All that remains of warm relations between neighbours are memories. Passing these on to the youth is a pressing task.

Part 1 – The past spent together

·It was the year 1956. My grandmother Sumaya had remarried, finally acknowledging after nine years that her first husband would not come back from the great war. She had to move from her native Aghdam to Baku with her new partner and her eight-year-old daughter, my mother. She rented a small house in a neighbourhood consisting of several flats, and lived there.

By chance, her landlord happened to be from an Armenian family. The head of the family, Mrs Margaret, had two sons, Osip and Mishik, and three daughters, Seda, Tamara and Rima. Within a short time, the family began to get along well with my grandmother. They were so close that they even used to cook and eat together. During those three years living in that rented house, they travelled and attended New Year celebrations together. Whenever any problems occurred, they helped each other and tried to find a solution together.

A military campus of the Soviet Army was in the township of Binagady where they lived. Along with Mrs Margaret, my grandmother used to go to this military campus, collect the remains of the peeled potatoes and bring them home. Then they would try to find edible potatoes among those peels, cook them for the children and invite them to the table. The people had still not been able to escape hunger after the war, but despite all their difficulties, they somehow managed to cope. Members of both Armenian and Azerbaijani families living in the neighbourhood gathered near the fountain and had conversations long into evening; after it got dark, they got together to watch television at the house of the only Armenian family who had a TV set.

My grandmother was ordered by the authorities to move back to her native city of Aghdam, after living for several years in Baku. The family started to experience a harder period. After moving, my grandmother gave birth to her second child – my uncle. The family needed many things to get by, but it was difficult to find them. By providing a bed and other household items, her Armenian neighbours helped my grandmother once again.

One day in 1985, my mother suddenly felt faint after a long session of carpet weaving. According to the local doctors, she had had a heart attack and urgently needed to be hospitalised in Khankendi (Stepanakert). An Armenian doctor, Dr Gazaryan, treated her. My mother had to stay in hospital for a month. There were three Armenian patients in the same hospital room during her treatment period. My mother said that every day while entering the room, Dr Gazaryan would first visit her and only then show an interest in the other patients. The Armenian patients in the room were also very kind to her. They would lay the table and have lunch together, and always invite my mother to eat first.

I asked my mother if they were so kind to her because she was the sickest patient in the room. My mother’s response was different, as well as surprising to me. She admitted that, in fact, there was a patient who was sicker than her. But she was treated in this way in order not to feel discriminated against, and also she was talkative from her sickbed which made the staff like her even more. Though the hospital was clean, it did not have a bathroom at that time.

Considering this, the Armenian patients would invite my mother to their home to take a shower. After a month, my mother was discharged from the hospital and left for our home in Aghdam. Despite so many years having gone by and the hostility between the two nations, today my mother still remembers Dr Gazaryan with his professional attitude and kind manner.

Part 2 – A future to be lived together

The year was 2019, and peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan had finally been established. Even after the official conflict was over, living isolated from each other for so many years meant that there was still little trust between the Armenian and Azerbaijani communities. Positive past experiences had been erased from their memories. We had avoided speaking about it over the last two decades. However, we were slowly changing this attitude, believing that the young generation should be told of these experiences, to believe that living together is possible in the future too.

I decided to work as a teacher again. Wanting to educate the youth about the past, I began to teach at a school in one of the villages only 50km from the border with Iran and 100km from Armenia and the former frontline areas. I am a history teacher, and we often talked with the students about our neighbouring countries and our relations with them. During such discussions, I explained our historical relations with the Armenian people as well. I wanted to help the new generation to understand the Armenians, and I spoke about the experiences of my mother and grandmother. I narrated stories of how they lived with Armenians and solved their problems together. Again we lived together as neighbours, not enemies, and I hoped that soon we would live as the entirely loving neighbours we used to be.

One of the most important things for rebuilding trust is a change in the way the media reports about each other. Together with other schools in the area, we started a joint Armenian- Azerbaijani television channel broadcasting samples of both Azerbaijani and Armenian culture. Instead of demonstrating hostility, this TV channel was a good opportunity to raise cultural awareness among communities and show the positive results of peace.

Now it is the year 2024. Five years have passed since peace was achieved. Together with some of my colleagues and students and support from the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan, we have established a joint Armenia-Azerbaijani university in Nagorno-Karabakh. We have also set up a library that allows aspiring intellectuals from both countries to rediscover and acknowledge each other’s academic achievements. It is the antidote to long-held descriptions of each other during the conflict as uncultured and idiotic.

At Karabakh University, I again conduct discussions with my students about past and current relations between the Armenian and Azerbaijan communities. We also discuss broader issues, like regional development. I observe that the new generation, the first to grow up in peace again, is much more open and tolerant than generations that grew up during the conflict. I feel Rusconfident enough to state that most of the things imagined have come true.

Based on student suggestions, the university organises excursions to formerly contested regions and border areas. During one, some students show their family photos taken in those areas. Suddenly, one of my students, Vasif, jumps up and runs towards me.

“Mr Huseynov! Could you please see this? I have the same picture as you.”

I get excited by what I see. I take both photos and glance at them carefully. Both of them are the same indeed. It is the same view and the same people. I briefly ask my students about this photo. Then I learn that the women in the photos are Asya’s and Vasif’s grandmothers and that they used to live in the same neighbourhood. One of the children sitting in the grandmother’s arm is Asya’s mother, the other is Vasif’s uncle.

I thoughtfully walk away from my students, holding the pictures in my hand. I think about how friendships and memories filtered from history have a contribution to peace and how the unbreakable ties between people connect us again after many years.·

Hamid, 31, is originally from Aghdam, but his family had to flee during the Karabakh war. He is a teacher in western Azerbaijan and also works on democracy, education and human rights projects for the NGOs the Youth Club and A13.

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