If I Were a Bird

[Names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy]

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“When we got off the train that night, the city was eerily quiet. There was not a soul around. I said to my husband, ‘Something happened here. Something is wrong.’ We caught a driver, and my husband told me to turn towards the window and conceal my face from the driver. When we pulled up to our block, neighbors were gathered outside. I knew right away that something was very wrong. I knew that something had happened right in my building. As I was running up to my floor, I ran into one of my neighbors. She was sobbing, yelling at me, ‘You need to look for your children! Go look for your children!’ I ran up to my apartment breathless. The door was wide open. My daughters were gone.”

That faithful night was over 26 years ago, but Anna Grigoryan, a Charlotte resident, can recall every detail second by second. The Grigoryan family, ethnic Armenians, were caught in the middle of a rivalry between neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan. Although tensions between Azerbaijanis and Armenians started in 1988, they hit a climactic point on Jan. 13, 1990. The next seven days, from Jan. 13 to Jan. 19, 1990, became known as the Baku Pogrom. During this time, the Armenian population, which had called Azerbaijan home for centuries, were beaten, raped, murdered, and banished from their homes.

Anna Grigoryan and her husband, both Armenians, were born in Baku, Azerbaijan and had lived there for most of their lives. Along with their two daughters and son, they eventually immigrated to the United States in 1991, and made Charlotte their home. Anna is retired; her husband passed away a few years ago. Her oldest daughter owns a salon and spa, and her youngest is an established stylist in Los Angeles. Anna’s son, who was studying in Moscow during the ordeals described, is an interpreter. But it’s been difficult for them to forget Bake and Azerbaijan, and the frightening years that eventually left them banished from their home.

“My mother used to tell me harrowing tales about the Armenian genocide that happened in 1915, about mass murders and displaced families, and I never in a million years thought that anything like that would touch me. I used to say to her, ‘Mama, we live in the late 20th century, things like that don’t happen anymore!’ But just six months after her death in 1988, the unrest began. People started talking – someone was beaten here; someone was killed there. But that didn’t feel real to me. It was somewhere far from Baku. Baku was my home. No one could hurt us there.”

But the tensions between Azerbaijanis and Armenians continued to escalate. The violence had started in Nagorno-Karabakh, a historically Armenian territory that was being occupied by Azerbaijan, which wanted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia during the Perestroika, when the Soviet Union was falling apart. This caused conflict between the Azerbaijanis and Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh. Over the course of a few months, that conflict spread throughout Azerbaijan and into its capital city, Baku.

During the Baku Pogrom, Azerbaijani extremists would beat anyone on the streets resembling Armenians – and they did not spare the elderly, women, or children. They had lists with the names and addresses of Armenians living in the city, and they would come tearing doors down, raping, beating, and killing families, and then stealing their belongings.

It was on January 13, 1990 that Anna Grigoryan and her husband traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia for a relative’s funeral. Their daughters, who were at the time in their early teens, stayed home with one of their friend’s with a stern warning from Anna to not open the door for anyone.

“My oldest daughter, Elya, had a friend visiting. My husband is half-Ukrainian, so my daughters did not have the typical Armenian facial features. Lilya, their friend, looked more Armenian. While my husband and I were gone, one of our neighbors, who lived in the building next to us, told the militants that we were an Armenian family, and showed them to our apartment.”

“They began beating on the door, and my girls didn’t open, just as I had told them to. So then they said they would tear the door down. Elya hid Lilya in the bedroom, and opened the door to the band of men. They looked at her and said to the man that brought them there, ‘They’re not Armenian! Why’d you bring us here?’ But then Lilya stuck her head out the door, and so they grabbed all three of them, my two daughters and Lilya, and dragged them out of the building. Lilya protested. They hit her across the face.”

When Anna and her husband came home to an empty apartment, Anna, a well-known and liked member of her community, began making calls to her precinct officer.
“He started yelling at me, ‘Where did you go? Why did you leave at a time like this?’ Give me some time, I will look for your daughters.”

And so Anna and her husband sat, in anguish and fear, and waited. Two hours later, two men in government uniforms brought all three girls home. But even today, they find it difficult to talk about that frightening night.

“They were taken to basements by a nearby park. I knew that park. As a little girl, I took dance classes by it. The basements were big, with multiple rooms, all filled with Armenians. The girls could hear brutal screams coming from the other rooms; unimaginable things were happening there. But by God’s grace, my daughters were taken to separate room, with armed guards standing by the door. I still don’t know why that happened. Maybe it’s because they saw how innocent these girls were, or maybe they had other, less noble reasons.”

But Anna chooses to believe the first version. Despite all that she had seen and endured, she still believes in her Baku, and in its Azerbaijani population who, from the time of her birth, were her neighbors, her coworkers, and her dear friends.

That night, after Anna’s daughters came home, the family rapidly gathered their belongings. They took only necessities, a few clothing items and some valuables, planning to come back in the morning to gather the rest of their belongings – which included antiques, imported goods (a luxury during the Soviet era) and rare chinaware. But that was the last time they ever saw their home.

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An elderly woman is being escorted onto a ferry. Photo credit: asbarez.com

“We hid out at our Azerbaijani friends’ homes for about a week – good people that could see through the injustices.”
To restore order in Azerbaijan, the Soviet Union had to send in their troops. One week after they left their home, Soviet soldiers put Anna and her family, along with other Armenians, on a ferry boat and evacuated them to Turkmenbasy, formerly known as Krasnovodsk, a city in Turkmenistan.
“The ferries were full of victims of the Baku Pogrom – elderly folk and women with beaten faces, on canes and stretchers. It was a frightening journey, because we heard that some of the boats that left prior to ours were flipped over by militants, drowning the people on board.”

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A victim of the Baku Pogrom. Photo credit: asbarez.com

From Turkmenistan the Grigoryan family journeyed to Armenia, and then to Moscow where Anna’s son was studying. They were eventually granted visas to the United States as refugees, where they slowly started to rebuild their lives.

Baku is now a metropolitan city that attracts thousands of tourists each year. Despite all this, Armenians are still not welcome. But Anna holds no resentment towards Baku or the people of Azerbaijan.

“There were some extremists, but in general, they are good, loving people. I had so many wonderful neighbors and friends. Throughout the horrors that lasted from 1988 to 1990, my Azerbaijani friends always helped us and shielded us when they could.”

Now, Anna just has one dream, and that is to see her beloved Baku just one more time.

“If I were a bird, if I could fly, I would fly straight to Baku, just to get a glimpse of my home and the street it stands on. Even from afar, that would make me so happy. My beautiful Baku. My beautiful Baku.”

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