Armenian and Azeri women seek inspiration in peace process

Group spends four days in Belfast as it looks to break the deadlock in ‘frozen’ conflict

People are reflected in a banner depicting ‘1915/1.5 million’, the year and the number of victims of mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, in Yerevan. Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

People are reflected in a banner depicting ‘1915/1.5 million’, the year and the number of victims of mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, in Yerevan. Photograph: David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

 

As Armenia marks a century since its people suffered genocide, a group of its women – inspired by Northern Ireland’s peace process – is trying to break the deadlock in a “frozen” conflict with Azerbaijan that threatens to reignite.

Fighting has intensified in recent months around Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnic-Armenian region that split from Azerbaijan in a 1988-94 war that killed some 30,000 people and drove more than one million from their homes.

Sporadic clashes have continued since the war, and international mediation has failed to bring Armenia and Azerbaijan to a formal peace deal.

This week, Azerbaijan said its forces killed five Armenian soldiers and injured about 10 others when they were attacked near the region; Nagorno-Karabakh’s authorities, who are financially and militarily supported by Armenia, denied suffering any casualties and said one Azeri soldier had died in the clash.

Bellicose rhetoric

With political contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan tense and infrequent, a few women are fighting the tide of fear and anger and talking to the “enemy”.

A group of 11 women from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh recently spent four days in Belfast, where they met Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Maguire and Monica McWilliams, who took part in the talks that forged the Good Friday Agreement.

“It was a great learning experience for us, to hear how Northern Ireland dealt with religious problems, territorial issues, hatred and violence,” said Knarik Mkrtchyan of the Women’s Resource Centre Armenia. “We took Northern Ireland as an example of how women can positively affect a conflict and help bring about a resolution.”

The women face massive challenges: Armenia and Azerbaijan are male-dominated societies in which few women have prominent public roles, and in addressing Nagorno-Karabakh they are touching upon an explosive issue.

While Ms Mkrtchyan says the Armenian security services have inquired about her work, the stakes are particularly high for Azeri participants in such peace dialogue, due to the country’s dismal rights record.

Social media

“But we have to overcome the black propaganda and hatred and make human contact. Our borders are closed, and we have no way to meet easily. With discussions on Skype and face-to-face meetings, this is how we open doors,” she said.

“Soldiers and civilians are still dying around Nagorno-Karabakh. People are sick and tired of it. The vast majority of Armenians don’t want another war, and I believe Azeris feel the same.”