The newspaper headlines today record that Armenia and Azerbaijan are continuing their hostilities over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, each claiming to have ceased fire, and each claiming that the other side is carrying on firing.
Their previous war finished without resolution in 1994, in the early years of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and it happens that yesterday I read an amazing chapter in a book by Ryszard Kapuscinski about how he entered the region during that first war when hostilities were at their height. (The book is Imperium, first published in 1993, a tale of his travels through Russia and its empire).
Before leaving Moscow he was able to contact an Armenian member of the Supreme Soviet, Galina Staravoytova, who said she would meet him in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. “Maybe we will be able to help you, but I don’t know. We will see,” she said enigmatically.
Azerbaijan is a Moslem country, Armenia Christian, and Nagorno-Karabakh is a Christian enclave in Azerbaijan that was insisting on joining Armenia. The region was completely sealed off from outside by the Red Army and local militias (“they guarded all passages, highways tracks and paths, guarded the rocky clefts and faults, the passes, precipices and peaks. There was absolutely no question of forcing one’s way through this vigilant, tightly woven net.”) It would be no easier by air, for people had been camping out in the airport in Yerevan for weeks hoping to get on to a plane to Stepanakert, the capital of the enclave. This seemed an equally hopeless task to Kapuscinski, because to buy a ticket required a Soviet passport with proof of residence in the enclave, or a permit from the general army staff in Moscow, neither of which he had prospect of obtaining. He waited all day in his hotel hoping to hear from his contact who eventually phoned to tell him, even more enigmatically. “Wait patiently until a young man comes to you.”
This, it turned out, was the instruction he received from then on as he was handed from one young man to another, given a Soviet passport taken from a dead soldier, and shuffled into backrooms, little bigger than cupboards, where he was fitted out, in the utmost secrecy, in the uniform of an Aeroflot pilot, which got him on to a plane along with Starovoytova, but with instructions that he must not betray he had ever met her.
Typically, this amazing observer and journalist, Kapuscinski uses his experience of this bizarre war to generalize its meaning in such a way as to make it relevant to the lives of everyone of us.
“Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world,” he writes.
“The first tis the plague of nationalism.
“The second is the plague of racism.
“The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism
“All three share one trait, a common denominator --- an aggressive, al-powerful irrationality. Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason. In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only its sacrificial victims. Every attempt at calm conversation will fail. He doesn’t want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit that he is right, join the cause. Otherwise you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist, for you count only if you are a tool, an instrument, a weapon. There are no people --- there is only the cause.
“A mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning around one subject only --- its enemy. Thinking a bout our enemy sustains us, allows us to exist. That is why the enemy is always present, is always with us.”
And he adds, further down the page, that the Armenians and Azerbaijanis are to be envied, because they “are not beset by worries abut the complexity of the world or about the fact that human destiny is uncertain and fragile.” Theirs is a world of “an unambiguous law of exclusivity,” and he concludes, rather sadly, that “they never ask themselves, am I right?.... They need to be left in peace so as to thrash each other all the more thoroughly.”
We are a quarter of a century on from when those words were written, and the world today makes them seem like prophecies. Certain militia, inflamed by religious fundamentalism, are carrying out barbarities that were recorded 2500 years ago, and before, suggesting that human nature has never changed or improved. But even the modern nations, armed to the teeth as we are, wrapped in our science and advanced knowledge, trapped by the same plagues of nationalism and racism (and others that he didn’t mention, pride, greed, cruelty) even we are using our science and sophisticated knowledge to introduce new barbarities, executing every day, at the push of a button, people who are thousands of miles away from their executioners, and who have never been given any hearing, any trial, and against whom any proof that might exist is entirely circumstantial.
What is this terror to kill that so besets us? How can it be that the United States, often referred to as the wealthiest nation that has ever existed, spends such a disproportionate amount of its income on preparing to kill, and then actually killing? How does it happen that this very subject is one of those about which it seems impossible to hold a conversation, is beyond discussion?
I remember I started out as an idealistic youth wanting to work for the United Nations, to bring peace to the world, a dream from which I was rudely awakened as I saw how the United Nations was manipulated by the wealth-owners in their own interests. So now, in my sere years, my work done, with little left to do, I find myself signing petitions, one after the other, presented to me by eager young activists determined to change the course of human affairs.
Hope springs eternal, goes the old saying. Might one even hope that we can eventually open a conversation with those entombed in their certainties?