Before war came to Aghdam, flowers blossomed: Ilkana Goja part 1

By | Rachel Brooks
February 26, 2021

This is the mosque of Aghdam, photographed by Seyfur Mecnun, who ventured again to the scene of Aghdam with journalist Leyla Sarabi. Photo courtesy of Goja, fair use., see U.S. Copyright Act Section 107.  _

Ilkana Goja recalls her childhood city of Aghdam as one great garden. In the days before war displaced the city’s citizens, reducing it to rubble, she lived there among her whole and happy family. She had dreams of entering medical university, a studious child with a love of growing things. She credits her childhood interests in studying medicine to shaping her career as a medical doctor. As a child, she was studious, having won science competitions in her youth.

“In Aghdam, I went to one of the best schools in the region. My primary education was in Azerbaijani whereas my cousin’s was Russian as her mother was an ethnic Russian. There were many Armenian exchange students in our school. One week, we had an exchange of kids, and then the next we heard that there was a war starting, and no one understood what was going on,” said Goja.

“I didn’t understand what was going on. You kind of lose your ground. My only reference to war was based on movies. What is a war? Why would you kill each other? It was inconceivable to me. One day you’re playing together, participating in knowledge building and sharing then, now suddenly we are going to fight each other. So, now we’re not friends, anymore.”

Goja recalled then how she was unfortunately not accepted into medical school but was accepted for English language and teaching studies. She attended university in Baku. The summer of her second year in university, she returned home to Aghdam, to find it had become an active war zone.

Footage of Aghdam. 

“ The terror of the war felt in all senses of the word. Physically and emotionally. There were bombings all the time. You just wake up, you hear something, and the whole house shakes. Over time you start recognizing the sound of bombs and predict where they would land. Even now, in my kitchen, if something falls on the ground, I am easily triggered. War was on our doorsteps. After the Khojali genocide, we knew what was expecting us. So, at one point, it became so dangerous we were not able to stay, especially after the Khojaly genocide,” she noted that she had been reading books on Monte Melkonian, and how he and his comrades had executed the massacre events, in an attempt to further understand the events that had so altered her life.

“My memories from my childhood and youth robbed from me. The terror of the war, all the bombings, and shootings, the insecurities. Brutal crimes committed against civilians, especially women. You don’t know what will happen, you don’t know what’s going on, you’re a young girl and you hear all kinds of horrifying and terrorizing stories like a woman found having a tube shoved in her vagina… The girls were raped and their breasts were cut off. There were just horrible things, you had just seen these horror stories. As a child you don’t remember, you don’t know what is happening to you, but you’re actually developing trauma.”

She then recalled the days of the bombing of Aghdam, and how her family finally decided to send her away from that place.

“At one point, when I was on summer vacation at home,… I really wanted to go back home. We spent two nights in the cellar. We went into the cellar, and the whole house was shaking. Our neighbor’s houses were destroyed, every single one was destroyed… Every time I speak about the horrors I relive them.
So, and the next morning. They just wanted us to go. My dad, my aunt, my uncle, my mom, every one of them wanted us to leave.”

At one stage during the bombing of Aghdam, the adults wouldn’t let the children emerge from the cellar to even use the toilet.

“I didn’t even go out for fresh air. Men would go out for you if needed. Because they didn’t know if we would die or not. They were protecting kids.”

Goja recalled with sadness the bombing of the beautiful garden of her huge family home that was shared between her dad and uncle.

“We had a big garden. We had a lot of pomegranate trees. We had really huge walnut trees. All five of us could go around it, and we still couldn’t hug. That’s how big they were.”

She then recalled the beauty of her girlhood garden. A place of study and peace had become a death trap.

“Yeah, if you would go out, you wouldn’t know which of the trees could fall on you,” she recalled, as the ordinance of war tore down the family’s lush garden.

“Around the house, my Dad made like an ‘L’-shaped pergola that was just full of different types and colors of grapes. Beautiful flowers…I even wrote an article about it in Dutch that no one wanted to publish. I felt really sad because they had found it as literature, but for me, it was my story. Because the last time I looked, I had my own flowers. Because I love nature and Botanics. So, I grew lots of flowers, and I hung them between the pergola and the house and looked at them blossoming. That’s how I always have it in my dreams. I want flowers to blossom just like that when I go back. I would even talk to my flowers.”

Oh, the pergola was full of white roses, red roses, velvet roses. They were a really special type. I remember since I was 13 I was growing and nourishing them. I remember when I would look up I would just have roses hanging above my head, and grapes. In front of me were just beautiful flowers at the window. Just hanging around the frames.”

She recalled with great sadness how the memory of her girlhood garden might be a bygone thing. Aghdam is absolutely destroyed and razed.

“That’s a picture that I will never forget, and will probably not see anymore. Because there is nothing left of Aghdam. I heard that there is a little piece of the wall left, just one or two stones on top of each other. We cannot go in. It’s all under the landmines on the three levels where they (Armenians) planted landmines.”

Goja then recalled how she left her beautiful childhood home and garden behind at the behest of her family, who feared what would become of her if she remained in the war zone at such a tender age.

“I didn’t want to leave my ancestral land. My aunt, my uncle, my dad, and my mom, everyone was convincing me. ‘You’re 19. You’re the first one that they will pick when they get here. You’re the first one who will be raped, and enslaved, and taken hostage.’ They really forced me, me and my sister, they pulled me into the car, my sister as well. She was quite young. Also, my youngest brother. The oldest of my brothers, Teymur wouldn’t go. He was younger than me, he was just 17 years old. He wouldn’t leave. He disappeared and we didn’t find him.”

In part two, our guest explains more about how young Teymur vanished.