Interview with Svetlana Kulchitskaya
Svetlana Kulchitskaya is a member of the Union of Journalists of Saint Petersburg, a TV journalist, who covered the Karabakh war. As fate willed, she appeared to be the last one to see and talk to the people of Khojaly in captivity whom the Armenian side voluntarily and without preconditions handed over to Azerbaijan two days later.
– Svetlana Igorevna, you are one of the journalists who covered the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Could you please tell how you appeared in the thick of the events?
– I was in Karabakh in 1992 due to, naturally, professional interest. It was a time, I would say, of “movement of earth layers” – everything was moving, forming cracks in all the layers of government and human activities. The concepts were changing and getting confused. And people were, in the proper sense of the word, falling into those canyons as if shot. The politicians were making experiments, with the most important being self-determination – of course, an important one and vital for some republics. However, having no practical experience and rules on how to part peacefully, they began wars.
In those years, I worked at Leningrad television and knew many people who followed the developments in Karabakh and covered them in the central and Leningrad press, like writer from Leningrad Igor Babanov, his colleague Konstantin Voevodski, who gathered information on Karabakh, and others. Watching the reports of central television, I understood that the provided information was insufficient. I knew what war was from textbooks only. I had always been more interested in people, and therefore I believed that it was my duty to understand how common people lived in wartime, how they perceived what was happening on their land, and to tell about it. And as I knew a TV cameraman, a native of Karabakh, where his family was living, the decision to leave was made quickly.
After a week's stay in Yerevan, waiting for a better weather, we flew to Karabakh by helicopter, which was shot during the flight.
There were barrels of fuel in the helicopter, but luckily the bullet hit right between the barrels, which was what saved us, otherwise I would be up in the heaven now. The airdrome was destroyed, so we landed in the mountains. We reached Stepanakert by car, driving at a high speed, to avoid death. In Stepanakert, I lived in a basement, together with members of the militia, former employees of television whose building had been blown up. Among them there were also teachers, tailors, i.e. so-called servants. People of the most peaceful professions. On the opposite side, there lived several families – women, children, and an elderly man.
On the first day I got acquainted with the former cameraman of the TV studio and he invited us to his house which was partially destroyed and his parents and brother lived in the basement. Their apartment was safe, but there was no heating, electricity and water. We ate something from the canned stocks. My new friend – young, talented man – died on the next day. I never heard him discredit people from another nation. He said he did not want the death of civilians in the settlements were fighting was going on.
He said he had to defend his house, his land and his relatives.
It was my first direct encounter with the death the war carried. Later, it was in abundance.
– It is also known that you are the only one who managed to shoot a video showing the handover of Khojaly people to the Azerbaijani side. Could you please tell how that meeting happened, how you appeared there, why you decided to accompany them and until where you went with them?
– The next morning after our arrival we began filming the video and went to the frontline where the truce hours were set. It was where the handover of Khojaly people to the Azerbaijani side was to take place.
– Did you manage to talk to them without the camera? Maybe they tried to say something, to hint at the horrors they had experienced, but feared that they could be heard?
– I talked to them – via an interpreter – before making the video recording. And what they told me in response to my questions was identical to what they said without a microphone. I confirm it even twenty years later, especially as my professional principles do not allow me to act another way.
– Were there any Armenian military men with you there? How did they treat the Khojaly people? Did you notice any mistreatment – were they driven, held at gunpoint, was there any aggression towards them or you?
– Of course, there were militias standing next to them, with guns in their hands, as well as on the opposite side where that group was to move and where armed fighters of Azerbaijani army were. I talked to them kindly; I can't say that those who accompanied them talked to them rudely or in a boorish manner. Everything was within business tone, without any shouts. Though the war situation does not dispose to it.
– Did you notice traces of violence on the refugees? Bruises, wounds, traces of beating; was any of them lame, or did any of them hold a sore part of body?
– I did not see any traces of beating or other violence. Yes, their looks were not for public appearance. However, I did not have the looks for paying a visit either.
– What most of all stuck in your memory?
– The most acute impression I got while looking at those women and children crossing the border into the Azerbaijani side. I was thinking that they were born on the earth not for enduring all the hardships of war, as well as those who left their families and had to take up arms to defend their homes, which as I saw were destroyed and burned. I saw people in hospitals with their ears cut off and the maternity hospital of Stepanakert was bombed in front of me. I met a boy whose entire family was slaughtered in front of him. He managed to hide behind the bed. I have seen much in my life, but what is happening in the world today is like mass psychosis. There is a feeling that the air is infected with aggression, that blood lust is flying in the air. Something like the coming of a new Dracula.
Later, I met with captives in the prison, talked to a young Azerbaijani man, who lived in an Armenian family that was waiting for its son's return from captivity, and I can say, and I have a video confirming that the young man would strongly reject fighting against Armenian militias in Karabakh. He said that he would rather die than go and kill people with whom he grew up. He understood that this response could be interpreted against him later. I gave him the possibility to reject the question, but he replied that he wanted to talk about it. He was kept as a family member, and he spoke about it with no pressure from me. Especially because in my works I never used any expression disparaging Azerbaijani people or people of any other nationality, understanding and respecting every nation.
– You have been distanced from the Karabakh war for 20 years and I think you can assess the situation with a fresh look. Tell me, in your view, why the Azerbaijani side began to collect eyewitness testimonies after 23 years and did not do it at that time, by the fresh trail?
– I understand all the psychological nuances of those people's behavior at that moment. They could be insincere or conceal their thoughts before crossing the border, but not so much emotionally and in detail. To put it figuratively, they would not get any points for that. If today these women – who for some reason are interviewed only 22 years later – express an absolutely opposite view, this should be solely on their conscience and the conscience of those who once again try to inflame the fire of war, a propaganda war, yet a war. Yet the war is contagious. And if the death of their people and the children of their country are not a lesson for politicians, then various methods are used, even surveys of elderly people decades later, when, in conditions created for them by their rulers, ideologists and apologists of bloodshed, they can only answer definitely – deny everything positive said about their former enemy.
Franklin Roosevelt, whom I respect in many aspects, said, "If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships – the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace." What is surprising is that the word "war" itself does not cause the uprising of the entire society. Maybe this is why politicians allow themselves to stir up one nation's hatred towards another nation – just as I assess the interview, after 22 years, with those unhappy women who went under the Moloch of war, and the fathers of religion fail to find words, they do not wish to go into the "fire" for the salvation of their flock.
– Thank you very much.
– Truly yours, S. Kulchitskaya, member of the Union of Journalists of Saint Petersburg.