It was a cold winter night on February 28, 1988 when someone knocked on Gular’s door in Sumgayit, a large, industrial city north of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. The 40-year-old Azerbaijani woman was at home alone with her children. When she opened the door, she saw her Armenian neighbors; their faces pale, their hands shaking.
“Anya, Sveta, Aida and their children. They asked me ‘Can we stay here tonight with you? Just one night, we’ll leave early in the morning.’ I was scared, too. I asked what is going on, but they didn’t know what was happening exactly. Just that ‘Armenian families were being searched.’”
On February 28-29, 1988, a wave of violence in Sumgayit left 26 ethnic Armenians and six ethnic Azerbaijanis dead, international media reported. The bloodshed occurred amidst growing tensions in Armenia and Azerbaijan, then both Soviet republics, over Nagorno Karabakh, an Azerbaijani region whose ethnic Armenian population had called for annexation by the neighboring Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.
The clashes in Sumgayit prompted the flight of almost all of the city’s estimated 14,000 ethnic Armenians as well as that of thousands of others elsewhere in Azerbaijan, Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert at the London-based think tank Carnegie Europe, has written in “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War.” Though views about what actually caused the violence vary, it made clear that the peaceful coexistence between these two peoples in Azerbaijan had ended.
At the time, though, this was still inconceivable to many. There were people who helped protect their Sumgayit neighbors, friends and acquaintances from the violence. Seventy-year-old Gular is one of them.
“They were our neighbors,” she says of the three Armenian women and their children she sheltered that night in 1988. “We had raised our children together, we laughed and cried together, but, most importantly, those people had not done anything bad to us.”
As the night wore on, none of the women slept, continues Gular. (Her last name has been withheld to protect her security.)
“Anya talked about the crowd outside and worried about her children. Sveta tried to figure out from her husband where they would go. And I was as scared as my neighbors. I experienced such stress!”
“That was how we spent the night. All of us quietly in that small room. We hugged our knees and sat that way until the morning. I told them they could stay however long you want, but they responded, ‘We must go sooner or later.’”
At around 5am, she remembers, “[w]e hugged and cried and they left.”
And simply disappeared. Gular has not heard about or from her Armenian neighbors since then. Her son searched for them online, using Facebook, but to no avail.
Mementos of her vanished neighbors remain among her personal things. She keeps a crystal vase that Aida once gave her as a gift. And the clothes that Aida, a seamstress, created for free for Gular, her son and for school children in the neighborhood.
“She never wanted to take payment from us. And we used to bring presents from our region [in Nagorno Karabakh] to her. I haven’t thrown out any skirt or dress that Aida sewed for me. They’re as fresh as if they were sewn yesterday . . .”
In those days, she adds, “We could not conceive that such a conflict would arise in the future.”
Kamo, Aida’s son, liked photography and Gular still has photos he took of their times together before the war.
“He immortalized our good days, holidays and birthday parties. Having a photo camera was not easy back then. How can these [events] be forgotten? We lived it together.”
The relationship between Gular’s family and her Armenian neighbors reflected the melting pot that was her overall neighborhood until the late 1980s, she fondly recalls. Back then, ethnic differences between Russians, Jews, Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis and Armenians did not matter, she says.
“It was rare to ask someone, ‘Where are you from?’ I remember three Armenians and several Russian families livedin the same building with us. We did not know the difference. We were all neighbors.”
Her children always went over to the apartment of Aida and her husband, Artush, to watch the only color TV in the building, she says. “No one said to them ‘Don’t sit there, don’t sit here!’ Nowadays, such patience toward someone else’s children when they come in is rare.”
At the Azerbaijani celebration of spring, Novruz, her children and their Armenian friends “used to color and break boiled eggs together [a Novruz tradition], while we were chatting,” she continues. “Sveta’s sweetmeats were amazing; she was very skilled at preparing this. They were guests at our wedding parties. [And] we stood next to each other in mutual support at funerals. A good meal wasn’t truly palatable unless we shared it with our neighbors.”
Gular still struggles to make sense of the loss of that community. She believes the conflict has political roots and is not the fault of either ordinary Azerbaijanis or Armenians.
“I always say God’s curse on the creators of this war! What’s gone are our neighbors and our youth itself. All we’ve lost is community and friendship,” she laments.
Gular herself later moved to another part of Sumgayit. Sometimes, though, she goes back to her old neighborhood, where she and her Armenian friends once lived together.
“I go there and look up at our balconies and windows. Other people look out of the windows that once were mine, Aida’s, Sveta’s and Anya’s. Just a few old neighbors remain to meet me there.”
“Everything happened so quickly that we even didn’t know who got their apartment. Was it exchanged or sold? Or did other people come and settle into their apartments? I don’t know…
After talking for a while, Gular suddenly falls silent.
“We live in such a period that I’m scared to say I had good neighbors. The situation is so strange that it’s hard to accept,” she adds.
The war has ended the free exchange between both people and places that once was taken for granted.
Gular, whose brother died in the fighting, can no longer visit her native district of Jabrayil in Karabakh, now located behind Armenian army lines.
Despite the horrors of the conflict, she still believes she did the right thing that night in February 1988. In war, she stresses, most ordinary people are innocent.
“Sometimes I am told, ‘Armenians occupied your district. How come you miss your Armenian neighbors?”
She shakes her head; her answer simple but profound: “It is not their fault.”