This time of year, we remember the Holocaust; the genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and sadly, many other places. We remember the faces of the victims and the stories so horrible that hearing them can make one feel sick. And with all this to remember, there are still tragedies that are lesser known, crimes against humanity so horrific that many would argue it is impossible that they occurred in such recent history. Yet I am a survivor of such a tragedy the Khojaly Massacre of 1992, and one of the female survivors and witnesses of the Khojaly torture camp.
As a woman and a Muslim, it is extremely painful to reconcile the horrible trauma of Khojaly with my faith and traditional culture, and my shame from suffering violations of the most fundamental components of my identity. As a survivor of torture, I spent years in isolation at home, watching films about the Holocaust; the only lens that captures anything relative to what I experienced. I spent sleepless nights soothing myself out of panic with Schindler's List and The Pianist. Living in that solitary world with films and nightmares was almost as tragic as the reasons for which I lived there. My life hung somewhere in the balance of total isolation mixed with the severity of ongoing and extensive surgeries to recover my body from the brutality of torture and the impact of exposure during my captivity, procedures such as receiving titanium spinal implants, with every second of this process and pain a reminder of its cause.
I come from the town of Khojaly in Nagorno Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan once flourishing and promising for my young generation at the time. In the early 1990’s, all of that suddenly changed. Most of the world doesn’t even know the name of Khojaly, or that Armenia perpetrated there one of the most brutal massacres in recent history against a terrified, fleeing Azerbaijani populace. The night (Feb. 2526, 1992) the Massacre began, I ran for my life with my brother, into the freezing woods, and got captured and taken to the torture camp. I was only 20 years old…
With dark irony, I understand why Armenia still denies that Khojaly happened. I understand this because I will never shake the images of a 2 year old Azerbaijani child, shot while fleeing with his parents, his blood spattered body suspended in my memory as if in the air for that moment of gruesome impact. How could anyone face the taking of hundreds of innocent lives, the bayoneting of pregnant women and elderly, the showering of fatal bullets onto fleeing children, and mothers holding their lifeless infants. As a victim, facing my past has nearly broken me, so I imagine that as perpetrators, denial must be of tangible comfort.
As a Muslim woman, there is a certain and unspeakable pain I feel in explaining to the public that I was subjected to brutal torture and humiliation, including rape, for many days in the Armenian captivity. Sharing this has been a tragedy for my soul, separate from the cruelties my body suffered. But I realize that by sharing it, I can live beyond the shadows of shame and step into the light of my own healing.
The last few years, my life has dramatically changed. With immense support from my family and community, I have begun the process of sharing. The hidden parts of my past have become public and documented. I have begun to make a record of the nightmare I survived.
Until February of 2015, I had never visited any country in the West. On my first day in California, I met a Jewish community leader involved in global peace efforts, and we conducted a radio interview, with an IranianJewish psychologist and talk show host; a specialist in the survivors of intense trauma and the Holocaust. Through connecting my story with a caring psychologist, and my new friend, herself the 3rd generation of Holocaust survivors, I realized a powerful sense of understanding I had yet to experience before that day.
This feeling expanded when I learned of the Khojaly memorial held at a Los Angeles synagogue, a week following my visit. The Jewish community’s response to learning of Khojaly as a parallel to the Holocaust has been monumental for my ability to share and heal. The genocide in Khojaly stands out as an example of the lowest displays of human depravity. But now, through the welcoming arms of the Jewish community of Los Angeles, the connection has been made and the silence broken. For me, this changes everything.
Through the power of my own healing, I am deeply motivated to help other women face their own stories of survival, and by doing so, eradicate the shame and loneliness that follows the fact of torture and trauma. I once thought I could never share what happened, and now I know that by sharing it, I am part of a larger movement to heal, and not only myself, but the entire world. It is my sincerest hope to inspire other survivors, those across the world who have had the paradigms of their innocence blown away by the tragic cannon of hatred and oppression, and join together in a unified bond, strengthening each other and the world. Not only the survivors of torture and genocide, but also women from nations that have never experienced modern war, for so many women live with the trauma of violence, some even in their own homes. I strongly believe that through a growing commitment to the familiarity of all who suffer, this world will become a different kind of place, one that would never allow the pain and great sorrow of genocide or any kind of violence to happen ever again, to anyone, anywhere.
Durdane Agayeva lives in Baku with her husband and daughter, and can be reached by email at [email protected] Durdane truly believes in the power of unified voices, and hopes to hear from you, your story of survival and your commitment to human rights for all people.