Some must reading (and viewing) for Caucasus watchers arrived in my inbox a few days ago: the latest edition of Conflict Voices. This multimedia project is the brainchild of Onnik Krikorian, a British-Armenian photojournalist, writer, and blogger. The first phase of the project was published on TOL about a year and half ago (more on that at the bottom of this post), and it’s impressive where Onnik and his contributors have taken things since then with a wide range of amazing photos, reportage, and analysis.
In an introduction to the latest publication, Thomas De Waal, one of the leading experts on this part of the region, lays out the importance of Onnik’s work:
Anyone who works with the conflicts of the Caucasus learns to live with contradiction. If you watch state media in Armenia or Azerbaijan or hear some politicians speak, you could believe that these two nations are implacable enemies on the verge of war. One Azerbaijani friend told me that nowadays whenever he hears the word “fascist” he expects to hear the word “Armenian” attached to it. In many ways the modern identities of independent Armenia and Azerbaijan and of the small statelet of Nagorny Karabakh are defined by rejection and hatred of the other…
We hear far too little of what I call this “third narrative” of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, a narrative of peace. It spins the idea that the two peoples are capable of getting along fine, have lived together in the past and, if politicians are able to overcome differences on the Karabakh conflict, can live together in the future. International mediators are too timid to speak this narrative or feel that it is not their business. The media in both countries suppresses it.
This is why I congratulate Onnik Krikorian for the work he has done over the past few years, both in print and in images, and which is published here. He has given a voice to these alternative points of view and given a vivid picture of the different and much more positive Armenian-Azerbaijani reality that still exists in ordinary people and in Georgia.
I couldn’t remember how Onnik had gotten hooked on telling this other version of the conflict so I asked him. Here’s his reply:
Well, the idea really came about after fixing for Michael Andersen’s Armenia and Karabakh legs of his Al Jazeera English People & Power documentary on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. When he told me about the school in Tsopi, Georgia, where ethnic Armenians and Azeris study together it naturally arose my interest. So, as my work for Global Voices had led me to connect with many Azerbaijanis, when I met up with two journalism students from Baku then studying at GIPA in Tbilisi I mentioned this and they jumped at the idea of visiting and using new media tools to report on this otherwise rarely reported on situation. Since then, in addition to Tbilisi Azeri tea houses which are frequented by both Armenians and Azeris, it’s just naturally grown.
This year alone I’ve traveled to Tsopi and other locations with a mixed population with two other Azerbaijanis while I’ve also become aware of other traditional initiatives such as those by Georgi Vanyan to undertake peace building initiatives in the area.
All in all, using social media to communicate and cooperate online across closed borders and geographical divides, the online media to publish materials from this work, and meeting up with friends and colleagues from Azerbaijan in Georgia, it’s been an incredible and refreshing two and half years indeed. What’s also interesting and encouraging about it all is that it’s been largely unfunded although I’m very grateful to the British Embassy for a very modest 500 UK Pounds travel grant and Transitions Online for commissioning several pieces from the first initial stage. Since then, however, it’s been totally unfunded and has relied on the dedication and enthusiasm of those involved.
A few of the pieces that appeared on TOL from the first phase of Onnik’s project can be viewed here:
Common Ground, 12 January 2010 (audio slide show)
Cup of Kindness, 19 January 2010 (podcast)
Class Struggle, 28 January 2010 (podcast).