Saturday, January 3, 2009

Welcome back to Baku

I arrived back in Azerbaijan in the early evening yesterday. Uneventful trip, in general. The most wonderful part was flying over the Caucasus. The snow covered peaks were painted pink by the sunset. I don’t think I’d ever seen them so clearly. Really beautiful and striking how relatively unspoiled they are - not dotted with ski trails, for example, like so many mountains in the U.S. West.

Upon my arrival, I went through the regular routine. Taxi? Taxi? I had expected a friend, but because of a communication snafu, I did finally take a taxi from the airport, and was reminded of the stories I so often hear in this country.

The driver and I chatted about this and that - language, the weather, what has occurred in Azerbaijan in the last three weeks, the new US president. At one point, I asked him where he was from. Karabakh. And the familiar story ensued. He had two houses there, but they were destroyed in the war with the separatists. He and his family fled to Baku in 1993. He remains homeless. (I think in the sense of not owning his own house.)

Naturally, he railed against the perfidious character of the Armenians. And he noted that he is a observant Muslim, praying five times a day. Allah will not tolerate such injustice, he said.

I was thinking about the conversation this morning, as I read “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” by Chris Hedges. I’ve been meaning to read this for some time, and finally got around to buying a copy while I was in the States. The book is essentially Hedges’ reflections on his more than 20 years as a correspondent covering war. The title of the book sums up the thesis - that war provides humans a unique emotional reward - even as it destroys them. He doesn’t write about the Nagorno-Karabakh per se, but his observations are equally relevant to that conflict. Here in Azerbaijan we see exactly the same phenomenon that he describes in Croatia, Serbia or Palestine. The corrosive effect of nationalism, the demonization of the enemy, the political uses of war.

The story of my taxi driver could be re-told in any number of war-torn countries. The story of the internally displaced families, struggling to survive. The story of bitterness and resentment that will fester for generations.

Hedges’ book differs from so many of the books I read on war while studying political science at the university. It does not analyze particularly why there are wars - unlike work by Bueno de Mesquita or Kenneth Waltz, for example. But Hedges brings his rich experience to bear in crafting a penetrating and disturbing work.
(Photos: juxtaposition of woman cleaning up melting snow and Father Christmas and the Snow Princess; dawn of Jan. 4, 2009.)