“Unfortunately, I never had a chance to live my youth fully,” said Ganira Pashayeva, a member of parliament from Azerbaijan, on the way from Baku to her constituency in the Tovuz region last week. She was just 13 when Armenian aggression first started, sending waves of Azeri refugees and internally displaced persons to the eastern part of Azerbaijan.
Some of the fleeing Azeris landed in her house, claiming the space she had enjoyed until then. “We had no choice but to open up our homes to these people who pretty much lost everything,” she recalled. “As a child, I was expected to behave like an adult in a home full of people grieving over the loss of their loved ones. I forgot how to laugh among the tears shed and sorrow expressed by these unexpected visitors, often joined in my parents who empathized with them.”
When she later pursued her dream of becoming a doctor at Azerbaijan State Medical University, another tragedy struck, claiming the better of her youthful years. In the capital, Baku, she witnessed the “Black January” massacre during which many Azeris lost their lives when Soviet troops violently cracked down on the Azerbaijani independence movement in the last days of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “There was blood everywhere. As young med students, we rushed to tend to the wounded in makeshift triage centers,” she says about those days.
The last but the heaviest blow came when Pashayeva reached the age of 18. The Armenian secessionist militia, with the backing of Armenian armed forces, had begun the war of atrocities in Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding areas, prompting a mass exodus of about a million Azeri people from their homes. The human tragedy, which was unprecedented by any standards, caught the young Azerbaijan republic, whose economy was in tatters at the time, completely unprepared. Displaced people sought shelter in abandoned wagons and trucks and moved into makeshift tents and dangerous, nearly collapsed flats. “I felt completely helpless. It was heart-wrenching to watch,” she said.
Pashayeva says she never danced in weddings or event gatherings in her hometown of Düz Qırıqlı in the Tovuz region. When asked why, she says: “I was afraid that some people in the crowd would feel heartbroken if they saw me dancing and think that it could've their daughters or sons dancing right there in front of their eyes if they were still alive today. I lost so many friends during the Armenian occupation and am still grieving today.” Pashayev admits the war has changed her fundamentally in a way she could not imagine. “I could have been a completely different person today. I might have approached issues differently if I had lived the life of a regular girl in my youth,” she laments.
The personal saga Ms. Pashayev went through in her younger years made her a strong, unrelenting fighter in the pursuit of justice for about a million Azeri citizens who had to leave everything behind and became refugees and displaced persons. Though she earned degrees in both medicine and law in Baku, Pashayev dropped her career and became an activist to raise awareness of the plight of Azeris in national and international platforms. She started out as a reporter and later became an editor, collaborating on numerous TV documentaries.
In 2005, she ran as an independent candidate from her hometown Tovuz region, becoming a member of the Azerbaijani parliament, or Milli Meclis. She became a member of the commission on international relations as well as a member of the delegation of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). I watched her many times on the PACE floor, making a case for Azerbaijan. No matter what the subject of discussion, she somehow found a way to connect the debate with the plight of Azeri refugees and challenged the arguments raised by the Armenian delegation for the continuing illegal occupation of 20 percent of Azeri territory.
In the cease-fire border area of Tovruz, Pashayeva dismissed regional commander Col. Barkhudarov's plea not to proceed further into the neutral zone lest the enemy fire. She took us to ground zero, where Armenian snipers had, with no provocation, killed both civilians and soldiers in the past. The villagers here could not even get to their age-old cemetery to bury their dead because Armenian forces would take shots at them whenever they attempted to get there. They had to establish another burial place away from the enemy line of fire.
While we were there, Col. Barkhudarov was conducting drills with residents to prepare for a possible bush fire. Every year at about this time, when the weather is dry and scorching hot, the Armenian forces in occupied territory set the dry bushes in the cease-fire area on fire. The fire damaged homes in nearby villages and set off land mines planted in the area in the past. “The Armenian side wants to terrorize residents here and force them to leave their homes. But this is where we take our stand,” Pashayeva noted.
Setting fires is not the only terror tactic employed by Armenian forces at the cease-fire lines. Right beyond the steep hill from where we were standing is a village called Aliyeva, where a 13-year-old girl named Aygun Shahmaliyeva was killed by a toy with a built-in explosive device. It was alleged that a toy dog was loaded with an explosive and dropped by what was believed to be the Armenian side into the Tovuz River flowing through the village. The bomb severely wounded Aygun's 32-year-old mother Elnara Shahmaliyeva as well. A similar accident occurred here in 1994 when two kids were killed and one wounded as a result of the explosion of a toy dropped by the Armenian side into the river.
Pashayeva continues to campaign today on behalf of children who went missing during the tragic years of Armenian aggression. She says: “During the occupation, hundreds of children were killed or taken hostage. Many of them have not been set free, and it is impossible to obtain any information about their fate. Tens of thousands of children have become internally displaced persons and settled in refugee camps, where they experience violence.” She does not want to see kids living through the same terrible ordeal and experience, which she describes as “the lost childhood,” amidst psychological and physical violence.
“Enough already,” Pashayeva says, stressing that Armenia should be forced to comply with four UN Security Council resolutions to end the occupation and withdraw illegal forces from Azeri lands. “This must be done to prevent another generation from losing their childhood years as well,” she argues.