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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

A story of survival and the healing power of familiarity

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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.

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