in terms of their capacity for forgiveness or reconciliation, but in terms of the political power that is, or is not, invested in them. You don’t need to believe in something in order to have faith in it, right? But you can’t blame a community – Israeli, Palestinian, Armenian or Azerbaijani – for sometimes rejecting the message.