Sharing the Pain of a War Jon Stewart Doesn't Remember

February 28, 2012

“I don’t even remember this war,” said comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show on February 13, 2012 after his interviewee mentioned the post-Soviet Armenian-Azerbaijani fight for the region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s, an unresolved conflict that has claimed tens of thousands lives and displaced over a million people.

If Stewart is reading this, he should visit to commemorate the victims of the war, especially since February was the worst month of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

February 26, 1988, saw the beginning of a pogrom targeting the Armenian population of the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait, arguably setting the stage for the war. Exactly four years later, Azerbaijani civilians were killed during the Armenian takeover of  the town of Khojaly in the largest massacre of the war. And on February 19, 2004, an Azerbaijani officer, displaced due to the war,  murdered his Armenian counterpart at a NATO training in Europe.

That was ten years after the 1994 ceasefire, which is still occasionally violated by sniper activity as official peace talks continue. Dehumanizing the other and rejecting the idea of compromise is the mainstream attitude among both sides. While both sides have committed atrocities, neither is willing to acknowledge responsibility for human rights violations. Azerbaijan sees Armenia as the aggressor since the latter won the war and controls the Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh, along with seven smaller regions, having displaced hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis. Making matters worse, Azerbaijan has been discriminating against the displaced, as a 2007 Amnesty International report documents.

Armenia, in turn, considers Azerbaijan the culprit for allowing riots and discrimination against Armenians, and for purportedly erasing the Armenian identity by, in part, systematically destroying ancient monuments. In December 2005, for instance, Azerbaijan’s army reduced the world’s largest and most celebrated medieval Armenian cemetery to dust. Our blog series on the subject document and analyze the destruction.

Interestingly, my father was among very few Armenians to see the remote cemetery during the Soviet years thanks to his Azerbaijani friends. The friends lost touch because of the war, and they are not the only ones. There is no business or travel relations between the two countries, although Armenians, who are Christian, and Azerbaijanis, who are Muslim, used to intermarry and share much of their traditional culture, from dances to dishes.

While both sides seem unready to acknowledge some cultural commonalities, one thing is impossible to deny: both sides have endured suffering and pain. This shared sorrow is often overlooked in the conflict rhetoric, mainstream narratives of the war, and what many in both societies call the “information war.”

There are other voices too. The Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation, devoted to paving foundation for sustainable peace, has just launched the Our Pain initiative, which I have contributed to, asking Facebook users to “like” the following commemorative message:

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has caused tens of thousands of deaths and brought suffering to many more people. While Armenian and Azerbaijani societies have fundamental disagreements related to the causes of the conflict and responsibility for it, the shared pain of all sides remains overlooked. We commemorate the victims of the conflict – known and unknown, recognized and unrecognized, remembered and forgotten. We mourn – for all of them – and share the pain.

The Nagorno-Karabakh war is worth remembering and commemorating, Mr. Stewart.