Wednesday, November 4, 2015

From exile to elected office

On November 3, 2015 Anna Turcotte was elected to the Westbrook, Maine City Council, becoming the first refugee from Baku to win an elected office in the United States. This interview with her was originally published in the Armenian Reporter on September 28, 2012.

Baku Armenian tells the story of exile
by Emil Sanamyan 

Anna Astvatsaturian at ICC in The Hague
where she clerked after law school.
Courtesy image
"Nowhere, a story of exile" by Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte edited by Tatoul Sonentz-Papazian was published this year by (The book is available via Amazon and other booksellers.) In an e-mail interview, the Armenian Reporter discussed this so far unique work written in English that tells a gripping personal account of a young Anya whose family - along with more than 200,000 other Armenians - was displaced from Baku and struggled to adjust in crisis-riven Yerevan before settling in U.S.

Q: Prior to publishing your diary, have you seen anything similar by anyone from among Armenians of Baku? Why do you think there is such shortage of eyewitness material on this subject?

A: I understood from my editor and the publisher that there wasn't anything similar out there that would paint the plight of Armenians from Azerbaijan in such a personal and intimate way that it touches a reader. That is the major reason I wanted to go ahead with the publication.

From personal observation, I believe the reason there is such a shortage of eyewitness material is because survival, along with a desperate need to adapt to our respective new homes, whether it is U.S., Russia, Armenia, was the number one priority for the refugees.

The lack of media coverage of the conflict and lack of camaraderie and support by the Armenians of Armenia are also important reasons. This important historic information was not sought out and captured, and the Armenians of Baku, Sumgait and Kirovabad were too traumatized to revisit it themselves. They are still traumatized. They don't talk about it at dinner tables. They don't tell their children about it. But it is always there on their minds because they haven't had an opportunity to heal.

Q: How would you describe the Baku Armenian experience? And what are the Armenians of Baku - were they a community, are they still? 

A: Although as a child I grew up pretty oblivious to these concerns prior to 1988, my father, Norik Astvatsaturov, has childhood memories of violence committed against the Armenians in the Azerbaijani countryside and on the trains to Armenia and Artsakh as early as 1950s.

There was always a sense of "your place" - Azeris had the managing or superior jobs, Armenians had the subordinate roles. Baku was tolerant and international, but yet it wasn't; in a sense that people were aware of each others' ethnic backgrounds and it dictated a lot of things in their everyday lives.

That said, I think the few decades before the atrocities of the 1980s Baku Armenians lived happy, fulfilling lives in a beautiful city by the sea. There was a place of belonging, a community, weddings, food, dancing. This peaceful life is what made the events of 1988-1990 so
shocking. People kept repeating that it couldn't be happening here and now.

I believe Baku Armenians are a unique group of Armenians. We seek each other out. We know and feel each other. We adapt anywhere we go and succeed at pretty much anything we set our minds to, because we grew up living with a constant expectation that you work a little harder, to prove yourself a little more because in the end, you are Armenian or a Bakvetsi, or a refugee. We survived and endured so much, together and alone.

Absolutely, I think that the Baku Armenian community still exists all over the world wherever we are located, powered by the memories of the happy past and silently by the unspoken horrors many witnessed. 

Q: Following their displacement, most Baku Armenians did not wish to or were unable to settle in Armenia. Should anyone be blamed for this?

A: I don't think that you can blame anyone. It was a difficult transition in Armenia's history and one cannot blame one person or one group of people.

I know from personal experience that Baku Armenians that came to Armenia had a hard time adjusting, both socially and economically. Many ended up relocating to Russia hoping for a better future for their children, whether due to a lack of jobs or intolerance by Armenia's Armenians. I believe it's a combination of those two things.

When we fled to Armenia in 1989 most of the friends and family we knew also came from Baku to Armenia, but some went to Russia. The next three years in Armenia were so very hard, on all Armenians. I believe the stress of the economic hardships fueled by the war and the blockade caused many Armenians in Armenia to throw blame around. The native Armenians began to associate the changes that came with the war with Azerbaijan and the collapsing of the Soviet Union with the flood of refugees. I believe in many ways it was an unfortunate but natural reaction immediately as it was happening. As I hear of intolerance toward Baku Armenians currently, however, it makes absolutely no sense to me.

Baku Armenians were blamed for the dire situation, or were misunderstood in their love for their home city that no longer existed for them. The trauma they experienced by the atrocities in Sumgait, Kirovabad, and Baku, compounded by the trauma of verbal abuse and a sense of being second rate citizens in their ancestral homeland, caused many to leave and never look back.

Q: Your book touches on the deeply sensitive subjects for any person: sexual molestation and also domestic violence against children. Why did you decide to include those instances in your book? Was it a difficult decision for you?

A: When I wrote the book, the intended audience was always going to be my children and their families. The intimacy of the information shared was never too personal to deter me from sharing our entire experience. I didn't censor myself, but instead spilled out all of my memories as record of the events that occurred. I thought it was important for them to know, fully, the extent of my personal struggles, and our sacrifices made to establish a happy life for them in the United States.

Once the decision was made to publish the writings, I painfully processed these sensitive subjects over and over again in my mind. It was extremely difficult for me but I went ahead with it. 

My family supported me in the decision to keep these instances in the book to paint the picture of the various abuses suffered at the hands of the Azeris, even as children, and also to demonstrate how the experience shaped the refugees themselves and the type of coping mechanisms some adapted to remain sane.

Q: What are your thoughts of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict today? Will it be over in our lifetime?

A: Although Artsakh today is independent, free and developing steadily with each year, the conflict, I believe, is at its worst. There is a whole generation of children in Azerbaijan that is brought up hating Armenians as a people. The endless propaganda by the Azeri government
shapes their intolerant thoughts.

Even the Azeri friends I grew up with, with whom I recently connected in preparation for the publication of the book, remember me in one way, but now view me as an Armenian in a completely warped way. I find that fascinating. I am their happy childhood memory, and in the same breath, a deadly enemy.

The rhetoric of continued war is alarming, especially this year. I believe the recent events shape the way the Artsakh issue will be resolved - if a sleeping officer is brutally murdered by his classmate on foreign land and is lauded as a hero and released, how do you think Azeris will treat Armenian civilians of Artsakh if Artsakh is ever under Azeri rule?

I do hope for a peaceful resolution of this conflict. I do believe a resolution (peaceful or not) is possible to occur in our lifetime. What sacrifices and hurdles it will take to get there, is unfathomable to me.

About Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte: Born in 1978 in Baku, she was displaced with her family in 1989 and lived in Armenia for the next two years before receiving refugee asylum in the United States. Anna graduated from the University of North Dakota and the University of Maine School of Law. She lives in Portland, Maine with her husband and two children. 

Excerpt from "Nowhere: a Story of Exile"
by Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte

Anya with her dad Norik in Baku. Courtesy image.
What follows is an excerpt from "Nowhere, a story of exile":

"The demonstrations that started at the end of the summer were not the last ones. We saw them more frequently, thousands of people rushing and screaming. Our street was the main street that led to Lenin Square, where the government buildings were located. The
demonstrators were Azeri who wanted us out of the country and demanded that Armenia stops claiming Nagorno-Karabakh as historically Armenian land.

The demonstrations worsened with time. They grew bigger and louder. The beginning of the school year of 1988-1989 was confusing for
everyone. I was a fifth grader now but I was not thinking about school even though I functioned, automatically memorizing poems, formulas and English vocabulary.

Things were uncertain and unpredictable and that fall Mama didn't let me go out of the patio to climb the olive trees on our street. The olives were for pickling and we gathered them together with Vilya yearly. Mama reasoned that it would attract too much attention to the building and to me. The school didn't send the students on olive picking field trips either. The olive trees on the street were filled with ripe olives which we could only look at through our window and not touch.

Through the social webs and contacts information leaked into the households of Armenians that in November there were pogroms and atrocities committed against Armenian citizens in Kirovabad, a distant city, second largest in Azerbaijan. Elderly, men and women, killed, raped, maimed. We covered our mouths in disbelief. Nothing was reported on the news. As the day went by Mama brushed it off as a non-story, something that would never happen in Baku, which was filled with intellectuals and internationalists.

On a certain December 1988 afternoon, everyone was at home when I returned from school. The events that transpired erased all recollection of having been to school that day. That day's demonstrations were the worst we had ever seen.

We are gathered in my Grandma's apartment, all of us, Mama, Papa, Misha, Grandma and me. We have locked the door from inside, and sit, waiting, with all windows closed and shuttered. We turn the lights off. Papa tells Misha and me to speak in whispers. Papa takes all of the knives out of the kitchen drawers and sets them in a pile in front of him at the dining room table, prepared for the worst. He keeps saying, repeatedly, "If they break in, I will take a few of them with me to the other world."

We are afraid to talk aloud. We whisper if we have to, but rarely. Mama is holding Misha on her lap on the sofa, her face buried in his blonde curls and Grandma is sitting on the chair looking at her wrinkly hands which rest on her old-fashioned cotton dress. Through the unfortunate cracks in the blinds, we see people rushing down the street with green flags. There are so many of them their shoulders brush against the walls of our building. We see a few black flags, which mean "death" and "vengeance," hand-made in a hurry. The demonstrators run and rush against and past our building. There is shouting, chanting and screaming in Azeri.

As I sneak a look in the crack in the shutters, I see a man in a black coat. He is in front of the crowd, walking backward, shouting something. From that distance, we cannot understand what he is saying, though his voice is loud and he addresses the crowd in Azeri. It seems that he is trying to stop them. But they only yell louder and rush forth, almost as if to tell the man in black that they will not listen to him. Sure enough, they shove him aside and a few demonstrators enter the patio of the apartment building right next to ours. They yell for Armenians to come out. This building is well-known for housing Armenians who have lived there for several generations. A few of them were mixed families - Azeri, Russian and Armenian. Papa shoves me away from the window.

The demonstrators yell and scream. When no one lets them in, they start hurling rocks at the windows. We hear crashing and muffled commotion and yelling. Suddenly they appear back on the street and rush ahead toward the Lenin Square, looking for excitement elsewhere. They appear to miss our building. It is too close to the railroad and is out of sight. The gates to the patio are shielded by bushes and trees. Later, we learn that Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians are trying to secede from Azerbaijan and rejoin Armenia."

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