On 12 May, 26 years after an Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire brought the Karabakh war to an end, Conciliation Resources is releasing a film that addresses these issues. Parts of a Circle: History of the Karabakh Conflict is a 76-minute documentary that draws on an earlier trilogy of films made in 2011-2016. Taken together, the Parts of a Circle films interrogate the moral simplification and streamlining of perspectives on the violent past prevalent in the media on all sides today. They also offer a bridge between the direct experience of conflict among those who lived through the events of 1988-94, and those who are learning about those events in schools and universities today. Finally, they provide an example of local initiative propelled by local media professionals and conflict experts acting independently to question stereotypes and received wisdom.
Recognising and respecting contradictory narratives
The concept behind the trilogy was to juxtapose two narratives held by each side in a conflict together in one film, drawing inspiration from the Japanese film Rashomon, which depicts the same incident but from different, contradictory perspectives. Bringing that idea to a film about conflict emphasises the subjectivity of different perspectives, making the viewer aware of their own (and others’) preconceptions, preferences and biases. This awareness in turn invites the viewer to triangulate from among these perspectives a more complex understanding of contested or controversial events.
Over five years in 2011-16, with the support of the European Union, three 1-hour-long films were made about the Karabakh conflict of 1988-94: The Road to War, The War and In Search of Peace. Recognising that only the most committed audiences beyond the South Caucasus would engage with a three-hour trilogy on a conflict, Conciliation Resources has produced a fourth ‘summary’ film drawing on the same materials but in a single, unified narrative written for audiences new to the conflict. This is the film we are releasing on 12 May.
The Parts of a Circle films seek to contribute to a process of ‘dealing with the past’. This is an approach to building peace that emphasises the recognition of historical trauma as necessary for the transformation of adversarial relations. Dealing with the past implies efforts to engage in difficult conversations enabling parties in conflict to understand the different perspectives that others hold. The understanding and recognition of grievances can become a basis on which to work towards transforming broken relationships. Dealing with the past may under some circumstances imply institutions and processes that are ‘truth-seeking’, such as truth commissions, or ‘justice-seeking’, involving judicial remedy. Yet these more institutionalised approaches are not essential for a broader agenda seeking to confront silence on atrocities and violated rights.
Dealing with the past in the Armenian-Azerbaijani context
To talk about dealing with the past in the Armenian-Azerbaijani context might seem counter-intuitive. There has, after all, been no conflict settlement and the parties are still to all intents and purposes at war. Moreover, some of the most well-known truth and reconciliation efforts, such as those enacted in Latin America or South Africa, were driven by a pressing need to allow former political foes to live together again in the same society. A political project to rebuild national unity necessitated a reckoning with the past.
The situation with Armenia and Azerbaijan is quite different due to the complete segregation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis that occurred in 1988-94. The victims of atrocities and war crimes committed in that period are now citizens of another, adversarial state. The populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan not only have little incentive to understand or interact with one another, they face active disincentives as even the weakest of ties, from Facebook likes to Eurovision votes, have attracted negative attention in recent years. This deprives a quest for truth or justice relating to the events of the late 1980s or early 1990s of immediacy and urgency. There is no imperative to preserve or rebuild national unity through a truth and reconciliation process.
Moreover, each side’s interpretation of the war emphasises that it was, from their perspective, a defensive one. During the course of active warfare in 1991-94, mass forced displacement accompanied military advances by either side through populated areas, resulting in ethnic homogeneity, and a number of massacres took place in the early stages of the war. These crimes are interpreted today as operations against ‘illegitimate insurgents’ or ‘foreign enemies’ in a setting of internationalised war.
Questions of accountability for massacres and violence that drove the massive mutual expulsions of Armenians from Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis from Armenia in 1988-90 are even thornier. Enacted under Soviet rule, yet with the widespread participation of ordinary citizens, those mass movements fundamentally reshaped the ethno-demographic make-up of independent Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both societies were unravelled and forged anew by the conflict. These factors all point to likely resistance to the idea of opening up that past – and the question of rights that were violated on the paths to modern Armenian and Azerbaijani independence – to re-examination. This is evident in the scope and persistence of conspiracy theories shifting responsibility for key atrocities.
A locally-owned dialogue on the past
Given this likely resistance, what might dealing with the past look like in the Armenian-Azerbaijani context today? Clearly, it is unlikely to take the form of an internationalised transitional justice process of the sort seen in the former Yugoslavia. Without a conflict settlement, it will be very difficult for the parties to agree that the past really is in the past.
This suggests that dealing with the past needs to begin as a more locally-owned dialogue on the experiences that people went through in the 1988-94 period, supported by documentary evidence of past events. It is possible now to collect materials relating to the violent past, including interviews with those who lived through it, that can contribute to a more multi-vocal, multi-faceted understanding of past events. Where perceptions of exclusion, discrimination and injustice count among root causes, then finding ways to structure dialogue, based on source materials, around these issues is an important element of creating an environment more conducive to peace.
Should ‘history be left to the historians’, then? As political scientist Jelena Subotić argues, whether a country enacts domestic trials or commissions of enquiry, or whether it cooperates with international tribunals, is not the only or even the best indicator of its commitment to dealing with the past: ‘Only when stories about the past are wide open – when societies can talk about what happened, how, and why, who was to blame, and who stood idly by – will the path to achieving justice truly begin.’ In the context of the South Caucasus – which is unlikely to see judicial processes relating to the violent past in the foreseeable future – the element of dialogue on the past is no less important than justice. A new kind of conversation is needed that can allow the surfacing of grievances relating to past violence, create the space for mutual understanding and chart a path to acknowledgement and respect. The Parts of a Circle films open up this pathway.