Opinion: From The Perspective of Azerbaijan, America Is Still a Beacon

Wed 16 Jan 2019 06:14 GMT | 10:14 Local Time

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By Raoul Lowery Contreras

I spent a week mingling with delegates from 90 nations at the 6th International Humanitarian Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan. Including me, three were from San Diego — a writer, lawyer and college professor. Being a student of cultural geography, I asked everyone I met where they were from.

They all asked me where I am from. I didn’t answer the U.S.A. or U.S. or America once; I answered them all with California.

The universal reaction was: Ah–(Sigh)–Cali—FOR—nia!

I was skeptically asked a lot about President Trump’s “Make America great again” campaign.

One can subscribe to this if one believes the United States has fallen off a wagon of some sort or one thinks — as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo believes — that America has never been “that great.” However, I believe that America has always been great, albeit with blotches on our history.

But believing that the United States is great does not preclude improvement. During my lifetime I have participated in the slow, grudging improvement in equality for blacks, Asians and my fellow Hispanics. There has been improvement; in fact, a great deal of improvement.

There have been setbacks, however: the shooting in Pittsburgh at a synagogue during services that killed 11, or the murders of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina, or of 29 white churchgoers in Texas.

One historic incident that still moves the nation is the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1964 that killed four little black girls. I was 23 when the Birmingham bombing occurred. I wept that day.

When news of the Pittsburgh shooting broke, I didn’t weep; I was enraged as I was about South Carolina and Texas. Attending an international humanitarian forum with people of all races and religions amplified my anger toward an anti-Semitic lunatic who swept a Jewish service with an assault rifle.

Ironically, on the very day of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting I visited a newly rebuilt village of a 150 families in southwestern Azerbaijan, a stone’s throw from the Iranian border. The English version of the village’s name is Jojug Marjanli. It is located 150 kilometers inside Azerbaijan, but had been taken and occupied by Armenian forces in 1993. The Armenians held it until three years ago.

The 450 Azerbaijani families who lived a pastoral life of farming and herding sheep and cattle in the village were forced to flee for their lives. Armenian forces blocked normal road egress from the village, forcing men, women, children and their livestock to flee on foot, most heading into Iran. Men, women, children, sheep and cattle died crossing the border of the Araz River, either from drowning or Russian-supplied bullets.

Survivors became Internally Displaced People, or IDP, of the Republic of Azerbaijan. They were part of the almost a million IDP refugees documented by the United Nations. They have cost Azerbaijan billions of dollars.

The 1994 cease fire consolidated Armenian occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory to this day, 25 years later. All efforts to force the Armenians to leave, including four United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding withdrawal, have failed.

Three years ago, however, Azerbaijani forces successfully attacked and liberated a small portion of the land occupied by Armenia. After a quarter century, some Azerbaijanis could go home.

The village of Jojug Marjanli portends a positive future for the Caucasus region that has been in conflict since Armenian forces invaded Azerbaijan in 1992.

Once secure, the Azerbaijani government constructed new homes in Jojug Manjali and rebuilt a destroyed mosque, civic buildings and a school. Some 150 of the original villagers who were run out in 1993 have moved home. Another 300 families will come home as new homes are constructed.

With the aura of the 90-nation, multi-racial and multi-religious International Humanitarian Forum around me, I asked many questions of the villagers and of the Azerbaijan government officials.

In the country’s presidential offices in Baku, presidential assistant Ali Hasanov said his country is committed to peace with Armenia when Armenian forces abandon internationally-recognized Azerbaijan territory.

When Azerbaijan reclaims its national territory, like the village of Jojug Marjanli, it rebuilds and moves refugees back home.

Under President Ilham Aliyev, post-war Azerbaijan has been developing along Western lines. The result is a modern nation that looks forward. Jojug Marjanli highlights the continuing efforts of the nation’s leaders.

On the other hand, at the end of the main street of the rebuilt village, there is a fortified barrier blocking off a “no-man’s land” on the other side. When I asked what was on the other side, I was told Armenian soldiers with Russian-made guns and armored vehicles.

What, I asked, would happen if I went past the barrier waving my American passport yelling “American, American!”

The answer: “They would shoot you.”

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a political consultant and author of the new book White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans. His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.

Copyright: Times of San Diego

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