Returning to their former homes, Azerbaijanis may realise that some things are lost forever. But new things can be found.
·It was a bright cold day in October, and the clocks were striking eight. Amelia groaned as she felt the sunlight on her face. “Ooh! It can’t be morning already,” she muttered. It felt like she’d only fallen asleep 10 minutes ago. She lay there contemplating whether to force herself up as her levels of consciousness slowly increased.
As usual, Amelia picked up the photo of her son Ali from the bedside table and kissed him. Finally, she threw back the covers and stood slouched beside the bed, her white vest and pajama bottoms creased and her hair in a frightful mess. Amelia Azimli, who was sixty-seven and had varicose veins in her legs, moved slowly. She shuffled past the mirror and made for the kitchen in search of a much-needed coffee. When the water began to boil, she made a cup and sat by the window. While drinking coffee, she watched people walking on the street. Amelia was so lost in thought that she did not notice time fly by. It was already a quarter to nine and she had to go to work.
Her place of employment was a fifteen-minute walk from her apartment. She taught violin – her only passion in life – at London’s Royal College of Music. There were twenty-eight students in Amelia’s class. When she got to her class, everyone seemed to be in their places. As usual, she marked her class log and moved on. During the lesson, her phone rang.
“Ooh! Please excuse me, I forgot to turn my phone off,” said Amelia to her students, while looking for the phone in her purse. The students started laughing. She was very strict about phones and always took them away if the students played with them or took calls during lessons.
It was her brother calling. It was not in his nature to get up before eleven in the morning. He was retired and loved to sleep. Amelia did not reply, although she grew anxious. As she put her phone on her desk and got back to the students, the phone rang again. This time she could not wait until the lesson was over, and she left the room, gently closing the door behind her.
“Good morning, sister,” said Ahmad, “I know that you’re at work, but this is very important.”
Amelia grew very nervous. She thought that something bad had happened.
“Yes, Ahmad. I am listening.”
“Have you watched the news today?” said Ahmad. His voice seemed unquiet to her.
“No. Speak up! What has happened? I hate it when you drag the conversation,” Amelia was getting anxious.
“They said that today, on the 16th of April, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed a peace treaty. The war has officially ended,” he said, continuing after a brief pause. “Amelia, are you there? Did you hear what I said?”
She was numb. She did not know what to say. After a short pause, she replied. “Yes. I heard you.” Her voice trembled. “I cannot talk right now. I am in the middle of a lesson,” and she hung up the phone.
She did not know how long she stood there motionless.
“Mrs Azimli, are you all right?” Someone was calling out her name at the end of the corridor. “Mrs Azimli, hello?”
It was the piano teacher, Mr Ebershoff, Amelia noticed as he was approaching.
“I am fine. Thank you, sir,” she said and returned to her room.
She could hardly wait for the lesson to end. Luckily it was her only lesson today. When the bell rang, she felt relieved. She wanted to get some fresh air.
It was chilly outside. Amelia walked down Queen Gate Street towards Hyde Park. Passing the Royal Albert Hall, she recalled how her son had wanted to give a concert there for the Queen. Ali had been very talented. He had played the violin even better than his “mama”. That was what he called her. Ali had been nineteen when he went to the battle front during the Karabakh war. Amelia had been very afraid for her son. He had an artistic nature; he was a skinny man of medium height. After his departure, she never saw him again. “They say time heals all wounds, but it’s not true,” she thought to herself. It had been years, but she felt the pain as if it had happened yesterday.
Slowly, she made for her favourite spot in the park – the bench under the oak tree. It was a very quiet place; it was her getaway spot whenever she felt down. She was not thinking about anything in particular, and yet her mind was occupied. Amelia was emotionally drained and fell asleep after a while.
A gentle touch on her shoulder woke her up. It was a woman passing by who was walking her dog. She had probably thought that Amelia was dead. Making sure that the old woman was all right, the lady with the dog went on her way.
says “Welcome to
She needed to speak with Ahmad, her only relative in the city. As soon as she stood up, she felt a pain in her legs – the varicose veins were not giving her any peace lately. She took a taxi and went to see her brother.
His wife opened the door.
“Hey! How are you? I did not know that you were planning to come,” said Cheryl, “Ooh, sorry, come on in!”
“Thanks. Is Ahmad at home?” said Amelia, taking off her jacket.
“Yes. He is in the living room, watching TV.”
“Ahmad, my beloved brother,” she said. “I have come to talk to you.”
“I know, darling, we really need to talk about it. Have a seat.”
“I have decided to go home – my real and only home,” said Amelia, with eyes full of tears.
“Why? You have been living in the UK for so long! Besides, who will take care of you? At least here you know that you can rely on me,” said Ahmad.
“I have made up my mind. I am very grateful for everything you have done for me. I could not stay in Azerbaijan, because everything kept reminding me of my boy. I don’t know what I would have done without you, but I want to be close to my son. This is the only way for me to find peace. Please do not try to persuade me otherwise.”
Ahmad went to his sister and hugged her without saying anything.
Soon Amelia had quit her job, moved out of her flat and travelled to Shusha.
The road seemed endless. Amelia travelled from London to Baku by train, since she had a fear of heights and therefore could not fly. Not wanting to waste any time, she had made for Shusha directly from Baku by car. The driver of the car was Azerbaijani. The talkative driver hadn’t stopped chatting all the way to Shusha. He told her that he had previously worked on the Baku-Ganja route, and now because of an increase in trips to Karabakh, he had moved to the Baku-Shusha route. He said that his friends who had moved back to Karabakh told him that they had not yet had any problems with the Armenians. Amelia told the driver that she was from Shusha, and had lived in England after the war, but was returning home now.
“I have not booked a hotel and do not know where to stay, can you recommend a good place?” asked Amelia.
“Yes of course. There is one famous hotel, guests love it there. If they do not have available rooms, we will look for some other places for you,” the driver replied.
“Thank you! That’s very kind of you.”
Amelia was worried all the way; she did not know what awaited her in Karabakh after so many years. Her excitement was even greater when she saw the road sign saying “Welcome to Shusha”. The road sign was in three languages: Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian. For a city with a population of no more than one hundred thousand, the road was busy – many cars were driving to and from the city. The road was green; there were trees on both sides. The city had changed a lot, but retained its historical charm. There were almost no high-rises, except for a couple of buildings in the city centre.
“Here we are, madam! Shusha Grand Hotel is the best hotel in the city,” said the driver, pointing to the blue building. It was five o’clock in the afternoon when they arrived. The hotel was in the downtown area and it was very noisy around it. They got out of the car and the driver took out her belongings from the trunk. All she had to show for thirty years of her life in England was one suitcase and one travel bag. The suitcase was heavy and Amelia was not able to carry it, so the driver helped her carry her things to the hotel. When they reached the front desk, the concierge took their luggage and put it on a cart. Amelia paid the driver and thanked him for his help, and he left.
The receptionist’s name was Levon, Amelia gathered by looking at his badge. It was not unusual for her; in London, Amelia had had many Armenian students over the years.
“Good afternoon! Welcome to Shusha Grand Hotel, how may I assist you?” the receptionist said in Russian.
“I want to stay for a week, maybe more,” Amelia told the man in English. Although she was fluent in Russian, she had never liked the language and preferred to speak English.
The receptionist promptly issued her a room and handed the keys to the concierge, who accompanied her to the room. The man opened the door and put her luggage in the room. Amelia gave him five pounds she found in her purse, and he left. The room was on the sixth floor with a good view of the city. From her room she could see the Kanach Zham church across the street.
She took a shower and went downstairs to eat. After her meal she went for a walk. The city smelled the same. The first thing she wanted to see was her house, to see whether or not it was still there. When she reached the street where her house was located she saw that it was there, but its exterior had changed. It was a one-storey structure. Amelia was standing at the gate and did not know whether or not to go in the house; suddenly she heard a female voice behind her saying something in Armenian. When Amelia turned back, she saw a young girl with bags in her hands.
“I’m sorry, I do not speak Armenian. I am an Azerbaijani. Do you speak Russian?”
“I asked whether you are looking for someone. I live in this house,” the girl repeated in Russian.
“No. I just… I lived here before the war. I just came to town and wanted to see the house,” said Amelia.
“Um… I see, please wait here and I’ll call my dad,” said the girl and went into the house. A minute later she returned with her father. He was a man of Caucasian appearance and medium height.
“Hello! My name is Vigen Kazumyan. My daughter told me about you. Come in please,” said the man, and then pointed to the left. “When the weather is good, we sit there eating or drinking tea.” To the left of the house there was a table with chairs. The whole yard was planted with trees and flowers.
“Darling, please bring us some tea,” Vigen asked his daughter, and she went inside at once.
“Thank you for inviting me inside,” Amelia said. “My name is Amelia. I lived in this house most of my life until the war. It was my father’s house. I inherited it after his death.” She began to tell him her story.
“I am really sorry for your loss. My family and I moved into this house in 1995. After the war, all abandoned houses came under the control of city municipalities. I bought the house for a good price,” said Vigen and then took a sip of his tea.
“Do you mind if I go inside? I would very much like to see the house,” said Amelia.
“Yes. Of course,” said Vigen. “Come inside.”
When Amelia stepped into the doorstep of the house, she felt very sad. The interior of the house had changed completely; everything in the house was new. There was nothing that would have reminded anyone of her or Ali. She began to enter the rooms one by one, recalling how they had appeared earlier.
Then she entered Ali’s room. It had become Vigen’s workshop. He was a tailor. Amelia could no longer hold back the tears, and she began to cry. There was nothing left of her home, her life. She had moved to Shusha to return to her home. But now she did not have anything. The war had taken away all that was dear to her.
Amelia no longer wanted to be in the house, so she quickly thanked the owner for his hospitality and went out. She was very tired and went back to the hotel with slow steps. As soon as she entered her room, she immediately went to bed and passed out.
Soon Amelia found an apartment in the city centre and moved there. The days and weeks passed quickly. More and more Azerbaijanis were moving back to Karabakh as part of the state programme. Under the terms of the agreement, Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia and Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan were granted citizenship automatically in Armenia and Azerbaijan respectively, and provided with housing. Azerbaijani IDPs from Nagorno-Karabakh could choose to live either in Nagorno-Karabakh or Armenia, and were provided with housing.
Amelia began to work on her long-standing dream of establishing a music college in Shusha. She had savings, and also asked her brother to lend her money. She spent the next four months searching for a building for the college, going through bureaucratic procedures, finding teachers and all that.
On the first of October, the grand opening of the college took place. There were people of many nationalities and ethnicities enrolled: Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Russians and Jews were the major ones. Amelia was happy that she was giving people the opportunity to become musicians just like her son. By the end of the school year, the college was mentioned in newspapers and the news more and more often as a model for success.
The first anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty was approaching, and Amelia was planning a concert in its honour. The school orchestra that was going to perform at the concert included the most talented students. Students were preparing for this concert at full tilt, and Amelia sent invitations to high-ranking officials in Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Finally the day arrived – April 16. Final preparations were made and everything was ready. It was a matter of minutes before the concert, and the hall was gradually filling.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the first annual concert for peace! It is our pleasure to host you here. For the opening speech, I would like to give the floor to the organiser of tonight’s event, Ms Azimli,” said the host, who was also a teacher at the college.
The audience applauded.
“Thank you. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for coming to celebrate this historical event with us. I lost my only child, my son, because of this war, like hundreds and thousands of other people from both sides who lost their loved ones. We send our sons, husbands, brothers to war because we think it is the right thing, an honourable thing, but is it really? I wonder what my son would have said about it. Perhaps their deaths will have meaning only if we stay together now, and say NO to war, NO to killing.”
“Enjoy the concert. Thank you,” said Amelia and went to her seat in the front row. As she sat, she closed her eyes and gave a sigh of relief. The orchestra began to play ‘Funiculi, Funicula’ by Luigi Denza.·