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Ani Hovhannisyan

I am not the enemy

I am from a country in need of peace. I was born in 1989, when the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan broke out. The town of Sisian in southern Armenia, where I was born, lay 90 kilometers from the battlefield. My parents tell me that I was under my grandmother’s care for the first year of my life since they had operated on my father’s foot and that my mother had to take care of him. My mother’s eyes swell with tears every times she says, “When we returned from the hospital, you didn’t recognize us.”

Due to the operation, my father never fought in the war. By the age of four, kids my age were bragging that their fathers had fought in the war. I, on the other hand, was proud that my father never took up arms against another person nor killed a fellow human. He was busy raising me since my mom was working in the village store. Every morning my father would turn the radio on and say, “Let’s see what the news from the front is.” I would ask, “Hey, pop, what war is it that all of you talk about?” He would explain, “It’s the Karabakh war against the Azerbaijanis. We’re going to liberate our lands.” I didn’t understand what those lands were or what grew on them. All that I understood about “war” was when we yelled “war-war” when we played our street games. But in our games no one died.

They sometimes brought the war dead to our village. We were playing in the courtyard one summer’s day when one of the neighborhood boys ran up to us and yelled out, “They’ve killed Vurg”. We stopped playing and stood there frozen by the news. All of us had heard of Vurg. They had told us that he was Sisian’s best fighter and it was because of him that the war hadn’t reached Sisian. Thus, our hope had been killed and we had been left defenseless. I ran home to tell my parents exactly what I was feeling at the moment. Crying, I rushed inside and said, “I want to fight against the war…Vurg is gone. Now, they’ll kill us too…but why? Mom, say something…” My mother embraced me and caressed my head, saying, “Lord, let there be peace”. I felt a strange sort of comfort when she uttered the word “peace”.

This was the first time in my childhood that I experienced what peace meant. All I knew was that I was much in need of it. The ceasefire agreement was signed in 1994. Due to the war and the effects of perestroika our country was in dire straits. We had to wait in bread lines. And if there was no bread we ate potatoes, barley or rice. I’d always plead with my grandmother not to take me along with her to wait in line for bread. I would rather eat barley than stand in line and watch the bickering and fights that broke out, or to see the anger in people’s eyes or listen to the women screaming and shouting at one another just for a piece of bread. Because food was scarce there was a tense atmosphere everywhere you turned; even in my house. The smallest thing could trigger off an argument between my parents.

I really felt sad hearing their bickering from the next room. I would have given anything for my parents not to be mixed up in that all encompassing war. I dreamt of seeing a smile on my mother’s face instead of that sullen and nervous expression. The war was everywhere; yelling and screaming… The only place that I could go to get away from it all, not to hear a sound, was the small hut behind one of the stores on our street. I called my little refuge “peace” since I liked the word. I was convinced that the day would come when everyone else would come to love that word as well and that the whole world would become just like my little hut. During my school years I got a better understanding of what war was all about, its causes and consequences. At the time, everyone was talking about how the Azerbaijanis were our enemies. The concept of “enemy” was like a foreign body that they shoved into my brain.

I couldn’t get used to the word, contrary to the other kids my age. I used the word because I could never get myself to pronounce it. I felt uneasy even hearing others speak it. It conjured up things that were alien to my inner world and outlook on life. I wanted to know what the “Azerbaijani enemy” looked like. Could they also love and laugh? Whenever they showed an Azerbaijani on T.V., I would run and watch intently, trying to figure out what made them tick; what were they feeling inside. My main goal became to one day meet up with an Azerbaijani; to talk to him and touch him. I asked my father what I would have to do to meet an Azerbaijani. He answered that it wasn’t an easy thing to do since only political officials and reporters got a chance to meet with them. Since I didn’t want to become a politician I decided to minor in journalism in school. I decided to major in music since my father was a musician. I take after him. After finishing high school it turned out that journalism came before music in my studies.

In 2006, I got accepted into the Department of Journalism at Yerevan State University. I began to look into the issue of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and started to write pieces about the Karabakh conflict. A few months ago I got lucky. I was invited to take part in a program during which I got the opportunity to meet Azerbaijani reporters in my same age group in Tbilisi. My childhood dream had come true. We were in the hotel when they told us that the Azerbaijanis would soon be arriving and that all of us would be traveling to Bakurian, a few hundred kilometers outside of Tbilisi. We would be in the same bus for some three hours. I felt very uneasy waiting to hear the sound of their bus. The bus soon arrived. As I made my way down the hotel steps I asked myself, “How should I greet them, what would they be like?” I got into the bus and greeted them with a smile. They returned the greeting and I noticed that all 12 eyes were intently staring at me. It was a piercing gaze that I hadn’t experienced before. It was a gaze reserved for Azerbaijanis staring at Armenians. Perhaps I was staring at them in the same way since I wanted to learn as much as possible about them from the first sight. During the entire ride they didn’t speak to us and I found this very worrying. I hadn’t felt so uncomfortable meeting people ever before. When we reached Bakurian we all got together and at the urging of the program organizers we started to introduce ourselves to one another. We were all paired up with an Azerbaijani. Each mixed pair had to start expressing their feelings and such.

I was paired with Elshan. We talked about our work and our favorite things. It turned out that Elshan worked at a radio station just like me and that we enjoyed the same things. I started to see El (the nickname we gave him) not only as an Azerbaijani but as a colleague and fellow musician. I copied down his favorite things in my notepad and he jotted down mine as well. It seemed like the ice had been broken. However, they never interacted with us outside the confines of the program. The day before we were to return I invited El out for a beer. He begrudgingly accepted my invitation. That evening we talked about practically everything. We started with politics and the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. Of course, our views on the matter were quite the opposite.

Later on, we tried to really open up and say what we thought about one another. During this confessional conversation, El said, “Hard as I try, I can’t but see you as the enemy. From the time I was a child they kept telling me that Armenians are the enemy. While I always had difficulty getting used to the idea and never quite understood what was meant by ‘enemy’, nevertheless, like it or not, they filled my head with it…” I also experienced what El had just described. It was as if the two of us had grown up the same person due to the war. That evening I was alone in my room, trying to make sense of what happened that day. I couldn’t get passed the idea that I was perceived as the enemy by others. It was hard to accept that, regardless of what I thought or my views, from the day I was born I was the enemy to some and thus, I too had enemies…Wasn’t it possible to lead more peaceful lives?

Wasn’t it true that I hadn’t chosen that which I had? All the while I had been dreaming of a life without enemies. It turns out that others see me as the enemy. The very notion made me angry. I looked at the piece of paper on which I had written some of Elshan’s favorite things and started to tear it up into tiny pieces. As I did so I muttered, “I am not the enemy”. The next day in the bus I noticed that El had also ripped the page on which he had jotted down things about me from her notepad.