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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How I survived the war

Recent terrorist bombing of Moscow's Int'l airport brought back a flood of memories.

When I was 20 and still lived in Baku, there was a war. A short one, granted, but a war.
Not many people know about it,as Russian government and,specifically president Gorbachev, did everything in their power to cover it up.

I need to sketch a bit of a background first.

Russia back then consisted of "republics". Each republic had its own government, but still was reporting to Central Russian Government and was fully dependent on Russia.
Those republics had their own languages (although Russian was the official language and everyone spoke it) and their own history/background/culture.

The one I lived in was called Azerbaijan and was predominantly Muslim.
Its neighbours were Georgia and Armenia (all three are now independent countries).
Baku was very much multicultural city with people of many nationalities living in harmony side-by-side.
"Mixed" marriages (between Armenians and Azerbaijanis,for instance) were not uncommon, although some families still had frowned upon that.

Trouble started when one of Armenian expats who lived in France declared that there is a portion of land (smack in the middle of Azerbaijan, I might add) that is fully populated by Armenians and thus should be declared Armenian territory. Azerbaijan people didn't take kindly to that.

At first it was nothing but gatherings and a lot of talk. Then talks started to get heated.
This went on for about 5 months. Government did nothing.

Then one day all hell broke loose: news arrived that Armenians were kicking Azerbaijan nationals out of their homes in Armenia and threatening to kill them. Not surprisingly, most of those "partisans" were uneducated people from villages, who wanted to "appropriate" nice flats in the city.
Azerbaijanis decided to respond in kind.

It was pretty ugly. Azerbaijan villains were breaking into the flats and homes known to be occupied by Armenians all over Baku. People were beaten (some to death), kicked out of their homes and their possessions taken.

I witnessed a person being thrown out of 7th story balcony. My boyfriend was driving me home, when,out of the corner of my eye,I saw a movement, I looked up and it was one of those things when you know you should  look away,but you are absolutely transfixed and just cant.
Body landed with a huge thud on the asphalt and I will never forget what it looked like,laying there,no matter how hard I tried.

Back then our nationality was written in our passports (and everyone had to have a passport once they turned 16). Mine was "Russian", my friends were "Jewish", "Armenian",etc.

When all this was going on (for about a week) there were self-proclaimed "patrols" walking through the city and randomly checking passports for nationality. You could be stopped at any time and your passport would be looked at. They dismissed Russians and just ignored us, but Armenians would be in trouble.

Government did nothing still. There was no news coverage,there was no help. Everyone pretended this was not happening.

Many were left homeless and had to flee to Armenia where they had no one and no place to live or means to support themselves.

Many families broke up,as Azerbaijan husbands kicked their Armenian wives (some of many years,even decades) out with their "half-breed" kids.

Then it all settled down,as there was no more Armenians left and those who were still around were in hiding.

About a week passed. We were beginning to breath the sigh of relief.

Then one evening I was watching TV at home when it suddenly went dead. I turned on the radio, but there was nothing but static.
I heard some noises at a distance outside, but couldn't really place them.

Then, about an hour later, radio came to life. The person introduced himself to all as "emergency military commander" of the city. He told us that city is being taken over by Russian Army and to stay inside and not leave our dwellings.

It was the night none of us will forget. Russian troops (sent by president Gorbachev) entered the city with tanks and artillery. They were shooting blindly at everything on their way. Azerbaijanis were scrambling to fight back, but they were not really well armed (some handguns and automatic weapons). It was dark.
Inevitably, a lot of innocent bystanders were killed:mostly women,children and elderly.

Stray bullets were flying everywhere. I spent the night under the bed, trying to avoid those.

Both militants and army were trying to break into citizen's dwellings that were strategically located to set up their snipers-my grandparents lived in one of those,unfortunately, and they had to barricade their doors with a wardrobe.
Tanks went through parking lots,right over the tops of the cars.
It was a total chaos and no one knew what was going on. TV station and tower were blown up. Phones did not work.

By mid-morning next day it was finally quiet.

People were trying to make sense of what was happening. Azerbaijan people (mostly men) were gathering in groups and the general consensus was as follows: Russian president sent his Russian troops to attack us. Now we will kill 5 Russians for every dead Azerbaijan national .

Russians were no longer safe. We were sitting ducks,as the neighbourhoods were very tight knit and everyone knew who everyone was, including their nationality.

Back then not everyone had a phone,cell phones did not exist,there were no computers and even if you were brave enough to venture outside, most street payphones were dead as well.
There was no news coverage of any kind.

It was very unfortunate,as some of those who did have working phones would telephone their relatives and friends in other cities, to let them know what was happening, thus creating more panic.

My parents lived in Moscow. I had no means of contacting them.
My uncle, who lived in Baku, did have a working phone, but he had no idea what was happening with me. He rang my parents, trying to get his own son out of town and my Dad nearly went crazy worrying about me. He was prepared to pay $25K (all his life savings and a huge amount of money in Russia back then) to charter a private plane and try to find me. He told me later that he also planned to get a machine gun and mow down as many Azerbaijanis as he could if he found out that I was dead.

These were the times when true heroes emerged and you found out who your REAL friends are.

My boyfriend risked his life saving his friend's son. The boy was shot by a sniper in his building and was bleeding to death. His mother was frantic,calling an ambulance and they flat out refused to come,as the area was regularly sprayed by bullets. Dan (my boyfriend) drove out there,sat in the car,trying to time the shooting intervals and had run in and dragged the boy out and delivered him to the hospital. Dan had a wife,an older sick mother and 2 kids of his own.

One of my Azerbaijan friends knew I was in trouble. He came over with a "kalagai" (a very large scarf a lot of Muslim women wore). He wrapped me in it and took me out to his car.
There was a group of men standing just outside my building,armed,engulfed in mass hysteria and ready to kill just about anyone. My friend told them in Azerbaijan language that his brother was killed and he is taking his sister (me) home to his mother before he goes out to "kill,kill,kill". They couldn't see my face and weren't able to determine my nationality. Had they discovered the truth, both of us would have been killed instantly. My friend had a family of his own and didn't have to come to my rescue.

My boyfriend's brother took me into his home for the night and then drove me to my girlfriend's place,on the outskirts of town where we were relatively safe.

One of the pilots I had a "nothing" fling with almost a year prior when I worked as a flight attendant went into a great deal of effort to contact me and offer me a place on the plane that him and his friends were going to try and fly without ground control's support (airport was closed) so we can just get out of town. He was married, but he just wanted to help me get out of town,as he knew my life was in danger.

My ex-girlfriend who I've had a huge blow up with several month ago was offering to get me on the next available flight anywhere (she worked at Aeroflot's ticket office).

Our Azerbaijan friends brought us supplies,as most of the stores would not serve Russians or sell them any goods (that included food).

Petrol stations were closed. Trains were not going,as they were attacked passing through the villages.

Back then our banks (called "sbercassa") were not linked to each other. All my life's savings (about $1000 roubles) were locked in Baku's "sbercassa".  It was closed and if I left, I would never see my money again.

Random shootings were erupting all throughout the city, without any warning. There were snipers everywhere.

Military "commander posts" were set up in several locations, occupying Communist Party district head quarter's buildings.
One day I made my way to one of those. There were several Russians standing outside. A young soldier was guarding the door. An older men was pleading with him : "Son,please,you guys have to get us out of here (Baku). We are in danger. We can all get killed". The short reply was: "Not my decision. Commander is not seeing anyone and we have no orders to evacuate anyone".
We had to fend for ourselves.

Eventually (in about 2 weeks time) I was able to get on the plane and fly to Moscow where my parents lived.

In another 2 weeks my boyfriend called from Baku and said they all the troops withdrew. Just like that. He said the tension was still there, but it seemed OK.

I had only 5 months left to finish the University. Without doing so, sitting my exit State exams and completing my thesis, I would not receive a Diploma and my degree would not be complete. 4.5 years of hard work  would be lost.
Against my parents wishes I went back.

I did complete my Degree, but it was tense 5 months. A lot of Azerbaijanis would not speak to Russians or acknowledge them. Some of those people used to be my friends and some I've known for years. They would just look through me, like I wasn't there. A lot of times Azerbaijani clerks refused to serve me in the shops.
When I was "defending" my thesis, I could feel naked hostility from all the Azerbaijani faculty members.

All that was created by a bad decision of one person-president Gorbachev.
He was The Commander In Chief. He ordered the troops to march in and just shoot everything in sight, without the slightest consideration for consequences.

He was a Russian president who left his Russian people for dead. It is my firm believe that he should be tried for the crimes against his country and treason.

Yet he is touring the world,giving paid speeches about peace. I find it very ironic.

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