`Ordinary' Peacemakers

Two women from warring ex-Soviet republics work for resolution

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THEY describe themselves as "ordinary women." But these two ordinary women recently won the 1992 Olof Palme Prize for their extraordinary effort to promote a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Transcaucasus.

Though the Armenians and the Azeris are longtime enemies, Arzu Abjullayeva of Azerbaijan and Anahit Bayandour of Armenia are determined to show that people from their respective countries can work together peacefully.

Despite the frequent armed skirmishes for the past five years between the two former Soviet republics, the women have traveled together to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to "lay the psychological groundwork for peace" among their people, says Ms. Abjullayeva. The present conflict centers on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated enclave within Azerbaijan.

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Trained as a medieval historian, Abjullayeva is an official in Azerbaijan's Social Democratic Party. Ms. Bayandour, a professional translator of literature, is a delegate to Armenia's Supreme Council. The two met in March 1992 at the Helsinki summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"We believed in each other," says Abjullayeva, "and decided to establish contact with each other and exchange information about the [Armenian-Azeri] situation first-hand." One aspect of the conflict is the large number of hostages taken by both sides.

The women began by setting up a Helsinki Citizen Assembly chapters in their respective countries. Local assemblies in some 25 countries form a network dedicated to human rights and the democratic integration of Europe.

The women also aim to attract international attention to a "forgotten war": the Armenian-Azeri conflict. They recently attended the International Negotiation Network conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta, where they were interviewed by the Monitor with the aid of a translator. Some excerpts:

Who has been taken hostage and how many hostages are being held?

Abjullayeva: Somewhere between 1,500 and 1,800 Azeris have disappeared without a trace. Most of the hostages are soldiers, but there are some women and children, too.

Bayandour: Even more Armenians and Armenians from [the enclave of] Nagorno-Karabakh have disappeared. It is difficult to know how many, because there aren't any statistics yet, or a registry of the dead. But you can't compare the numbers - the figures do not matter. There is so much suffering and sorrow on both sides.

In the short time you have been working together, what steps have you taken to move your countries toward peace and exchange hostages?

Abjullayeva: We are working in several directions within the framework of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly and the European Security Council. At a recent conference [of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, which took place in Stockholm], we worked out a program for peace, which included the creation of a "corridor of peace" on the border, and an unconditional cease-fire. We demanded that our governments come to the table and negotiate. And we want to put a moratorium on the heavy artillery and bombings.

Bayandour: We also helped create a government committee on the hostage situation and laid the groundwork for a hostage exchange.

Given the long history of strife between your countries, are you hopeful this conflict can be resolved?

Bayandour: Yes, but the people of Nagorno-Karabakh must have a voice in determining the future status of the region. They must be part of the negotiation process and discussions.

Abjullayeva: We don't believe in a victory of Armenian forces or of the Azerbaijani forces. Both the president of Armenia and the president of Azerbaijan support our efforts and believe that the only way this conflict can be resolved is through an unconditional cease-fire.

But our people have become instruments of foreign powers: Neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia produce weapons. Our fate is intertwined with the fate of Russia, since both countries receive arms from Russia.

What are some of the obstacles to the exchange of hostages and establishing peace?

Bayandour: The elemental forces of war and the uncontrolled development of events. This is not just guerrilla activity - we are involved in a real war with rockets and heavy artillery.

Could your efforts be duplicated by other countries involved in conflicts?

Bayandour: Yes. We are just ordinary women who have taken the first step to stop the bloodshed. But we decided from the beginning that talking about the past would only lead us away from our goal.

Nongovernmental bodies and individuals can work to create an atmosphere for politicians and officials with some stature to really talk and resolve the conflict and fighting.

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