By Vahagn Antonyan*
Nearly twenty young men and women crowded into a narrow room on the first floor of an apartment building, stealing furtive glances at each other in an attempt to size up one another while the trainer Azad wrote the theme of the meeting on the small blackboard.
A little later, he and the other trainer Albert started the “Gender Ideals in the Family and Society” workshop with round of introductions: Georgian, Armenian, Azeri youth read each other’s names (Suren, Givi, Aynura) and listened with interest to the stories about the meanings of the participants’ names. Organized by Alla Bezhentseva, the workshop was being held in the town of Marneuli, Georgia, in the office of an NGO, the Union of Azeri Women of Georgia. It was Alla, who as a trainer invited Azad Isazade from Azerbaijan and Albert Voskanyan from Nagorno Karabakh.
Kvemo-Kartli is a region of Georgia. Living here are Georgians, who in this region form a minority to the ethnic Azeris and Armenians in some areas. Relations between these three ethnic groups on the surface often appear smooth despite the many internal controversies.
“The project is directed towards the most vulnerable groups of Kvemo-Kartli ethnic minorities: youth and women. Earlier, I invited Sajida and Vafa from Azerbaijan for similar ‘activization’ seminars in Bolnisi and Algeti, and Susana from Armenia for the seminar in Tsalka. All of those people I became familiar with while studying in a three-year course Omnibus 1325 organized by the German organization OWEN,” said Alla Bezhentseva, the director of the Union of Russian Women of Georgia NGO.
But the most creative pair of trainers is the pair of Azad Isazade and Albert Voskanyan, former military men, officers who both fought in the Nagorno Karabakh war in opposing armies. Now they are cooperating; jointly teaching and calling for peace. Some years ago, Albert and Azad were no exceptions and shared the feelings of their respective societies. But during the last few years, many things have changed to a large extent thanks due to the Omnibus 1325 course. Now they are participants in the network of the same name.
“There wasn’t a bus!”
What is Omnibus 1325? ”It’s an ongoing journey, a learning process from and with men and women about life and reality, perspectives, views, needs, wishes, dreams, and potential for promoting peace through peaceful means, learning what peace and peacemaking means for other people in their specific context.” This is how colourful the Mobile Peace Academy Omnibus 1325 is according to Marina Grasse from the German organization OWEN, at whose initiative the course in 2006 was launched.
“Open for women and men who in different ways are involved in the field of gender, women’s issues, conflict transformation, human rights from the South and North Caucasus where it could be experienced, that dialogue is possible and that through dialogue we can learn about us and about ‘the others’.” This was Marina Grasse’s main intention.
“Many people ask us if there really was a bus. The answer is, “No, there wasn’t!” Omnibus is a symbol meaning “for everyone”, says the research worker of the Omnibus, Dana Jirouš.
In 2006, after reviewing many applications a few participants from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Abkhazia, South Osetia, Nagorno Karabakh, and the Russian Federation (Chechnya, Dagestan, Novocherkassk) were selected. 67 participants were chosen for the basic course held in two – northern and southern – subgroups.
20 participants were joined the advanced course of the Academy: they were involved in peace building and educational activities, had a definite influence in their society, and they would multiply their knowledge gained during the courses in their societies. Similar separate courses were organized in Germany at the local level, for young multipliers who work on intercultural dialogue between the German majority and the minority of migrants.
As in every group, everything was not flowing smoothly here as well, especially if we consider the fact how much the members of the group differed in ethnical, cultural, and religious aspects. Also if we add the fact that they were from the countries involved in conflicts, the picture becomes more complete. But everybody was united by the idea of reaching peace in the Caucasus, and the many meetings, conversations, and discussions in Georgia, Sochi, Istanbul, Trabzon, Berlin, Potsdam and other places, and joint education during years accomplished the goal.
“Probably we have told each other thousands of stories, including very painful ones. There were also tears, many times people weren’t able to stand the emotional pressure”, tells expert Azad Isazade, psychologist of the Crises Center of Women in Baku. “When I was fighting in Kharabakh, in the nineties, I would never ever have thought that there will come a time when I will not only be a partner with Albert, a Kharabakhian Armenian, but also that we would be friends. But now I can proudly say that all of us in the group are friends in the real sense of the word.”
Albert’s and Azad’s “Unique Duet”
“Albert and Azad’s duet is unique”, says Alla Bezhentseva, adding: “The fighters of the past are themselves propagating peace. For me the best result of peacebuilding was when two Azeri young girls living in Georgia approached Albert and told him that they couldn’t imagine that Armenians were so kind.”
“We are not ashamed to look into each other’s eyes because we did nothing to be ashamed of during the war. Albert, for instance, was busy with locating Azeri prisoners of war and missing soldiers in Armenian held territory,” continues Azad.
“Now, sometimes we are joking with each other in a way that even the best of friends cannot always do with each other. We have many things in common: we are about the same age, 54, were raised in the same city – Baku – almost the same neighbourhood, and have many common acquaintances. We were adversaries during the war, but even if that sounds strange, even that unifies us,” says Albert Voskanyan.
What’s so Special about this Course?
The approach of this three-year course was different than the approaches used before. The basic approach adopted was the ‘Gestalt’ pedagogy. Also Paulo Freire’s approach was accepted and used in South America. These methodologies that form the basis of Omnibus 1325, envisage that everybody comes with own experiences; nobody is empty, and each one is able to learn and educate even a trainer.
“The entire educational process was based on dialogues. I realized that my life experience is interesting for other participants. Only after I gradually started to understand that genuine dialogue is, when all of us add our own contributions to the process and are learning from each other,” says one of the course participants, the director of Peace Dialogue NGO Edgar Khachatryan.
“Previoulsy, we were occupied with matters of gender and peace along a trajectory given by our hearts. But the study at the Academy systematized what we had felt and gave us more concrete sense on the topic.” This is what Isazade believes.
After passing the course, the participants, who were also trainers in the past, generally revised their pedagogical and methodological approaches, realized mistakes and false steps that they had done before, and are now trying to translate into practice the knowledge they received in their everyday work.
“For me, Omnibus is an opportunity for free thinking. It gives me not abstract knowledge, but an opportunity to realize the gravity and influence of my routine work; tools for self-awareness,” says Edgar.
08.08.08: The Crisis
Whether internal or external in nature, tough moments turned out to be unavoidable also for Omnibus 1325. For all of them, the first meeting after August 8, 2008 was a real turning point. This was when the Omnibus network met for the first time following the armed conflict over South Ossetia between Georgia and Russia.
Almost all participants mentioned that it was the most difficult time period for the network. Everyone was against the war; they all wished to talk with one voice, to condemn the war and to publish a joint press release. However, people from South Ossetia, Georgia, and Russian Federation had a different sense of what was happening and also in which words the press release would be written.
“There was in fact a situation that made us feel a great disappointment. It seemed that nothing was achieved, all had failed and that was the end,” recalls Barelkowska.
“I had a very difficult time. The sound of bombs exploding in Georgia in August was only just fading away and there were Russian troops on Georgian territory. The propaganda of both countries led people to oppose each other vigorously. A difficult meeting lay ahead of us, a hard discussion could not be avoided. On an emotional level, it was very difficult; everything came out, with tears and feelings. I received such an unexpected warmth and support, especially from the German participants,” recounts Alla Gamakharia of the Fund Sukhumi in Kutaisi, Georgia.
The situation in the region at that time was so strained that one was not able to exclude even the beginning of new Armenian-Azeri conflict.
“During the discussion, in a heated atmosphere, Vafa (from Azerbaijan), before taking to silent meditation, jumped up suddenly and screamed: ‘But I don’t want to lose my friends!’ Her behaviour was so natural and anxious in that minute, that I recall thinking that she is a real friend with whom I could have a true friendship,” says Edgar Khachatryan, and continues: “It forced me to think that business relations is not the only thing connecting me with them but they are almost relatives to me and I feel the same. I don’t want to lose my friends. The society of Azerbaijan is not something abstract for me, an enemy, but my first association is of my friends and I can’t perceive the Azeri society, which also is including Azad, Sajida, and Vafa, as an enemy society.”
Omnibus without its Locomotive, OWEN
In 2009, after the completion of the project, the participants of the courses decided to continue their joint work by founding International Peace Building Network Omnibus 1325. The latter is not a union of NGOs but the union of individuals; it is based on individual friendship and mutual confidence. It’s a union of a group of people who, as the main motivator of the Omnibus, Marina Grasse mentions “have a dream of living in peace and they feel responsible for it.”
“We all feel worried how it will be without any material support from Germany because the course project has come to an end,” says Joanna Barelkowska.
But the motivation was found to work together and to continue the cooperation amongst all the participants; with one voice it was decided to continue joint activities.
“It is the success of all of us that the network is living and working effectively, even without its engine, OWEN,” continues Joanna. “The distinctiveness of the network is that participants trust each other so much that they are ready to cooperate through their own initiative without any support. I am proud of that so much. We all can be proud with that.”
Present: Comprehensive Cooperative ties
Now participants of the International Peacebuilding network Omnibus 1325 are actively working in their home countries.
“Nobody heard about the word ‘gender’ in Nagorno Karabakh as of 2006. Our organization for already one year is working in that direction. We aspire that the women’s role increases in the social life of Nagorno Karabakh and that the women’s resources will be used for peaceful aims so that they can defend their rights and participate in the work of nation building,” says Albert Voskanyan, director of the Centre of Civilian Initiatives, Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh.
Despite the borders and conflicts, they are cooperating with each other multilaterally. The participants of the network feel each other’s needs, according to Marina Grasse, not because they are weak and alone, but that it’s possible to reach greater successes through using the potential of all.
Aside from Azad, Albert, Susana, Sajida, Vafa, and Alla’s cooperation, there are many examples of cooperation as well. Azad Isazade is cooperating with Inna Ayrapetyan, a member of the Women’s Centre Sintem in Chechnya. They support each other with advice and an active exchange of experience and information.
The participant of the German course of Omnibus Inga Luther cooperates with her colleagues from Latin America. There are also cooperative ties between Alla Gamakharia and Valentina Cherevatenko (from Russian Federation, Women of Don NGO), Edgar and Marina and their respective organizations Peace Dialogue and OWEN. The participants also are in intensive correspondence within the network; everyday they are exchanging information and news.
Epilogue: The Future
The most colourful perception about the future of the four-year old network founded amidst many difficulties and still taking its first few steps has been given by Alla Bezhentseva, who says: “The Omnibus is a newly born child who is still taking his first steps. Until now – correct steps. But you never know what it will become in the future. He needs good friends, he needs to pass through a good school and not be isolated.”
* Vahagn Antonyan is an Armenian journalist and correspondent of the ArmenPress News Agency for the region Lori (Armenia)