December 7, 2019

Delegation of Karabakh Survivors Embraced in Los Angeles

Durdane Agayeva speaks at Nessah Synagogue (top); Meeting at AJC-LA (left); Meeting with Holocaust Survivor Joshua Kaufman (right). Photo credit: Durdane Agayeva

This past week has been a whirlwind of experience and emotion. On November 10, I traveled from Baku to Los Angeles for one week, as part of a delegation of survivors and refugees from the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, which has been under Armenia’s military occupation since 1992-93. Our delegation included Tural Ganjaliyev from the town of Shusha, Gulmammad Mammadov from the district of Lachin, and Jeyhun Alakbarov, a Khojaly Genocide survivor like myself. Each of us survived the invasion of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, and have endured the occupation and ethnic cleansing of around 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory, which has been condemned by the international community.

I was a 20-year-old young woman in 1992, when my hometown of Khojaly was invaded, and the “largest massacre in the conflict”, as the Human Rights Watch would later call it, was committed against Azerbaijani residents of Khojaly. So many were shot while fleeing their homes, or by the waiting snipers in the nearby field. I was captured, tortured and humiliated for many never ending days, only later to be traded for gasoline and cigarettes by Armenian soldiers, and have lived as a refugee since then.

After the invasion of his home district of Lachin, Gulmammad lived in a refugee tent camp for 10 years. He did not have any school in his camp. But he did not give up. He studied from the school books provided by UNICEF and got admitted to Azerbaijan’s top university, later winning prestigious scholarships to continue his education in Italy and then at Syracuse University in U.S. that he graduated from with a PhD in Biological Physics. Today he is a professor at ADA University. Gulmammad stands as an example of what a person can overcome and achieve, despite the most painful obstacles.

Tural became a refugee at the age of 12, when he and 40,000 other Azerbaijani residents of his hometown of Shusha were expelled. Last year, Tural was elected Chairman of the Azerbaijani Community of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, representing the hope and sorrow of over 80,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, as we continue waiting for justice and peace.

This was not my first visit to Los Angeles, and although I have only visited once before, the warmth and welcome I have experienced each time has made the city feel like a second home to me. During our visit, we visited key leaders from American Jewish Committee, the Los Angeles Interfaith Council, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pakistani and Turkish communities, and the Islamic Society of Orange County, and met with Rabbi David Wolpe, a great friend of Azerbaijan, and other leaders of Sinai Temple. We also met with Liebe Geft, Director of the Museum of Tolerance, who led us on a special tour, and with Michelle Gold, Chair of the Board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who also led our tour. We were honored to visit the home of Holocaust survivor and Israeli Defense Forces hero Joshua Kaufman, who survived several Nazi concentration camps and fought in two of the most pivotal wars in Israel. These meetings with scholars and survivors of the Holocaust are no coincidence – we have developed a strong bond with those who honor and remember the Shoah, and have learned immense lessons about survival, remembrance, and the power of “Never Again” from these amazing individuals and communities. We have also experienced tremendous compassion, solidarity and kindness from those who know the meaning of our suffering – we are from different times and countries, and obviously vastly different tragedies, yet we understand the commonality of experiencing human brutality, and we share the same unstoppable vision and hope for peace.

Perhaps the most meaningful component of our visit was a special program hosted at the Nessah Synagogue, one of the largest synagogues in the U.S. and one of the most beautiful Jewish temples I have ever seen. Our program included videos explaining the ongoing occupation and destruction, and each of us had the chance to share our testimony of survival. We saw pictures of Tural’s home and schools he attended, before and after as they lay in rubble, and we shared our commitment, and the promise of our nation, to find a peaceful solution and an end to the occupation, and a day when we can all return to our homes. At the start of the program, the national anthems of the United States, Israel and Azerbaijan were all sung, to a glowing crowd of 400 attendees in the stunning main sanctuary of Nessah. The Consul General of Azerbaijan, Nasimi Aghayev, offered remarks on the future of peace and progress, and powerfully recognized a special guest in the audience, Joshua Kaufman, the survivor we had met with earlier that day. Following the presentations, we all shared a festive Kosher meal, accompanied by live Azerbaijani music, and the room was overwhelmed with an energy of togetherness and happiness.

At a certain point during the height of our festive meal, Joshua Kaufman asked the band to switch to Jewish music, to which they happily obliged. Moments later, I found myself dancing arm in arm with Joshua, to Hava Nagila and Am Yisrael Chai.

I was immeasurably inspired, by the support, compassion, and promise for the future I had experienced so far. I was inspired by the solidarity we share with the Jewish community of Los Angeles, who have treated our delegation with the love and kindness unique to this amazing community, a community I feel very much a part of. I was inspired by what we are all capable of, what we have survived, of our bravery and our good hearts. Now that I am back home in Baku, I can still feel the energy of this week, and how it has fueled me to continue my work, as a survivor and as a spokesperson for peace.