Counting Genocide (City of Winds)

Conflict and nationalism and the meaning of 613 dead in Azerbaijan.

Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo by Flickr user teuchterladSunday morning.

It is late February 2012. In the front seat of a butch SUV, black (of course) is a local driver and a translator-guide — providing transportation to the airport, courtesy of the hosts of the theater festival in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. The “Land of Fire.”

The way is not smooth; this street is blocked, then that street, then another. The driver curses (in Azeri probably, though possibly Russian). A long line of people fills the crosswalk in front of us, mostly formal in dress and solemn in manner. The driver mutters, and shifts (both his gears and the car’s); now it’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride — weaving on and off sidewalks, screeching U-turns, barreling down the wrong side of the street.

The guide-cum-representative of our host country (ethnically Muslim, much hospitality) is a soothing contrast to the manic aggression of the driver. He explains the thousands of people are part of a march commemorating a tragedy 375 kilometers and 10 years away in a city called Khojaly.

The previous Thursday afternoon.

We’re taken on a tour of the city, beginning with a multi-memorial park on a hill overlooking both the Caspian Sea as well as the not-quite-completed auditorium for the next Eurovision singing competition. (The Azeris had won the previous year.) Martyr’s Lane, near the entrance, honors citizens murdered in the fighting when the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, a time known as Black January.

We speak softly and respectfully near solemn locals with bright red carnations (dispersed from a car trunk by a man with hair, mustache, and suit all equally black and shiny) to lay at the markers, horizontal like graves (they probably are graves), photos etched on a marble wall, the lane stretching maybe a hundred meters. At the end is a tall stone monument with strongly-burning eternal flame and to the left and down some steps a cemetery for other national heroes — the same ground where the corpses from the 1918 Battle of Baku were removed by the Bolsheviks to turn the site into an amusement park. It was restored as a memorial following Black January.

One of the guides asks several of us if we are moved by what we’ve seen — the graves, the line of pictures, the flame. He asks several times.

Saying yes seems more gracious. Yet I am not moved, not at all.

That evening, thoughts return to that non-reaction. Is it because there’s neither a personal connection nor an easy empathetic hook? (The Plexiglas-covered pencil marks charting the growth of the sisters in the Anne Frank House causes a grief-shudder even years later.) Or is it a variation on the truism supposedly voiced by Stalin, that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths merely a statistic?

Sunday, a few kilometers later.

The scene at the memorial and the mourners at Martyr’s Lane scream back into focus as the SUV accelerates onto the freeway. The earnest young man in the front seat speaks more of the significance of this day in 1992, its importance based on the slaughter of civilians fleeing Khojaly — massacred this time by Armenians, not Soviets.

What happened was a genocide, he says. Surely it was, don’t you think?

There is a long silence.

Six weeks previously.

Our Azeri hosts, arranging for our visas, ask if any in our party have Armenian ancestry or passports. If so, they will not be allowed in Azerbaijan.

The demand is outrageous, especially when the one person with a Greek name in our group is temporarily targeted. Our trip is for art, for theater — for children, no less.

Minimal research makes plain the wounds between the Armenians and Azeris are deep and long-standing, with violence exploding after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Khojaly is merely a recent chapter — a tragedy transformed into a rhetorical cudgel in an age-old conflict over religion, power, and who can claim a patch of ground as their homeland.

In the SUV, the young man has not been answered.

The skeleton of the story of Khojaly is clear, but the numbers of dead are still disputed. The count ranges from 161 (say the Armenians) to 613 (say the Azeris). There are also accusations of ethnic cleansing and mutilation of women and children.

Still. Six hundred thirteen. Light-years fewer than the 800,000 machete-hacked by the Hutus in Rwanda, or the 6 million murdered in the Holocaust, or the 7 million forced-starved in the Holodomor in Ukraine by Stalin (see above).

The question appears, electric and buzzy like neon, yet icy in its detachment: Just how many make a genocide, anyway?

The SUV is nearing the airport. It’s a crisp and sunny morning with the wild Kzary wind blowing from the north over the Caspian Sea through Baku, the City of Winds, where everyone has been gracious, welcoming, and as warm as one could ever hope. It seems the wrong context for parsing the quantification of a horrible tragedy. (Or massacre.) (Or genocide.)

Because the earnest young man in the SUV and his countryman back at the memorial park seem to be, underneath all the nationalism, chest-thumping, and culture clash, asking the same question to a near-stranger: Will you acknowledge our grief, name it as we do, share it just a bit?

The (mostly non-) response is a sympathetic mumble, too stuck in a hamster-wheel of history and politics and defining intent to realize they both might have had family killed. And even if they hadn’t, how would that make the murders any less senseless? These are national wounds (something we Americans came to understand in September 2001). The dead are still dead, and their families and countries grieve.

In the back of the SUV, back spasms dart up the spine — either from the hotel bed or from the disconnect between what I feel and what my empathetic depths think I should feel. It is ephemeral yet dimensional, ghosting between politics and people, between clarity and cliché and impossible to reconcile (quickly, if ever) because it also hovers between humanity and history.

On the sidewalk at the airport.

Suitcases are unloaded from the SUV, thanks are sent to all the hosts with hopes to someday, Insha’Allah, return. At the door of the terminal, turning to wave goodbye, as the winter sun rays slant and the Kzary gusts hard and clean.

Article © 2013 by Kim Peter Kovac