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The Nagorny Karabakh Conflict: The End of an Olympic Dream

The War Shattered One Champion’s Dreams, Reducing Them to Rubble

The holder of Azerbaijan’s record in clay shooting, Svetlana Balayan had hoped once day to become world champion. This was not to be, however: instead, she became a refugee. After all the hard work she put in to become a successful shooter, Svetlana is now a table tennis coach, living and working in Nagorny Karabakh.

Svetlana was born and raised in Baku. Her childhood and youth were spent in the Vorovsky village. The area was considered to be Armenian, but Svetlana’s block was quite international.

Svetlana as a student in Baku. 1982

Our Azerbajani neighbours would always bring us trays of sweets for Nowruz. We were the first people they would treat. At Easter, we would take them painted eggs and kulich cake. We were very lucky with our neighbours, they were good people. When Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia called for Armenians to be forced out of Azerbaijan, our neighbours stood up for us and protected us. ‘They’ll leave when they’re ready,’ they would say.

From the outset of the conflict in Nagorny Karabakh, over half a million Armenians from Azerbaijan have become refugees. Around three hundred and sixty thousand of them came to Armenia. Figures show that in Nagorny Karabakh, there are around seventeen thousand refugees.

As a child, Svetana loved sport and dreamed of excelling and becoming a top sportsperson. During the first six years of school, she tried gymnastics, athletics, and basketball. Then, one day, her friend who lived next door to a shooting range invited her to join her training session.

I fell in love with shooting, straightaway. At the first municipal competition, there was a rule: whoever did badly was moved to another form of sport. My friend didn’t do too well, and was moved to the skeet shooting group. I stayed in the trap shooting one, but we would still travel to all the competitions together.

Svetlana trained at the Dynamo Society. Her first away event was in Vilnius, where the best sportspeople from the Soviet republics gathered for the Dynamo Central Council Championship.

In 1980, in the third year of her training, Svetlana beat her trainer in the Azerbaijani Championship.

In 1985, Svetlana became champion of the Urozhai Voluntary Sports Society of the RSFSR

The same year, she became Champion of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, setting a new record – 185 targets out of 200. The previous clay shooting record had been in place for 25 years, but Svetlana quickly began to beat her own record every year, getting her performance up to 190 targets out of 200. International-Class Masters of Sport had just 189. Svetlana’s final record was set at an All-Union competition.

After Svetlana won the Azerbaijani Champion’s title multiple times, her trainers told her to stop competing with the women. There was not enough proper competition for her, they said, and advised her to compete with the men.

Svetlana’s sporting achievements

Svetlana managed to win the Azerbaijan Cup, even competing with the men. In 1983, she took part in the Spartakiad of Peoples of the USSR on the Azerbaijan national men’s team. The competition did not include women’s events, so Svetlana could take part in the shooting events only as part of the men’s team. She was the only woman in the entire Spartakiad.

The Azerbaijan national shooting team at the Spartakiad of Peoples of the USSR, Moscow, 1983

All the cameras followed me constantly – I was the star of the show. My results were not the best – after all, I was competing against sporting legends, world champions, Olympic medalists – sportsmen such as Rustam Yabulatov, Alexander Asanov, Dmitry Monakov, Alexander Lavrinenko… After I returned from Moscow to Baku, a film crew turned up, wanting to make a film. It’s just a shame that I myself was never to see it.

Svetlana training at the shooting range. Baku, 1983

Svetlana continued to enjoy sporting success. By the end of the 1980s, she was part of the Soviet national team, had taken silver at the Union Cup, and won the Soviet Championship. Her success was stable, and she was ready to compete at world level.

Svetlana won the Soviet Championship and became part of the Soviet national team

Master of Sport of the USSR in clay shooting, multiple champion and record setter of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic, champion of the Dynamo Voluntary Sporting Society and All-Union trade unions, medalist and winner of the Soviet Shooting Championship in the ‘Shooting Until the First Missed Target’ programme, silver medalist at the USSR Cup, bronze medalist at the USSR Top Shooters’ Tournament, member of the Soviet national team and participant at the 1987 ISSF World Cup in Moscow.

The events in Nagorny Karabakh put a stop to Svetlana’s sporting ambitions, however. In May 1989, she moved to Stepanakert with her six-month-old baby and the rest of the family. At first, Svetlana thought the move would be temporary. Later, she realized it was for good.

The war for Nagorny Karabakh that broke out in the early 1990s remains an unresolved conflict, hindering the development of the South Caucasus. A ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994, yet to this day, the conflict continues to claim new victims.

In Nagorny Karabakh, Svetlana’s new home, there was no clay shooting. Her friend, however, became an Olympic medalist: following the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan gained direct access to the Olympic Games and World Championships.

Svetlana’s friends

 My friend became European Champion, World Champion and Olympic Champion. I was very happy for her. We had been four friends, at school, and we were all from different ethnicities: an Armenian, a Russian, a Tatar and an Azerbaijani. Zemfira was the one I was closest to, though.

Svetlana’s schoolfriends

For a while after Svetlana moved to Nagorny Karabakh, the two friends would speak on the phone. But when war broke out, the connection was lost.

I think of her often. I am sure that she does, too. But things just happened to turn out this way.

In Stepanakert, Svetlana took on a consulting role at a Sports School for Children and Young People. Later, she became the school head. After ten years, Svetlana joined the Sports Department, whilst also teaching Physical Education at the university.

Instead of clay shooting, Svetlana’s sport is now table tennis.

Clay shooting was the love of my life. Table tennis and all the other forms of sport I got involved in are more a pleasant pastime, a healthy pursuit. If I go for any length of time without exercise, I begin to feel unwell. So I still make sure to swim and play table tennis, and of course I spend time with my family too. I have a grandson now, who makes all of us very happy.

Svetlana’s children have also been successful. Her oldest son Alesha, who was born while the family was still in Baku, studied journalism at Artsakh State University. For quite some time, he was also the presenter of the Goyamart programme on Artsakh Public Television.

Following in his mother’s footsteps, Svetlana’s younger son Araik also became a sportsperson. As a tennis player, he now trains his own pupils. He has often won medals at various Azerbaijani tournaments and in the Azerbaijani table tennis championships, both as part of a team, and in his own right.

Accommodation is no longer a problem for Svetlana. Her family was given a private home by the state in the Achapnyak area of Stepanakert, where refugees from Azerbaijan have been housed.

Everything is fine now. One has to learn to value what one has, at any given time. Life goes on. If I ever do start to reminisce, I prefer only to remember the good things.  

Unheard Voices is part of International Alert’s work on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It is the result of work produced with journalists from societies affected by the conflict and their collaborative efforts to highlight its effects on the daily lives of people living in the conditions of ‘no war, no peace’. The purpose is to ensure their voices are heard both at home, in their own societies and on the other side of the conflict divide, allowing readers to see the real faces hidden behind the images of ‘the enemy’.
This project is funded by the European Union as part of the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK).
The materials published on this page are solely the responsibility of the journalists and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of International Alert or its donors. All our journalists adhere to a Code of Conduct, which can be found here.


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