April marked the 2nd anniversary of four days of large-scale intense fighting in the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, known as the Four-Day War or the April Clashes. The violence that flared was the worst seen since the end of the war in 1994.
For people living near the line of contact – a militarised area that separates the conflicting sides – the conflict is still part of their daily lives. The danger of more violence breaking out has risen since the fighting took place two years ago, meaning there are many barriers to Armenians and Azeris finding common ground and building relationships.
International Alert’s Unheard Voices project gives journalists in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorny Karabakh the opportunity to share articles and stories about the lives of those affected by the conflict in a joint space. It gives ordinary people, suffering from the direct results of the ongoing conflict, a voice and shows the human side of the conflict – on the different sides of the divide. It allows readers to see the real faces hidden behind the images of ‘the enemy’, to view materials from all sides to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions.
“I want to make room for discussion”
Shahin Rzayev, Azerbaijani media expert for the project, has seen the benefits of sharing stories across the lines of conflict: “Of course it’s a pleasure for me to read articles from the other side of the conflict. Our articles have a lot in common. Human stories are very similar.”
Despite this Shahin has come across a few obstacles along the way:
“I’m often asked: aren’t you scared to scared to share Armenian articles on your page? I have always shared good articles from my Armenian colleagues."
Even if there is something in it I don’t agree with I want to make room for discussion.
The obstacles haven’t stopped Shahin as he wants to create a space for dialogue, “pieces I shared aroused interest and there was both criticism and approval,” and show that “the problems people face living in the conflict zone are almost a mirror image.” Creating dialogue between people who find themselves on different sides of a conflict helps to identify how resorting to violence affects everybody negatively.
How can the media promote peace?
The journalists post their articles in Russian on a joint Facebook page and in Armenian and Azeri through JAMNews, a regional online media agency, as well as through other mainstream agencies. Readers can follow and comment on the posts and share them with people they know. “Media can play a huge role in promoting peace and showing the human face and suffering from any conflict … to show that behind the words describing the conflict, there are people who have suffered, who just want to live,” says Armenian editor Seda Muradyan.
Seda adds: “Stories reflect the pain and struggles of people who survived the conflict. War usually starts suddenly and creates new realities in people s lives that become “new normal”. We observe that this “new normal” is common on all sides of the conflict.”
Seda would like to see the ethos of the project adopted by journalists in the region more widely to help promote peace and tolerance:
I would like to see media articles on the conflict in our regions that promote peace over war, media content that is detached from state propaganda.
“It’s easier to present your “opponent” as a monster”
By exposing the public to the human cost of the conflict, Unheard Voices hopes to encourage support for greater tolerance and understanding.
Georgian media expert Margarita Akhvlediani, tells us “during the long years of being in journalism, I have learned that nationalist conflicts are particularly dangerous because they leave a legacy of poisoned politics in which whole ethnic groups start being stereotyped. When societies are plunged into ethnic hatred toward each other, no progressive decisions can be implemented even if the confronting leaders eventually come to an agreement. At the same time, I’ve witnessed how dramatically people change their minds when given a chance to hear multifaceted and unbiased information. Sharing fairer and balanced information is a hard job to do. But I am afraid we won’t survive if nobody does it.”
The journalists aim to provoke greater public discussion on all sides of the conflict and encourage readers to share their own experiences and identify commonalities and challenges.
Sharing these experiences is important, explains Azerbaijani editor Aliya Haqverdi:
On both sides of the line of contact, people lose their loved ones; on both sides they suffer because of it. People have similar dreams, joys and woes, and their weaknesses are also similar.
Aliya goes on to say, “In a country where war continues no one wants to know “uncomfortable” and unpleasant things about the war. It’s easier for people to hide behind the image of the victim or that of the victor. Even fewer people want to feel what you feel when the enemy’s face turns out to be human. It’s easier to present your “opponent” as a monster. That’s why what we do in this project will never be in demand but necessary.”
Armenia media expert Mark Grigoryan expresses the need of this project and the unique role it plays, “the Unheard Voices platform is a rare example of professional communication between Armenians and Azerbaijanis."
The conflict is now in a particularly tense phase and maintaining any kind of relationships is becoming more difficult. Without this platform, journalists from the conflict societies would have nowhere to meet ‘live’.
Read some of the stories that were shared because of the Unheard Voices project: