A Critical Exclusive Raffi Joe Wartanian’s Letters for Peace: Young Azeris and Armenians Bridge the Hate Gap

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It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this series of letters that journalist and human rights advocate Raffi Joe Wartanian has recently put out in Yerevan on Zangak Publishing House. Some 60 letters in all or 30 pairs of letters between young Azerbaijanis and Armenians, they restore one’s hope that when this terrible war now being waged is over—and it will eventually be over—young people will have the resolve, the intelligence and most of all the love to live together as neighbors and friends. The letters here are touching, some erudite, others simple, always from the heart. More importantly they show how similar young Armenians and Azerbaijanis truly are. They argue convincingly for the fact that the war which Azerbaijan has started in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic is the result of the political machinations of a dictator and that if it were up to the young people in Azerbaijan, we would all be living in more peaceful times—and here I do not speak of the demonstrators whipped up into a nationalist frenzy by Aliyev and his minions. The project was co-sponsored by a group of foundations, including in Armenia: “Peacebuilding through Capacity Enhancement and Civic Engagement” and “Eurasia Partnership Foundation,” and the Armenian General Benevolent Union. Azerbaijani supporters must be kept hidden for now, out of concern for their safety. Here is a sampling of an exchange between a young Armenian girl in Lori and her counterpart in Baku:

“Hi Dear Friend:

You know someday we may both drown in unspoken roads, restrained tears and misunderstood hatred. But no, I don’t hate you because we share the same fate…it is only the weak who hate…those who don’t find the strength to love others. I live in Lori…in Agarak village, Stepanavan. You know people in Lori are considered naïve because of their extreme sincerity and kindness. In our dialect it’s called “Shash”…I’m tired of crying, let us both think out of the box and borders for solutions. You know the saying: “He who seeks shall find.” Let’s be Baba and Haj.

-With Love, Your Lilit.”

“Hi Lilit:

Thank you for your amazing letter. I am also 20 years old and moved to the capital for studying. It seems I got a letter from someone with a similar lifestyle. I am a tour guide. Baku is amazing! The Old City, Shirvandakh Palace, Maiden Tower etc…I checked your motherland in Google. It is great that you feel proud of your homeland! I moved from a small city called Goychay… famous for its pomegranates…Trust me nobody wants war. Nobody wants to see dead bodies…I think everybody knows that we are just tools in war. There was a war in Donbass and we had a war in April too…Maybe you have heard of Aland Island in Finland. They had a similar problem (as ours) in 1917…they could solve it and today Aland Iceland’s local dwellers are the wealthiest people in Finland!…We can change everything (here as well) …We are stronger together!

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-With love, Zulfiyya.”

Wartanian was inspired to take on this daunting project after he co-taught a creative writing workshop at Rikers Island Jail from 2017 to 2018: “The incarcerated individuals there taught me about the ways writing can unlock a spirit of freedom and possibility, regardless of the challenging circumstances….As the grandson and great-grandson of Armenian Genocide survivors, and having spent time living in Armenia as a volunteer and researcher, I was always dismayed by the conflict with Azerbaijan.” Wartanian sought something productive that he could do to help move the situation forward: Letters for Peace is his timely answer.

He and his team organized two-week workshops at the intersection of creative writing and conflict transformation. The workshops featured guest lectures, writing exercises, site visits, and culminated in each student writing a letter in which he/she articulated the desire and/or possibilities for a peaceful future. Wartanian’s goal was/is simply to create a constructive discourse and open up avenues of discussion between two sides that have at various periods of history and in different parts of the Caucasus, lived side-by-side in peace.

Of course the ironic and sad twist is that the current war had not yet broken out when Wartanian published this volume, though he notes that some of the writers included in the volume were soldiers during the April 2016 clashes and that others live in border regions under regular threat from snipers and bombardments. It is perhaps worth listening to Wartanian here: “ Let me state in no uncertain terms that Aliyev, with the help of Erdogan, is committing crimes against humanity… (but) I’m starting to believe that this conflict is not between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. This is a conflict between love and hate, between justice and corruption, between equanimity and greed, between harmony and dissonance, between cooperation and distrust, between common sense and the fog of war. We cannot fight forever…we must have the capacity as people around the world, as citizens in the region, to relate to one another with understanding, respect, and friendship. To build power with, not over, each other. “

Amen. A first step towards peace for both sides may well be to pick up Letters for Peace and think about the wise words that young people on both sides of the border are proffering.

Learn more about the project at: www.lettersforpeace.org

Topics: Books

Order future copies of the book at: www.lettersforpeace.org/contactcontributesupport

 

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