My first ‘first-hand’ understanding of what a war crime actually is dates back to April 2016, when I learned that my childhood friend had gone missing. A week later we were told that his body was among 18 bodies that had been returned to Armenia… tortured. All of them.
His body was returned with the head of a Yazidi soldier, Kyaram Sloyan, whose beheaded body had been returned and buried earlier.
I did not watch the videos that were shared on social networks at the time; I did not see Azat’s body, but just the memories of the descriptions I read and heard send a shiver down my spine even six years later.
The recently published videos of Azerbaijani war crimes that took place in Armenia during the two-day war shocked the world, prompting some of the harshest statements of condemnation from the West this conflict has seen.
Those videos were not, however, very shocking for Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
Both sides have seen a lot.
In terms of cruelty and trauma, the wars in 2020 and 2022 were a high-speed replication of what both nations went through during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, the pogroms prior to it, and the whole three-decade period of ‘peace’ that followed.
These traumas — and for us, the genetic memories of genocide too — are part of the national identities of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis.
But this time things look different.
Just as it seemed like the trauma might be about to start to be healed, with Azerbaijan claiming it had solved the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, securing access for IDPs to return to their homes, and Armenia’s authorities promising peace and stability ‘no matter what’, people were confronted with a video of the cold-blooded execution of Armenian captives.
The video came as a hard dose of reality for those who had allowed themselves to slide into optimism, and a surprise to those who had imagined that the hatred between Armenia and Azerbaijan was limited to the borders of Nagorno-Karabakh.
And war crimes outside the borders of the disputed territories were even more surprising for the rest of the world.
Two weeks after the attack, and after two weeks of equivocation from the EU special representative Toivo Klaar, the EU finally broke with its custom of trying to treat both sides equally, addressing Azerbaijan as the apparent aggressor in this case.
This position was stated first by the EU spokesperson, then by the High Representative Joseph Borrell. But after the unprecedented condemnations came a simple question from Borrell: ‘What more do you want us to do?’
Borrell asked this regarding Armenia’s approval and Azerbaijan’s refusal to have EU troops stationed on the border. He asked it after describing everything the EU had done or tried to do to achieve peace in the region.
There are many things that I, as someone from the region in question, could expect or hope for from the outside world and from powers like the US or EU.
Instead, on 28 September, the EU’s representative to the region offered only the idea that ‘peace cannot be forced’.
Peace, maybe, but the end of hostilities can and must be.
After all, the two countries will continue to be dealing with the aftermath of the conflict for at least another few decades, if not generations, after the guns stop shooting. Trauma, pain, and hatred cannot be overcome by EU mediation or UN peacekeeping missions.
That work has to be done by those ruling our countries, whether chosen or unchallenged, and by the people, who need to reach a place where they are not motivated by an underlying hatred of the other side.
Another thing I’ll never be able to remove from my memory is what another childhood friend’s teenage sister told me at his funeral in October 2020.
‘I’m glad he was not taken captive. Can you imagine what could’ve happened to him?’
I had nothing to say.
And I’m afraid I still fail to find an answer two years later.
(c) OC Media 2022