Memories of the Birth of a Nation – Azerbaijan by Paolo Lembo

It’s time for you to go, ” Gambar told me. “A bomb could fall on this place at any moment. It would be much more heroic for you to persuade the international community to stop this carnage, than to die with me here in this garrison.”

It became one of the greatest refugee crises in the world: nearly a million refugees in a country with a population of barely 7 million. At a certain period, military hostilities became more and more violent, and Azerbaijan continued to lose considerable territory. The Azerbaijanis were in retreat when the region of Fuzuli (near the Iranian border) came under heavy bombardment [Summer 1993].

In one of the most difficult moments, the Speaker of Parliament, Isa Gambar, himself a native of the Fuzuli region, decided to go to the front line and remain with the troops until the end. I decided to follow in order to assess what our response should be. The events seemed to foretell an even larger humanitarian disaster.

When I reached the front line, the residents had already been evacuated from the zone, as it had been bombarded with continuous shelling for several days. Troops were changed. New contingents were being sent from Baku. As we neared the front line, we passed columns of trucks carrying the troops who were returning from the front. Our military escort, arranged by the Ministry of Defense, was driving very quickly. As we approached, the sound of the bombs became more and more violent. Every time we passed a truck, I searched the expressions on the young soldiers’ faces.

I was amazed at how very young the soldiers were and also by their composed, impenetrable expressions. It was as if the life had been knocked out of them. There was a striking difference between the aged maturity of their expressions and the gentle features of their adolescent faces. Their faces didn’t show fear or pain; instead they seemed void of all emotion – like the numbness that sets in when a person lives under the constant threat of death for a prolonged period of time.

After crossing the last checkpoint, we arrived at a small garrison that had been almost completely destroyed. It was guarded by a battalion of heavily armed troops. At that point, the explosive sounds of the heavy bombardment became more frequent. The ground shook periodically.

The door was opened very slowly by the Speaker’s personal bodyguard. I entered a small room, full of dust and rubble, where Isa Gambar was sitting alone at a modest kitchen table. An empty chair in front of him was the only other piece of furniture in the room.

Gambar was unshaven and rather pale, but his eyes were still as strong as I had known them to be. His posture inspired a sense of dignity. He seemed determined to reject the fatalism that historic circumstances, at that point in time, seemed to have already foreordained.

He wore a dark, rather dusty, jacket. No tie. An ashtray, the only object on the table, was full of ashes and cigarette butts. I shook hands with him, took a seat and waited, saying nothing.

“This used to be one of the most beautiful parts of Azerbaijan,” he began. “In spring the color of the hills was gold with wildflowers; at sunset, the hills would fade into the horizon, depending on the colors of the clouds, and the sky…

“Why did you come?” he suddenly asked after a long pause, looking me straight in the eye.

We had a one-hour meeting. I came to understand the gravity of the situation: the troops probably would not be able to hold onto the territory much longer.

The bombing became heavier and heavier. Gambar continued to smoke, unperturbed. He spoke quietly and slowly. His voice was firm and calm. Not once did he show signs of fear or anxiety. But his tired eyes could not conceal the immense pain and anger he felt in not being able to save the land of his people, his memories and his life.

A bomb exploded nearby. The ground shook violently, causing all the windows to shatter.

“It’s time for you to go,” Gambar told me. “A bomb could fall on this place at any moment. It would be much more heroic for you to persuade the international community to stop this carnage, than to die with me here in this garrison.”

The door opened suddenly, and the same bodyguard who had escorted me in announced that it was no longer safe for us to continue to stay there. We were urged to rush back to Baku immediately.

Gambar stood up and came over to me. He stretched out his hand slowly and shook my hand firmly. There was nothing more to say.

As I was leaving I noticed that when he returned to his table, he was about to light up his last cigarette, only to realize that the matchbox was empty.