A Dutchman with Karabakhi heart and Aghdami roots
By Ilkana Goja
March 1, 2021
Ever since the beginning of this year (2020), I have dreamed that I am back in my parental home in Agdam, but that there was nothing left of our house. Only a small piece of wall and it was wounded, in pain, abandoned, and in mourning. The result of a terrible war.
I am a Dutchman with Azerbaijani roots from Agdam. For the past 27 years, I have worked hard to put all the pain and trauma of this horrific war behind me. I managed this quite nicely, sometimes haunted in my dreams by images of my missing brother, who was only 17 when the Armenians kidnapped him, and he never came back.
He was young, handsome, and talented. He wanted to become a businessman. Agdam and my brother are gone together. Agdam is back, my brother is not. Sometimes through memories from my father, sometimes from Agdam herself, and sometimes from my grandmother. The dreams helped me through my life.
From September 27, old wounds were ripped open again, many emotions emerged and I relived much of what I had experienced as a child.
Agdam was one of the largest cities in Karabakh with a population of more than 150,000 people at the time. The city has long been a mainstay for the region during the 1st Karabakh war. Unfortunately, July 23, 1994, was the darkest day for the residents of Agdam and the beginning of a long period of grief.
The last time I left our home was around July 15, 1993. After my exams, I was back for the summer vacation. Normally a nice period, but now very heavy due to the ongoing bombardments. My parents wanted me to go back, away, far from danger. They were afraid and did not want anything to happen to us like in Khajaly city, where people were tortured and murdered on a cold winter night (February 26, 1992).
We interviewed Goja ourselves. Here she tells part of her story in her own words. We expect to hear more from her in the future.
I once again experienced 2 heavy nighttime bombings. The Armenians bombed day and night. Our houses were not built for times of war. We had no bomb shelters. It was too dangerous to go out. The situation became untenable. My father and uncles then decided to bring everyone to safety.
The morning we had to leave I looked frozen at the house, despite the warm summer day. The L-shaped pergola around the house was full of red roses with velvety petals. The bouquet of white and wild roses with an exuberance that unfortunately did not suit this sad moment. The scent of the flowers mingled with each other and gave off a delightful fragrance. I glanced up and wanted to take it all in. I saw bunches of grapes in different colors, which my father had grown with great attention and love all these years. A pergola was full of different flowers and bunches of grapes. And dream image that I still want to create in my own garden in the Netherlands.
Everything was incredibly beautiful and charming. Maybe the flowers knew they were on the pergola for the last time. The pergola was made of iron and was quite pricey. An asset to the Armenians who would take it with them after the occupation. Everything felt different, was in silent mourning and in farewell.
All the trees, flowers, and nature, even the house itself was saying goodbye. Unconsciously, in the language of feeling. Everything felt different and the environment said goodbye to us with its beauty. I tasted it for the last time with the fullness of this beauty. If only I had known that this incredibly beautiful experience was a goodbye, for at least 27 years! Just a beautiful image that I will never see again, security that I will never be able to experience again, a connection that I will still look for after all these years! Everything was so beautiful and intense, just like a person lives right before death. Secretly I probably knew that this was the last time, but my heart wouldn’t believe it.
We slept in the basement for 2 nights. There was a strange sense of silence in the air. I am so scared of this feeling. It heralds a great loss for me. I froze, I revolted. I did not want to leave the house, my father and my uncle came after me to convince me. They couldn’t get me out of the house. Then my aunt came and said if you don’t go expect what happened to us in Khojaly. On a cold winter night, Khojaly city, inhabited by more than 6,000 Azerbaijani people, was attacked by Armenian forces. The people of the city had no chance to leave their homes, 613 people including children, women, older people were murdered. 150 people were missing. Citizens of Agdam were threatened daily with an even worse fate than the citizens of Khojaly. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to.
My parents were very afraid of us. But I was not afraid. Maybe I was young, I didn’t understand the risks. I wanted to go to the hospital to help the wounded soldiers. Unfortunately, that was not allowed.
The last minutes with our house, the last meeting, the last moments of security, the last moment with the memory together from my childhood full of joy with my family, the house, the environment, nature, the flowers I have since childhood to groomed.
The pear trees, the cherry trees, the walnut trees planted by my grandfather’s grandfather, I couldn’t swing in the swing that hangs from that 120-year-old walnut tree. Different varieties of apples, pomegranates, quinces, mulberries, and much more … All the fig trees in different colors called me to climb and pick figs. But that was not possible, climbing the trees was too dangerous. We did not know when and what kind of shells would fall …..
I heard the murmur of the Kotel river, which was also different from usual. It flowed differently, everything sounded like a sad and sad goodbye … the waterfall made a different sound, the drops were thinner, the latter was more careful. Had I known this was the last time, I would have taken a handful of land from our garden.
November 20, 2020, is the day that opens a new chapter in my life. Agdam is back with us. Abused, destroyed, humiliated. The mosque I visited with my grandmother has been destroyed, damaged, and used as a pigsty.
It will be difficult to build the same Agdam again. Because many of my loved ones are no longer alive. My father can no longer use his skills to build a beautiful house again. A new home cannot get warmth and love from its hands. And it will take time to create a new beautiful and warm home. The trees will have to grow for many years to bear beautiful fruit again. And who is there to raise them lovingly?
Do you know what is the toughest? I could not protect my house, I fled Agdam, left him alone in the hands of ruthless Armenians, and fled. I haven’t done my best enough for Agdam. Or maybe Agdam wanted it herself. First I went back to Baku to graduate. And then fate chased me too biased Europe. Maybe Agdam wanted me to make his voice heard here. And I do that here with a lot of love for Agdam.
Still, I feel guilty that couldn’t give back what Agdam had given me. I left it in the hands of Armenian terrorists. Perhaps Agdam can still forgive me. Another question is: can I forgive myself for this? Agdam is the Hiroshima of the Caucasus and the second “Ghost city” in the world. Still very much wanted, wanted and it welcomes us again. I would love to go there to comfort the wall of my dreams (and myself).
Source: Photos of Agdam on 23/11/20, by press photograph Reza Dekati. He is a French photojournalist of Iranian descent.
AĞDAM THE MARTYR CITY
I spent the past days in Agdam where I witnessed the aftermath of thirty years of occupation. If you recognize one of your households don't hesitate to write to me. The necessary hilling and reconstruction will take time. #agdam #azerbaijan pic.twitter.com/80lBbyL7mB
— REZA (@REZAphotography) November 23, 2020
After few weeks across Azerbaijan photographing the aftermaths of war. Back to Baku, I was pleased to give an interview to the Russian speaking Network CBC and discuss more than 30 years of photographing Azerbaijan. #Azerbaijan #rezaphoto #Russian #Karabakh #photojournalism pic.twitter.com/cd79ZzgTFm
— REZA (@REZAphotography) November 17, 2020