No community is free for as long as it lives by a partial narrative of history, especially its own.
Three years ago on Sunday, high hopes and deep misgivings surrounded a historic football match between Turkey and Armenia.
A chance meeting in the World Cup qualifying draw had offered Turkish and Armenian leaders an unprecedented opportunity to make contact and possibly re-open their border, which had been closed for 17 years.
When both presidents took their seats in Turkey’s Bursa stadium on 14 October 2009, their countries had signed a historic accord just days before. It seemed almost believable that ‘football diplomacy’ might overcome a century of controversy regarding claims of genocidal violence by Ottoman Turkey against its Armenian community. But it was not to be.
Opposition from neighbouring Azerbaijan compounded misgivings from nationalist hardliners on both sides. A close Turkish ally, Azerbaijan fought and lost a war with Armenians in the 1990s for control of Nagorny Karabakh, in Soviet days an ethnically mixed Azerbaijani region, now an unrecognised republic populated only by Armenians. In the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, Turkish–Armenian rapprochement was seen as a betrayal, and a grave threat to the balance of power with Armenia.
Within six months the ‘football diplomacy’ had fizzled out, not ratified by either Turkish or Armenian parliaments. An historic opening had shut, and borders across the region remained firmly closed.
Cut off from one another, Turks, Armenians and Azeris continue to live separate lives and remember separate histories.
Memories Without Borders, a new film released this week, revisits the Turkish–Armenian–Azerbaijani triangle. Made by three filmmakers from Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the documentary highlights the relationship between borders and silence. Turks, Armenians and Azeris can all point to the silence that covers their experiences across a border in a former homeland, now a ‘foreign’ state or under ‘foreign’ control. Many find themselves with conflicting feelings of anger and yearning for a place that has rejected them and refuses to acknowledge their trauma.
For some, such as the Armenians of Anatolia, this silence has been founded on the physical destruction of the community and its heritage. For others, such as the Azeris of Nagorny Karabakh, and Balkan Muslims who were given no choice but to become Turks in a foreign land, the community may have physically survived but in a state of permanent dislocation from their homeland.
Yet in this deeply divided region the silence shrouding the past has many layers.
Communities scarred by the silence of those who have dispossessed and destroyed them, sometimes in turn find themselves required to keep quiet about other moments in history when they have become the dispossessors. In such cases silence is no longer a crime to be denounced, but a duty to be discharged as an affirmation of loyalty and national pride.
The history of the Karabakh war is full of such moments – events which are of huge significance to one side, are unacknowledged or denied by the other. The pogrom of Armenians in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait in February 1988 for example, and the massacre of Azerbaijani villagers by Armenian forces at Khojaly in February 1992, cannot coexist in the mirroring narratives of the conflict told by the opposing sides.
Those who challenge these historical taboos are branded as ‘traitors’ and persecuted. This deep, festering legacy of unrecognised suffering across all communities is institutionalised and transmitted from one generation to the next, closing off the possibility of historical reckoning – and reconciliation.
Many objections can and will be raised at this point: that this discussion draws a false equivalence between events involving dozens, hundreds, thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, between acts in peacetime and in wartime, acts committed by civilians and national armed forces, spontaneous and pre-meditated violence... the arguments are numerous.
However, the point of Memories Without Borders is not to draw a veil of relativity over multiple tragedies of human suffering, but to put the case that no community is free for as long as it lives by a partial narrative of history, especially its own.
Acknowledgement of the past will not resolve the differences between Turks, Armenians and Azeris. Debates will continue long into the future about how different episodes of mass murder, deportation and expropriation should be defined – as genocide or not. Other debates will undoubtedly follow, as they have in France, about whether such categories should be ‘enforced’ by national legislation
Yet this messy but free debate must be preferable to the alternative, which is especially threatening in the more volatile Armenian–Azerbaijani context. This is an intellectual climate where complex historical realities are reduced to lobby-friendly bullet points, scholarship abdicates responsibility, and one-sided commemoration becomes an industry.
New generations of Armenians and Azerbaijanis are at risk of being raised secluded from critical history – and memories of each other. There is much to be learnt from the Turkish–Armenian situation, where cross-border activism and the courage of writers, journalists, filmmakers and scholars have opened up new spaces for Turkish–Armenian dialogue.
In a world of memories without borders, Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis will at least no longer be hostage to broken, selective reflections of each other – and themselves. Without these borders, they might be closer to closure.
Laurence Broers is Caucasus Project Manager at Conciliation Resources, working to promote dialogue and understanding between conflict-affected communities in the South Caucasus.