By Hrach Melkumian
Khagan Kalenderli never quite understood why he should leave Armenia along with thousands of fellow Azerbaijanis caught in the crossfire of ethnic cleansings at the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. And so he decided to stay on with his Armenian wife and two children, defying the logic of a bitter enmity that still separates the two neighboring peoples.
“I think it was quite normal for me to stay here,” says this 57-year-old producer of a state-run documentary film studio in Yerevan. “I was neither forced nor asked to do that. I have simply lived here since my birth by the law of nature.”
Kalenderli is one of a handful of ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Armenia against all odds. They are all that is left of a community of some 160,000 people who were constrained to leave their country of birth in 1988-89. About 350,000 Armenian residents of Azerbaijan fled to Armenia and other parts of the former Soviet Union in what was one of the world’s biggest forced population exchanges since the World War II. The exodus followed the first bloodshed in Karabakh and Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait.
Unlike the Armenian community of Azerbaijan that was mostly concentrated in the capital Baku, the Azerbaijani population of Armenia was overwhelmingly rural. Only a few thousand Azerbaijanis lived in Yerevan. Few of the city’s young residents probably know that they had their own school and even a theater (incidentally run by Kalenderli’s late father).
The most difficult was the plight of families and individuals with mixed ethnic origin. Many of them had to settle in “neutral” countries like Russia, unable to fit into the rigid boundaries of Armenian and Azerbaijani nationalism. The Azerbaijani government claims that there are still as many as 20,000 Armenians (mainly women married to Azerbaijani men) living in Baku. Armenian refugees from Baku, however, say the figure is grossly inflated.
Kalenderli says while most of his relatives emigrated to Russia he felt that he is too attached to his home city to leave it. “I could have left. But my roots are pretty strong here.”
Kalenderli adds to this “the joy of friendship” with Armenians as he shares a meal with several of them in a Yerevan restaurant. “Not to mention Armenian apricots,” he says, chuckling. “Where else could you find such tasty apricots?”
But did he face hostility from other Armenians during all these years of war and economic hardship caused, to a large extent, by the Azerbaijani blockade? “The fact that I voluntarily stayed here should show that there have been no [inter-ethnic] problems,” he says.
“When there was a power disruption it affected not only my apartment. What happened affected everyone. We went through both happy and difficult times just like everyone did.”
Kalenderli’s film studio has had rocky times since the Soviet collapse, grappling with a lack of government funding. He managed to keep his managerial job despite sweeping staff cuts there in the 1990s. Friends say his Azerbaijani origin was never a factor.
What about other Azerbaijanis remaining in Armenia? Kalenderli says he knows a few of them but has little contact with them.
When asked about the long-awaited resolution of the Karabakh disputes, he sighs before replying, “I dream about that moment.”
“Peace is a bit late in coming,” he adds. “I would love to see it, even one day before my death. We still remember the good old days. Who wouldn’t want to experience that happiness again?”