MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 409: Internet re-unites Armenian, Azeri friends

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Fri Sep 7 18:56:24 2007

Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <editor@iwpr.net>



and city authorities are blamed for disaster. By Emin Guliev and Leila
Amirova in Baku

between Georgian locals and Russian peacekeepers raises the temperature
near ceasefire line. By Tamuna Shonia in Zugdidi and Natia Kuprashvili
in Tbilisi

across the Karabakh conflict divide. By Lusine Musaelian and Anahit
Danielian in Nagorny Karabakh




Old friendships maintained across the Karabakh conflict divide. 

By Lusine Musaelian and Anahit Danielian in Nagorny Karabakh

The tragedy of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that erupted in the
late Eighties split many families and friendships down the middle - but
in quiet ways, many ordinary people on either side of the divide are
keeping up contact with one another. 

Svetlana Firian, who is Armenian, uses the internet to preserve her
friendship with her old Azerbaijani schoolmate, even though they haven't
seen each other for more than 17 years.

Firian, now 44, was born and brought up in the Azerbaijani capital Baku.
She asked for the name of her Azerbaijani friend, who still lives in the
city, to be withheld to avoid creating problems for her. 

The two girls were close childhood friends, and both went on to become
professional sportswomen, even competing for the Soviet national team.

"When my child was born, I was forced to give up sport," said Firian.
"But my friend successfully continued her career in professional sport.
In 1989, at the time they were deporting Armenians from Baku, she was
taking part in a championship abroad."

Firian was forced to flee her native city without saying goodbye to her
closest friend. The escalating conflict, which soon broke out into
full-scale war, made it almost impossible for the friends to keep in

"There were no telephone lines and the post didn't work, but my friend
sent me letters and I wrote in reply via acquaintances in Russia," she

She settled in Nagorny Karabakh, which has been controlled by an
Armenian administration since the war ended in 1994, and still lives
there, working as headmistress of a sports school. 

The friendship has endured despite everything. Firian rummages in her
handbag and proudly shows us the last photograph of the two of them
together in Baku.

During her friend's occasional trips abroad, Firian says that she always
receives a phone call.

The appearance of the internet in Karabakh in recent years has made it
much easier for the two to maintain the friendship that began in Baku's
School No. 113.

She says they both steer away from political topics in their letters and
discuss their personal lives and daily experiences, as well as
reminiscing and planning for the future. 

"I am one of those who fought for the independence of Karabakh and who
believes that was the right policy," she said. "But it is impossible to
isolate two peoples and forbid them to communicate. How can you destroy
personal memories, how can you hate a loved one and not talk to them
because of political circumstances?

"In her last letter, she wrote that she was busy with her newborn child
and that she didn't have much time," she said. "I think that when she
has less to worry about, we will try to meet up - probably in a third

Firian and her Azerbaijani school friend are not the only people who
have benefited from the arrival of email and internet services. Most
prefer to be discreet about their contacts with the other side, but the
success of the BBC's "friends reunited" web forum for Karabakh
indicates there are many people renewing old contacts via the new
technology. Famil Ismailov, a BBC staffer who set up the service in
2004, told IWPR that it has helped at least 50 pairs of friends get back
in touch in the three years that it has been going.  

While the internet is now easily accessible in major towns, it remains a
dream for many Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the countryside. For these
people, the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, offers a
postal service that enables them to keep in touch with their friends.

The head of the ICRC's Karabakh office, Jacques Barberis, told IWPR that
in the last year his staff have sent more than 50 letters from Karabakh
to Azerbaijan, and received a similar number of replies. The letters are
written on special forms provided by the ICRC. 

Barberis said the service had two aims - to restore old contacts that
had been broken and to preserve existing ones. "The latter especially
concerns those people who live in remote villages where there are no
other means of communication," he said. 

In some cases however, political considerations have led to people
losing touch with loved ones left on the other side of the conflict

Tofik Aliev is one of only a tiny handful of Azerbaijanis who now live
in the overwhelmingly Armenian region of Karabakh. Now 66, he lives in
the village of Askeran with his Armenian wife, Valentina. 

Aliev told IWPR that he has not had any news of his seven brothers or
two sisters since 1990, and that despite his wife's encouragement, he
chooses not to be in touch with them or seek them out. 

"If I start to take an interest, it's possible that they will put
pressure on my relatives there, and that could harm them," said Aliev.
"Better if there is no news about me at all than that something bad
happens to them."

"I was working as a driver when I came to Askeran in November 1964 and
met Valentina," Aliev said. "We married in 1966 and began living in

"Tofik's parents and loved ones never did anything bad to me," said
Valentina. "We lived peacefully and in friendship and we used to visit
one another, until the Karabakh movement began."

After the movement to have Karabakh detached from what was then Soviet
Azerbaijan took off in 1988, the couple moved away from Karabakh to live
with Aliev's Azerbaijani family, but ill health subsequently forced
Valentina to return home. The couple were apart for eight months before
Tofik decided to return to Askeran. 

"My father always used to your family should not fall apart," he said.

The couple live in a small one-room apartment in Askeran, getting by on
a pension of 40,000 Armenian drams (120 US dollars) a month and the
fruit from their small orchard. Tofik's only complaint is that his wife
is such a big cat-lover that "she feeds them first, then me".

"Our only helper is God - and Tatul, who helps us when we need it," said
Aliev. "Tatul" is the mayor of Askeran, who is a friend of theirs.

Aliev said that when he starts missing his family he switches on
Azerbaijani television, which is still easily available in Karabakh
across the ceasefire line separating the two peoples.

Lusine Musaelian is a journalist with the Karabakhopen news service, and
Anahit Danielian is a correspondent with Demo newspaper in Nagorny
Karabakh. Both are members of IWPR's Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.

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