The three organizers of Bright Garden Voices together on Zoom 2. An example of the Bright Garden meeting topics

Bright Garden Voices Opens Communications Between Azerbaijanis and Armenians

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By Paul Vartan Sookiasian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The recent war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has had some unexpected outcomes, with many on both sides asking, after all the death and destruction, where do we go from here?

One of the biggest issues underlying this formerly “frozen conflict” is the similar freezing of any interaction between ordinary Armenians and Azerbaijanis. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is suspicion on both sides of anyone who would have communication with “the enemy.” Though social media has been full of hatred and propaganda, some Armenians and Azerbaijanis found each other through the noise, seeking to understand the roots of the conflict via each other’s perspective.

One of the platforms that grew from this is “Bright Garden Voices,” which was organized by people who met each other in discussions on Twitter as a result of the war.

Background

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The centuries of co-existence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis have largely been obscured by the past three decades of bitter conflict, even though members of the older generation can still speak the other’s language and enjoy aspects of their cultures. Track II diplomacy between private citizens from Armenia and Azerbaijan was severely limited to meetings facilitated by nongovernmental organizations, mainly in Georgia. However, at the outbreak of the war, Armenians from those circles found their former counterparts for peace suddenly awash in an enthusiastic war fever, while they themselves were feeling pressured to stay silent at home.

Paradoxically, the outbreak of war gave Armenians and Azerbaijanis something to share for the first time in so long – loss and pain. With thousands of soldiers killed on each side as well as civilians, this shared tragedy in a way gave insight into and even curiosity about who these people are on the other side. While it might sound counterintuitive, many young people who might not even remember the first war have remarked that despite everything, it was the pain of this recent war which helped them see the opposing side as human for the first time.

Bright Garden Voices has seized this unique opportunity to exchange views across that deep gulf of silence to those on the other side. Bright Garden is about bringing the human side of the conflict and reminding that there are real people on the other side, not just a source of fear.

It is headed by a trio from different backgrounds. Arnold Alahverdian is an Armenian-American doctoral candidate in history at University of California, Irvine. Aydan Gasimova is an Azerbaijani native of Baku now living in the Netherlands and working in the field of data science. The third member, Diego Ardouin, is neither Armenian nor Azerbaijani, but an Argentinian who has studied Armenian issues for many years, as his hometown of Buenos Aires has long boasted a vibrant Armenian population. He was inspired to advocate for recognition of the Armenian Genocide and also for building bridges between Turkish and Armenian civil society.

Ardouin saw the need for such a group, as interesting social media exchanges between Armenians and Azerbaijanis time and again would be interrupted or overshadowed by troll attacks, interjections of “whataboutism,” and a general environment which was not conducive to people having open and honest dialogue.

As Ardouin explained, “there was a communication gap in terms of representation: academics answering questions but not really engaging with each other, and normal citizens unable to interact with each other normally without being exposed to attacks from either side.” Recognizing there were many well-intentioned people who wanted to engage respectfully, he approached the other two with his idea and the team was formed.

Establishing Communications

The unexpected ease of organizing the group was seen as further evidence that it was something that should be done, despite the pushback its members knew would follow.

The notion of talking to the “enemy” is a fraught one, and there are some who would call those who do traitors or claim that they are playing into the hands of the enemy. It should be made clear that the group receives no funding from any outside organization or individuals.

Co-organizer Arnold Alahverdian has no illusions about the difficulty of such a platform so soon after the war, explaining: “The wounds of the war are still very fresh and it also doesn’t help that the POW situation still hasn’t been resolved. Most of the criticism came as a reaction to the announcement of the project, even before the first meeting. After our first two meetings, however, we received an increasing amount of positive feedback. Even some people who had criticized us later changed their minds and expressed their support.”

Most participants admit they had never even met a member of the other ethnic group before joining. Bright Garden allows for a neutral safe space to gather and see each other’s faces, which gives a human face to a conflict that has seen a great deal of dehumanization.

In each Bright Voices meeting over the Zoom platform, a specific topic is discussed by two guests, one Armenian and one Azerbaijani, often presenting their relevant work on the conflict or building bridges. A recent episode featured photographer Orkhan Abbasov and filmmaker Arpi Bekaryan, who discussed the importance of films, photographs, and iconic visuals in shaping the conflict. They noted the role of visual media in showing the human side of the story; that the conflict is not just about armies fighting each other but innocent people being killed and forced to flee. At the end of the war there were videos of Armenian and Azerbaijani soldiers speaking normally with each other and even sharing tea, but these were shared far less than the ones of atrocities, and indeed there is a fear of sharing them lest one is seen as a traitor.

Bekaryan said that in her experience, people are willing to share their memories of co-existence when prompted, and it is important to making room for these stories. Bekaryan pointed out something which is often the undoing of attempts at dialogue on social media: the difficulty of finding neutral terminology when each side has their own vocabularies.

One side sees the Karabakh war as a liberation, the other as aggression. Each side has its own names for particular locations, and the use of one or the other, or even an attempt to use both at once, is usually an invitation for attack. As Bekaryan described: “It is very difficult to have a discussion without triggering the other side and causing them to shut down. Yet even being neutral isolates you from many on your own side and will cause them to turn away from you. Terminology in ways is at the core of the conflict, so it is about finding ways to engage while understanding there will inevitably be these roadblocks.”

She noted that while it sounds strange, she has seen more people on the Armenian side open to peace than ever before, attributing it perhaps to the fact that having now seen what war really is, they want to prevent another. She hopes this is an opportunity people will take before that window closes again.

As Alahverdian points out, making peace between nations is up to governments. Individuals have their own role to play. “I think Bright Garden Voices is filling a void in the sphere of Armenian-Azerbaijani communications, and more people are realizing that there is no harm done in trying to engage in dialogue with ordinary people from the other side. Personally, I would like to help rehumanize each side to the other. Decades without contact after the First Nagorno-Karabakh War led to much dehumanization and we have all recently witnessed the terrible consequences of that, both on the battlefield and across all platforms of interaction.”

Gasimova further elaborated on the dynamics this medium brings to dialogue: “We hope that with Bright Garden we are able to provide a platform for more personal and thoughtful conversations between people who are already engaged in respectful dialogue on social media. Having them sit down for a video call alleviates the limits of 280 characters on Twitter and the destructiveness of the disrespectful commentators.”

She said, “Of course there is a much larger group of people who are not yet engaged in any form of exchange with the other side, and for them we hope stumbling upon one of our videos on YouTube could be a demonstration of sorts, an example of how constructive dialogue can be held between regular people. We hope that they will see that it is indeed possible to talk with the other, hear about their experience, their opinions and learn from each other.”

Gasimova concluded, “I hope that in some small way this project can contribute to tearing down those walls that have kept both of our societies separated for so long.”

Ultimately, Bright Garden Voices’ fundamental goal is to demonstrate its motto of respect, understanding, and empathy between peoples is possible and make such exchanges more welcome, helping ordinary people better understand their neighbors across the lines of contact.

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