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SEARCHING FOR CONTEXT
Whenever I travel somewhere new, I like to do some background reading. Usually, this means picking up a book that gives me a flavour of the region and helps me put things in context. For example, before our holiday to Kefalonia, I re-read "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", which really brought Louis de Bernières characters and settings alive for me. Likewise, Lawrence Durrell's "Bitter Lemons" helped me to appreciate a side to Cyprus that is easy to miss amidst the sun, sea, sand and tourist glitz. With my sister's wedding in Yerevan fast approaching, I wanted to do the same for my forthcoming trip to Armenia. However, as an ethnic Armenian whose parents were intensely patriotic, I grew up with a better understanding than most about my culture and history. I wanted to find something that would give me a different perspective - a unique insight - into the homeland I was revisiting after a 23 year absence.
Then, by chance, I heard that several of the guests were going to make the arduous six hour overland journey from Nagorno-Karabakh to Yerevan for the wedding. I realised there was not much I really knew about the frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over this disputed enclave, other than the chest-thumping nationalistic rhetoric that I was exposed to in my own community. I had previously taken the Armenian "version of events" at face value, but having trained as a lawyer (and spent time working as a journalist) I was determined to do find out more on my own terms. A friend working in the Foreign Office suggested "Black Garden: Armenia & Azerbaijan Through Peace & War" by Thomas de Waal as a balanced analysis with no obvious ethnic bias.
I had never heard of Thomas de Waal and needed some convincing that his "definitive account" was worth taking seriously. The subject matter easily lends itself to bias and propaganda, so I wanted to satisfy myself that the author was going to be objective and had no obvious hidden agenda. I needn't have worried. As a journalist and a writer, de Waal has reported for a number of well established news agencies, including the BBC, The Times and The Economist. He is a specialist on the Caucasus, having co-written an award winning book on the conflict in Chechnya, and until recently, served as the Caucasus Editor of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in London. Despite his exotic surname, de Waal is British and an Oxford University graduate.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a small, mountainous region that - prior to the independence of both Armenia & Azerbaijan in 1991 - had a predominantly ethnic Armenian population. The Azeri community, though much smaller in size, was vibrant and well-established. The regional capital, Stepanakert, was an important cultural and historic centre for both cultures. In fact, the conflict over this thickly forested and mountainous region, characterised by picture book gorges and beautiful vistas, is all the more remarkable for the distinct lack of local animosity between the two ethnic groups that inhabited it. However, events elsewhere turned this small corner of the world into a battleground for the political ambitions of much larger players and resulted in a humanitarian tragedy that easily matches any other in the latter twentieth century.
THE BLACK (& WHITE)
The media likes to portray things in black and white, and the conflict over this region was reported simplistically, as an ethnic and religious conflict (Azeri's are Muslim, Armenians are Orthodox Christian). However, the reasons that brought these two Caucasian neighbours to open, armed conflict are much more complex. Black Garden tries to, and largely succeeds in digging beneath the propaganda, tub-thumping and grandstanding to explore the origins and history of the conflict, the attempts at resolving it, and the tremendous human cost it exacted on both sides. The book is impressive for its rigour, insight and analysis and has clearly been meticulously researched.
Difficult as it is to be truly objective about the subject (my father characteristically dismissed it as hopelessly biased) I found it quite well balanced. No one with nationalistic leanings likes reading about the darker side of human nature, especially when the perpetrators are compatriots, but de Waal provides enough context and background to make these unsavoury episodes understandable, if not excusable. His writing style is engaging and conversational - a huge improvement on the overly academic and sometimes stuffy narrative of other writers on the subject. In fact, in some places, the book reads like a novel, making an otherwise obscure and difficult subject matter accessible to a much wider audience, without diminishing any of its emotional and historical impact - a testament to de Waal's ability as a writer.
Black Garden is interspersed with first hand accounts and narratives from a very wide range of people involved in the conflict - national leaders, front-line soldiers, survivors of atrocities, refugees, intellectuals and foreigners working toward a resolution of the conflict. Each provides a unique perspective into the psychology (and sometimes rhetoric) of a conflict between two sides which, since the late eighties, have cleverly manipulated newly inflamed nationalistic fervour (born from the ashes of the disintegrating Soviet Union) to create a version of history that supports their cause, and defend their (sometimes indefensible) actions. Almost twenty years on, resolution of the conflict is no closer (hence the use of the term "frozen conflict") with sporadic cross-border shooting incidents that continue to deprive both sides of sons and fathers.
A TROUBLING LEGACY
The only thing that is abundantly clear is the devastation and tragedy inflicted on ordinary people. Even statistics are heavily disputed, but de Waal does his best to wade through the masses of propaganda to arrive at a close approximation of the truth. It is estimated that the conflict has left 25,000 dead, but the greater human cost lies in the number of displaced persons and refugees - around 350,000 Armenians fled Azerbaijan for Russia and Armenia, with approximately 750,000 Azeri's displaced from Armenia, a majority of which are still living in refugee camps in Azerbaijan.
There is no doubt that, relatively speaking, Armenians have "done better" out of the conflict than the Azeri's, and the reasons (which are many) for this success are carefully and thoroughly explored in the book. Their military success means that roughly five percent of Azeri territory (Nagorno-Karabakh itself, the "buffer zone" around it and a land bridge between the enclave and Armenia) remains in Armenian hands, and it is unlikely this will change any time soon. In an ironic twist, the Armenian strategy mirrors one of the other long-running conflicts in Europe - the occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkey. In both cases, the occupied area has declared independence - a status not recognised by anyone in the international community other than the "liberator", and both seem to prove the adage "possession is nine-tenths of the law" - i.e. the longer the occupation, the stronger the occupier's hand becomes in any subsequent negotiations.
BRILLIANT OR BIASED?
Black Garden was both a difficult and enlightening read for me. After finishing the book, I was disappointed in myself for not having sought out a more balanced view of the conflict other than what I had read and heard from my own community. Although I read most of it with the pinch of salt that necessarily comes from having Armenian blood, and don't necessarily agree with all of his views and conclusions, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his views. Unsurprisingly, the book was better received in the international community than by either of the combatants in the conflict - both of which predictably argued that the narrative was biased and favoured the other side. However, there is one conclusion he draws that seems intuitive and futile to argue against - this unresolved conflict is equally damaging to both sides, and he goes so far as to call it a "kind of slow suicide pact".
Having recently visited Armenia myself, the effects of economic deprivation - caused by the closed borders and lack of trade with both Turkey and Azerbaijan - is having a visible and appreciable impact on the country's economic development. At around 300 pages (including footnotes, annexes, black and white plates, bibliography and index) the book doesn't take long to get through despite the nature of the topic. For students of history, the curious, the involved, or anyone else who wants a well-balanced and broadly objective commentary that makes sense out of the complexity of this knotty Caucasian problem, Black Garden is a perfect starting point. You won't be disappointed.
Black Garden: Armenian and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War
Thomas de Waal
New York University Press (2004)
Available on Amazon.com for £14.24 (free delivery)
© Hishyeness 2010