When two people love each other, usually neither of them think about the other’s nationality. They focus on the chemistry between them – not on nationalism or patriotism. But people can’t live separated from their own surroundings or environment, and often don’t want to, either.
Couples from nations in conflict with one another find themselves in a rather problematic situation that can be risky, challenging and sometimes dangerous.
And everyone has their own way of dealing.
What is it like to fall in love with and marry the ‘enemy’? Our group of reporters in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia tried to paint a picture to help our readers understand.
I ran from there, because I didn’t want to hear them calling me ‘Armenian’.
She’s about 40 years old, blonde, tall, white – a soft-skinned woman. Her husband is German and they live in Europe. She has a daughter.
She was born in Baku, where she grew up. Her father is Azerbaijani, and her mother is Armenian. It wasn’t easy for her to talk about her story because since the conflict started, she has carried a number of bad memories with her:
”My father and mother got married without their family’s permission. Both sides wanted them to marry people from their own [ethnic] side, but my father and mother were truly in love and they got married anyway. After my sister and I were born, my father’s family cared for and loved my mother more than they did their own. My mother’s family felt the same, too…”
The family was living in peace until the Karabakh War began. Sofia and her sister didn’t have any problem with their mother’s nationality until then:
“At that time, I didn’t even know who was which ethnicity in our school or classes, or that of any of my friends. Everything happened in almost one day. All the Armenians became enemies via an ’unspoken agreement’. It surprised and scared me a lot at the time. I was 12 or 13 years old, but I already knew that these preconceptions were ridiculous. My mother, who was a native of Baku and had never been to Armenia, became a ‘useless person to society’ over night.
I formed a permanent, constant sense of sin and fear…because I had joined the side of the enemy without having any say in the matter… If someone pointed at me and asked, ‘why are you blonde, white-skinned? Aren’t you a real, clean Azerbaijani?’
I was afraid. I lied often about my ethnicity: ‘I’m real Azerbaijani and my mother is Russian,’ I told them. I was compelled to do it…”
But according to her ethnically Armenian mother, while Azerbaijanis harassed or attacked the Armenian community, other Azerbaijanis protected them:
“I remember we were going to pick up my mother’s two sisters in my father’s car. They lived in a different area of town, both of them single. Those were worrisome days. We were bringing them to our home. Some people were running behind our car and throwing stones at us…
Fortunately, my mother was never attacked. Our neighborhood consisted of people who were old friends and neighbors and their older relatives.
Even when they started coming through the different neighborhoods and profiling people by their last names, we were lucky. By a miracle, we got through it… My aunts hid in our home for a couple of months, then left. All their belongings—they left everything they owned behind...”
In the beginning, it was very difficult for Sofia’s mother. She was on self-inflicted house arrest:
”My mother didn’t leave the house for two years. She didn’t even go shopping. Before the conflict, she was a teacher. In 1988 when the conflict started, she quit her job. My father took care of us. He worked two jobs.”
Changes didn’t only affect Sofia’s family; her neighborhood totally changed. There was an influx from Karabakh to Baku. Azerbaijanis, Jews and sometimes Russians were leaving, and Sofia’s family got new neighbors…
“The new neighbors didn’t like us. We had cultural differences which caused difficulties in day-to-day life. For example, there was a plant growing in our yard and its leaves touched the new neighbor’s window. They began screaming and went berserk. We eventually all became enemies. They seriously hated us. It was very difficult for me and my sister to go into the courtyard or to speak with other people. We were always scared they would taunt us and call us ‘Armenians’.
“My father was insulted and ridiculed for marrying my mother in the passport office one day…and he died shortly after.”
Through tears, Sofia recounted the story of her family’s tragedy, which took place when she was just 16:
“My father was a very emotional, intellectual, deep and sensitive person. If only he had been more careful… Everything could have been different. We were living in constant fear… To me, he was afraid more than we were, because he felt responsible for his wife and children, but he was helpless. He used to love Baku very much. He used to say, even though they wanted to kick us out of here, nothing could force him to leave… It’s very difficult to keep all these memories inside
“I was 16, and was now eligible for a passport. We went to the passport office. There was a man on duty there… He had a mustache and a big stomach and he was beaming with self – contentment and arrogance. He addressed my father as if he was nothing but a farmer, and treated him like a guilty little boy. The conversation was simple: its essence focussed on just one thing – why did you marry an Armenian?
“My father stood in front of him and answered his every question with a look of guilt on his face. I knew how emotional he was and how much he worried about us. I could imagine this situation was tearing him apart inside… The conversation went on too long. I was standing beside my father and thinking, ‘the first chance I get, I will kill this man.’ I was 16… I even remembered this man’s last name.
“Some time later, my father had a heart attack. I lost my father when I was 16. He couldn’t handle all these difficult things anymore…”
At 18, Sofia began working. She was a skilled tailor. Moreover, her father had been a respected person in their society, thanks to which she was able to find a job. But her mother’s ethnicity followed her everywhere:
“There was a man who I had been friends with for four years. Ironically, he was a refugee from Karabakh. His family hated everything about Armenians because they had lost their relatives in the war. I understood the suffering of these people, but I also understood that I should feel no guilt for being half Armenian, half Azerbaijani. But the guilt never left me.”
In such marriages, sometimes children are the real victims:
According to psychologist Elmir Akbar, children of parents whose nations are at war often bear the difficulties and hardships of their parents’ relationship.
Society can be very cruel to children. Neighbors or relatives may insult them or put them down, or mock one of the parents so as to disgrace them in the eyes of the child. Even grandparents are capable of such behavior, and it can be very damaging to a child psychologically”
”Just one sentence could silence me—your mother is an Armenian!”
Sofia has lived in Europe for 11 years. Her mother stayed behind in Baku, despite everything. Sofia says her mother’s loving character triumphed over her origins.
”Our relatives love her, despite everything. Interestingly, they say, ‘we love your mother, but all of the Armenians are our enemies’.” Over time, Sofia has made peace with this situation:
“Yes, I have found peace. When I was a child, I wanted to kill them for how they acted. Now, I know there are many of them. I can’t hate all of them. I am my own person, and I have learned not to let their hate into my heart. When you try to act normal and interact with people who have nothing to do with this conflict, they immediately try to find something Armenian about you. I will never argue about who is to blame. It’s got nothing to do with my bloodline. But just one thing shuts me down—your mother is an Armenian!”
If things had been different…
In 2005, Sofia left Baku. She tried to find her destiny and future somewhere where she wouldn’t feel sickened when she was called ‘an Armenian’…
”If I didn’t have this complex about my ethnicity, I could have been much more confident and open in life. My mind wouldn’t have changed, but they wouldn’t have been able to shut me up and taunt me so easily about my mother being Armenian. This is the kind of slur that crushed everything I wanted in my life into little pieces. Because of this, I ran away.”
Anna is Abkhaz. She is 55 years old, but looks young for her years and remains very active in public life. This happy, graceful woman was born and raised in Sukhumi. She met her future husband there, too. There is nothing Abkhaz about her husband or his family, but that means nothing to Anna or her family – their relationship is more important to them than the war.
Anna says that her family is a mix of Georgians and Abkhaz, with Georgian and Abkhaz blood on both sides of the family.
But when the war began, all of them felt the need to take sides.
“My husband’s relatives on his mother’s side are Abkhaz, and they wanted to fight for ‘their people.’ Some of my relatives decided to fight for the Abkhaz side as well. And naturally, some of the Georgians in our family decided to fight for the Georgian side.
All of this of course seriously affected our relationship: trust between family members was lost. Everyone had a different experience during the war that affected how they related to the family unit afterwards.
Abkhaz people are a small community. Everyone knew Anna’s husband was Georgian. Although Anna tried to explain he had nothing to do with the war with the Abkhaz and that he was not guilty. The family situation was getting more difficult with each passing day. Arguments with relatives arose with the differing points of view…
After the war, the family moved to Tbilisi, because staying in Abkhazia was too difficult for Anna and her husband, Otari. Not to mention their mixed children…
“We didn’t know anyone there. Tbilisi was a totally foreign place to us. I never hid that I was Abkhaz and I was able to withstand the pressure. Fortunately, Georgians showed a considerable amount of tolerance to Abkhaz migrants because we choose to live there and they treat us like ‘their own Abkhaz.’ In all of the years we lived in Georgia, just twice did I ever feel offended. The first time was when I brought my children to the hospital. I started speaking Russian. The receptionist began yelling at me when she figured out that I was Abkhaz, but another woman in front of me defended me. She told the other woman, ‘the war started with Abkhazia because of nationalists like you.
“The second time was when I went to get social assistance. At that time, they were giving everything to immigrants, but when they learned I was Abkhaz, some of them objected. ‘We lost our loved ones there, and this person came here to get help anyway,’ they said. They said, ‘you have no right to be here,’ but there was someone there who spoke up for me then, too.”
Anna says they raised their children in a mixed culture, but in reality, they are Georgian…
“My husband speaks to them in Georgian, and I speak to them in Russian. They have never hidden that they’re Abkhaz. They want to see Abkhazia very much. Not to live there, but as tourists. We keep in touch with our relatives by internet and phone.”
Despite strong love and loyalty between Anna and her family, they have differences, too.
“We had been living well when the USSR started to crumble, despite the fact that my husband had always criticized the USSR. He was happy to support Gamsakhurdia’s actions at the time. He believed it was a good thing for Georgia…
“War knocked on our door in the form of a referendum. In that referendum, people had to vote in favor or against the USSR. I voted in favor of an alliance because the new government, thinking that if it weren’t an alliance, issues of nationalist aspirations would become highly problematic. ‘Georgia for Georgians’ was the slogan of Gamsakhurdia’s followers. I was worried about my children, so my vote [against Gamsakhurdia] was a blow to my husband. It was the first time we had a real difference of opinion. I viewed Zviad (Gamsakhurdia) as a fascist – but my husband wouldn’t accept it. It was the moment I discovered that my soul mate had a different opinion than me. It was weird for him, too.”
Despite their differing opinions, they succeed in saving their family in this environment.
Anna’s husband refused to become a soldier:
“You could have locked me up or shot me, I wasn’t about to fight in that war because half of my family are Abkhaz. We had always said that our family and children came first. Whatever our political opinion was was irrelevant. If anything were to go wrong, we’d be there for each other – not for the politicians. We figured this out after we had a bad argument. We had a fight, and we resolved it in a peaceful way. This problem lasted until the end of the war, and the solution was found years later when we moved to Tbilisi.”
When asked if she knew of any other families with a similar make – up, Anna responded:
“Yes, I do. There aren’t a lot of them here. They’re immigrants like me or their husbands bring them here. Some of them have broken up. Those who had a strong relationship survived the war. War makes a weak relationship even weaker. There are some women whose husbands went to fight. They suffered much more. It’s a very deep pain for those families. Their relationships with their relatives in Abkhazia were almost destroyed, too. They accused these women of being traitors in Abkhazia, but even after the war, Georgian-Abkhaz marriages happen in Abkhazia. Mostly, Abkhaz men marry Georgian women.”
But despite all those tough years and problems, Anna hasn’t changed her mind. She’s still sure if you want to marry the person you love, you shouldn’t focus on their nationality.
Anna has a 28 year old daughter who works in advertising. Her 29 year old son works in construction. They are both single, but it’s not a problem for Anna if her children get married to someone of a different nationality.
“When you decide to marry a person, nationality is not the reason. Personality is the deciding factor. Most importantly are his or her values and whether they coincide to a degree with yours. I think marrying someone specifically for their ethnicity is silly.”
“…Neither Georgian nor Abkhaz society would totally accept those people or trust them.” – an expert’s opinion
Elene Natenadze has been working with a peace – building organization for more than 10 years. According to her, Georgian-Abkhaz families made up 40% of the total population of mixed families in Abkhazia. This number is telling, she says. According to her, in the restoration of peace between the two nations, there is often mention of how mixed marriages are useful, but this is clearly untrue.
“The members of a mixed family avoid entering into discussions in order to avoid raising tensions. At present, Abkhaz families from Sukhumi which have no foreign members act skeptical to mixed Abkhaz families living in Tbilisi’s immigrant areas.
Abkhaz people trust ethnicity. They don’t trust ‘foreign family members’ and don’t give them stature or a position of authority. Having a foreigner in the family creates a feeling of insecurity to a native Abkhaz person. Actually, neither Georgian nor Abkhaz societies would accept those outsiders as their own, or trust them,” says Natenadze.
According to the Director of the Caucasus Institute for Regional Security, Aleksander Rusetski, conflict negatively affects the family dynamic in mixed marriages. These marriages have become rarer due to the war.
“We can divide these family members into categories; first—they’re indifferent to the conflict, that is, the conflict doesn’t affect them very much. Second—they obstruct peacekeeping efforts. Sometimes these family members feel ethnically alienated and may act aggressively and destructively. As the saying goes, they can become more Catholic than the Pope. There’s a third category, too—they believe they are the special envoy between the two cultures and feel honored by the position. These people try to use their origins for the betterment of society at large as well as their own ethnic group. We have been studying the potential of these ‘peacekeepers’ and how to use those resources, to figure out how to convert them into conflict – resolution sources,” says Rusetski.
“I didn’t change anything; neither my Azerbaijani surname nor my country, Armenia.”
Felix is a dedicated athletics coach from Armenia. He is 77 years old, blue eyed and tall. Felix lives in Etchmiatzin, 20 km outside of Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. His wife, Julietta, grows colorful flowers in their garden. He has a barbell next to his Mulberry tree. Every day at 6 o’clock, Felix does his morning exercises there.
On his work desk, magazines, albums, newspapers a lot of medals and awards can be seen, including books by Sigmund Freud.
There is a corner in Felix’s house where he lovingly keeps his family’s portrait. His mother, Yepraksya Danielyan and his father… Asker Aliyev…
Felix Aliyev is half Azerbaijani.
For the last 46 years, Felix Aliyev has worked at a weight lifting school in Geghanist village, which is five kilometers away from Etchmiatzin. He has 50 students. He has trained a few generations of students. He has trained 34 professional sportsmen, 8 international sportsmen, and candidates to become professional athletes.
When Felix Aliyev starts talking about his own story, his tears make his blue eyes bluer than normal…
“My father’s side is Iranian Azerbaijani. My father was a famous clarinet player. They knew him very well and respected him in Etchmiatzin. They hired him for weddings, birthdays, funerals,” he recalls. He has still kept his father’s musical instruments.
Felix Aliyev’s wife, 68 years old, Julieta Yenokyan, is Armenian. She has an elegant profile, radiates serenity and her eyes always smile. They invited us to a cup of coffee and began to tell us how they avoided problems throughout the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and how they have managed to save their family.”
“Our standard of living was very good. We raised three children; two girls and a boy. When the conflict started, my father-in-law took it hard, but our neighbors and friends told him, ‘Ali Jan, (Jan is a friendly term and one of respect in both Armenia and Azerbaijan) you’re a good man; don’t worry. We won’t let anyone hurt you, no one will harm a hair on your head!’
“And really, no one touched our family,” Julieta added.
Felix Aliyev didn’t change his last name, didn’t abandon his family or emigrate to another country. His son and grandchildren kept the Aliyev name.
“If I had changed my last name, I would have lost my self-respect. I am carrying the last name of my father, and I wasn’t about to run away or emigrate out of Armenia. This is my country. Only weak people abandon their families.”
Felix didn’t even think of leaving the country during the more difficult days of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, but he agrees it was the darkest period of his life. His students were afraid he would be attacked by nationalists, and so always accompanied their coach home after training.
“Can you imagine? Living in Armenia with an Azerbaijani last name during the times of the Sumgayit Pogrom? If it hadn’t been for my students, I might have considered leaving. They supported me unconditionally, but there was no need for it. I am a very well – respected person here, and I don’t think anyone would have had the courage to try and attack me…” he says with pride.
Felix and Julieta have two daughters, both of them married and both living in Etchmiatzin. His son is a professional weight lifter, Vladik Aliyev, and lives in Ukraine. They have five grandchildren. Vladik’s son—Felix Aliyev Jr—was the junior weight lifting champion in Ukraine in 2015.
His wife Julieta says proudly: “The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict changed everything, but not our family. If I had had a family with an Armenian, I wouldn’t have been as happy as I am with Felix. He’s a very good person; I’m very happy with him.”
The couple thinks that unless both countries get rid of their current leadership, there will be no solution to the conflict…
“Maybe after Ilham Aliyev and Serzh Sargysian are gone… Maybe after them we can find a solution, but with these two in power – never.”
For Felix, the saddest thing for him is the Karabakh war and the soldiers stationed on the border. While discussing the latest news from the front, he mentioned his concern for the safety of the soldiers – some of his students and his two grandsons will soon go enter the military:
“Five of my students are serving along the border. One of them will be back in two or three days. Soon, it will be time for summer military mobilization. Think about how worried and upset I am. I don’t know what to say. During the four day war, one of my students told me, ‘I have decided to go fight by myself…’ I tried convincing him otherwise, but his heart was set on it…”
Gunel Movlud (Azerbaijan)
Edita Badasyan (Georgia)
Gayane Mkrtchyan (Armenia)
Gunduz Aghayev (Illustrations)