In the wake of all the fine words about heroism come the casualties and the nightmares of those who pulled the trigger
My father and brothers had risen early to put up the marquee. The women were preparing the food. The morning was completely still – not a leaf stirred. Then at midday the wind suddenly blew up so strongly that the marquee collapsed.
Where would we have the wedding now? In just a few hours the guests would be arriving. We were stopped in the midst of our panic by our neighbour, Aunty Senember.
“We have a big yard that’s sheltered from the wind, have the wedding at ours”, she said.
And so that’s what we did – we carried all the tables over to their yard and got everything set up. Then the guests arrived and there was music and dancing – it was a wonderful wedding!
But for me, aged 11, the most fascinating thing was that both the yard’s owners – the old one and the new one, the Armenian and the Azerbaijani – were part of the wedding.
Senember Mamishova and her large family were living in the village of Saral in Armenia when the conflict over Karabakh flared up between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Under pressure from the local authorities they had decided to leave and were just packing their belongings when the 1988 Spitak earthquake destroyed their home. Originally, there had been around 250 Azerbaijani families in the village, but now only 70 remained. They lived on in the ruins of the village for another ten days and then left on the buses provided for them.
Mubariz Aliev, Senember Mamishova’s brother, talks about the Spitak earthquake
According to data from the State Committee for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, over 350,000 Azerbaijanis were deported from Armenia during 1988 and 1989.
Mubariz Aliev, Aunty Senember’s older brother, recalls:
“We suffered many misfortunes on the road. For a start, everyone’s belongings, from 56 households, were not taken to Gazakh, they went to Spitak – they were stolen. If only that had been the end of it. Following the last convoy was Spartak Petrosyan, chief of police for Spitak District. In the past he had often come to the village and threatened people. He stopped the first bus on the road and started shooting at it. My uncle’s daughter was killed, right there, on the spot, together with her husband and another relative. My daughter was on that bus too, we’d sent her on ahead because we thought she’d be safer. She survived, thank God.
They didn’t even let us have the bodies – they just got a bulldozer and dug a hole at the Vartansk cemetery and dumped all three of them into it, with no ceremony or procedure.”
So how did this family end up living with the Armenian owners after moving to Baku?
In 1989 Aunty Paranzi and Uncle Avanes and their younger daughter, Nina, moved to Rostov to join their two sons. Another daughter, Zoya, had been preparing to move to Karabakh with the family of her deceased husband and so had got stuck in Baku.
Their house was bought by Senember Mamishova and her younger brother, Nariman.
“We said, let her stay, what harm can she do us? There were 13 of us, so what difference would one mouth more or less make? She also had a child of about two and she herself was disabled, she had some problem with her legs. She lived with us for six months”, recalls Aunty Senember.
“She was a quiet woman, she just spent the whole day looking after the baby. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t shy away from her a bit. Sometimes I found myself thinking, ‘What if she suddenly poisons our food?’ But then I’d think, ‘How could that happen?’ and I’d laugh at myself. We sat down at the same table three times a day. All that time we never argued. And Nariman was very attentive to her, he felt sorry for her, what with her being disabled and widowed with a young child. The woman was younger than me, she was the same age as Nariman’s wife. They both had young children, so it was easy for them to find things to talk about.”
After six months under the same roof they bid Zoya an amicable goodbye
Then came 1990. There were still Armenians living in Azerbaijan, especially in Baku. The conflict grew fiercer as every day passed. The nationalist rhetoric on both sides became stronger, as did intolerance of the other side. On 13 January attacks against the Armenians began in Baku.
In Azerbaijan no official data have been published on the victims of the attacks or the number of arrests. However, in his book, Black Garden, Thomas de Waal writes that, beginning on 13 January, around 90 Armenians were killed in Baku. ‘It is hard to verify the death toll because yet more chaos was to descend on Baku within days…’
On 17 January 1990, loud knocking was heard on the door of the house where, a few months previously, the Armenian and Azerbaijani occupants had hosted their neighbour’s wedding. It was officers from the OMON special police unit. Aunty Senember opened the door. A figure in a mask pushed her aside and the officers stormed into the house. There were three men inside: Aunty Senember’s husband, Uncle Elman, and her brothers, Nariman and Shirvan. Within ten minutes all three had been dragged outside, covered in blood, with their hands behind their heads. There followed a search of the house lasting several hours, accompanied by crying and lamentations from the women and children. No-one understood what was happening. A few days later Uncle Elman and Shirvan were released and allowed home. But Nariman, along with dozens of others, was charged with carrying out attacks on Armenians.
“We were shocked when we heard the charge. Nariman wouldn’t have hurt a fly. He was always so quiet and polite. We’d spent all those months living under the same roof with the Armenian woman and he’d never said a word against her. He was the one who made sure nothing happened to her. Of course, the murder of our pregnant cousin and other family members had affected Nariman very badly, as it had all of us. But even so we couldn’t believe that it had all turned into such a sense of grievance inside him. It just didn’t make sense that Nariman could have joined the pogroms and killed someone. War can turn someone into victim and killer in an instant”, said Aunty Senember.
Nariman Aliev and the others pleaded guilty.
Nariman Aliev was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Then the conflict escalated into war and so Nariman, who had been in prison for a year and a half by then, was released. After he left prison he didn’t come back home, he went to live with his brother, Mubariz, where he stayed for a few months and then moved to Russia with his family. After the beatings he had suffered during the interrogations, he was registered with a Group II disability (incapacity for work).
“Once or twice a year he comes to Baku with this family, but they never set foot in their old home. He says he doesn’t want to live through it all again. And if we ask him about what happened back then, he doesn’t want to talk about that either. He comes and stays with us and Senember comes to see him here”, said Mubariz.
Military psychologist, Azad Isazade, talks about how people can change during times of conflict:
“There’s individual psychology and there’s crowd psychology. Under the influence of a crowd people can change significantly. For example, they can decide to do something they’d never be capable of as an individual. Afterwards they regret it and can’t even understand themselves why they did it. Nariman’s unwillingness to talk about what happened may indicate that he regrets it and doesn’t understand the reasons for his actions. Of course, not having spoken to him and not knowing the details, I can’t say anything for certain, it’s just a theory.”
Forty-six-year-old Ahmed Rakhmanov, Group II disabled Karabakh war veteran, believes that only people who are blinkered fall under the influence of group psychology.
“At the time of the mass demonstrations in the late 1980s I was very young. When they shouted, ‘Anyone who doesn’t stand up is Armenian, anyone who doesn’t sit down is Armenian’, I sat down and stood up with the rest of them. It seems stupid. Yet on the other hand, I felt as though I belonged to the group. When someone’s part of a crowd they feel untouchable.”
Ahmed was deemed unfit for military service for medical reasons, but nevertheless at the age of 20 he went to the front as a volunteer.
“I wouldn’t say I see the Armenians as my enemies – a people as a whole can’t be my enemy. But seeing how my compatriots were being killed, I couldn’t just stand by on the sidelines. In addition, I grew up with very romantic notions of war. But when I saw my friends blown to pieces in battle, my romanticism vanished.”
Ahmed says war taught him to be cool-headed, to use your head before your hands in a conflict situation, to apologise even when you’re right and, most importantly, to value human life above all else.
“Now I can’t watch the news when they show bloody scenes from war zones, like from Syria, for example. Before I would imagine myself in scenes like that as the one pulling the trigger. Now I imagine myself as the one being killed.”
There is a widespread view that killing civilians is a crime (like the pogroms Nariman was involved in), but killing an armed man in a military uniform, ‘an enemy’, is an entirely different matter.
I’ve spoken a lot with former combatants. Often, when they talk off the record, there is a sense of regret.
Although none of them regret fighting for their country, many of them struggle with the fact that it meant killing people.
For example, a friend of mine who served with the OMON special police unit, told me about the time he ended up surrounded, together with his detachment of seven men. He was the only one who survived and he suffered multiple injuries. By the time help arrived all his comrades had died in his arms.
“It was so tough that I just stopped taking anything in. Our guys turned up and got me out of the encirclement. All the time they were dealing with my wounds, I didn’t speak. I remember, the only word I said was, “No”, I didn’t want to go to hospital. In the morning we launched an offensive and I went into battle with them.”
The attack was successful, the Azerbaijani soldiers recaptured several positions and took numerous prisoners.
“There was a guy and his girlfriend, his fiancée, I think. They were fighting together. Maybe the girl cooked for them or something, I don’t know. But she was wearing a uniform and she was armed. She begged me not to kill her fiancé and he kept telling her in their language not to plead for him. I killed them both.”
Now he dreams about that couple every night and wakes up in a cold sweat.
“That scene has become a lifelong torment for me. I wasn’t thinking straight in that moment. All I could see was my friends, dead and covered in blood. And now, for the last 26 years, that guy and his girlfriend have been there, standing before my eyes.”