Gunel Movlud: “The Girl from Karabakh” who became a refugee twice

“War is not just about military operations, deaths, losses, horror, tragedies and tanks; it is more about broken lives. And when we refer to “war,” we see something big and pathetic. But, the war has costs that come out later, are they are even worse than the war itself,” said Azerbaijani writer and journalist Gunel Movlud, who became an IDP as a result of the first Karabakh war.

The Girl from Karabakh

Gunel was born in 1981 in the village of Mehdili, in Jebrail region. She was eleven years old when the first Karabakh war broke out. In summer of that terrible 1993, her family and all other villagers were forced to flee from their homes and found shelter in a tent city of Sabirabad, the region bordering Iran.

“We all fled separately – my dad and sisters separately, my mom and brothers separately, and I separately. Because when the Armenian forces entered, we were all in different places. We found each other later in the camp, where our family lived in one tent, which was six square meters.”

Years later, the Azerbaijani writer described everything that happened in the camp in her autobiographical novel The Girl from Karabakh. Gunel admits that working on her book was not easy, because it was more difficult for her to process all the memories of those days than experience those events in childhood.

“I saw there people from my village, whom, as it turned out, I didn’t know at all, I saw how these nice and kind people, who they used to be before, began to steal rice and bread and got involved in fights in the camp. Hunger and poverty can put a person in such a condition that the war is nothing compared to it.”

The writer deliberately avoids describing the war itself in her novel, for which many Azerbaijanis criticized her. The Girl from Karabakh is a story about moral degradation caused by inhuman living conditions. Moreover, it is a protest against a patriarchal society, where a woman is deprived of all rights, but still proves to be stronger than men.

The most shocking memory of a 12-year-old girl was the moment when her brother witnessed the rape of a little boy by people from the same camp. In her novel, the author describes the camp life without embellishment, touching upon the topics that are tabooed in the conservative Azerbaijani society.

“Because of this novel, I still have problems with my relatives and other Azerbaijanis. There was a lot of criticism that this book was affecting the image of Azerbaijan. But I do not think so. My main goal was to show that there were Azerbaijani refugees, to show how they lived and how these conditions affected their behavior.”

According to Gunel, she wanted to provide readers with more complete information about the IDPs of the first Karabakh war, because at that time the information about them was scarce. It was only after the second war in Karabakh that the prehistory of the people who had been forced to live in tent cities for many years began to emerge.

The response of the Azerbaijani society to the novel was diverse. Some accepted the book positively, but the feelings of more conservative part were hurt.

“They did not like that I wrote about the rape of boys, or that stranger men entered the tents of women who lived without men and by taking advantage of their power, their status, raped them or forced them to have sex.”

“The role of women in military conflicts is often depreciated”

Gunel was criticized by many for her explicit feminist position in the novel. The author makes the main emphasis on the fact that it is much more difficult for women to survive the hardships of war and exile.

“During the war, a man becomes a hero, a cult, and the role of a woman, especially in a patriarchal society, is depreciated. There is simply no place for her in all this cult of male heroism.”

But in fact, Gunel believes, that the entire burden falls on the shoulders of women. They have to feed their children, support their families and send parcels to front line for their men. It was the women who showed selflessness by picking up cotton under the burning sun for pennies, by cooking food in unbearable heat, washing clothes in insanitary conditions. And, at the same time, they had to live quiet life, unnoticeably, without attracting too much attention.

“There were always only women in the queues for water, and the quarrels between them were quite common. The fact that, besides all other hardships, they had to endure water shortage was absolutely exhausting for the women in the camp. And, if the quarrel turned into a fight, they dragged each other by their hair with incredible cruelty, scratched each other’s faces, bit each other and even tore and pulled off each other’s clothes. And all this was accompanied by the storm of swearing and heartbreaking screams”

Extract from the novel The Girl from Karabakh

The author observed that even sympathy towards male and female victims of war is shown differently. When men become refugees, people are more compassionate for them, because their honour has been hurt. Even when women are taken prisoners, it is done in order to hurt the enemy. Indeed, in the patriarchal Azerbaijani society, a woman is the honour of a man.

“But nobody wanted to see the pain of women. Nobody thought about their feelings, even when they had to hide their washed underwear, because it is shameful for women, but not for men, of course.”

Gunel said that she was often criticized for her “dislike” of men and was blamed for denigrating the traditional values of Azerbaijanis by writing about the rape of women and boys, how men spent money earned by their wives on women and how girls suffered during their periods in the camp.

“There are many ruined human lives in this novel. It also features men who work in the cotton fields and help their wives. Sometimes men have hard times too, and these are the costs of a patriarchal society, which imposes too much responsibility on them.”

“I had encountered the hatred in my country”

Gunel Movlud had to become a refugee several times. She was persecuted in her homeland for political reasons, criticised for collaboration with Meydan TV, the Berlin-based opposition Azerbaijani media outlet. As a result, Gunel and her husband were forced to leave Azerbaijan and move to Berlin.

“In Azerbaijan I had problems not only with the authorities, but with clerics as well. I have always criticized the local mindset, therefore almost the whole country was against me. Many people thought that with my open texts about sex, women and feminism, I was shaming them. Because of this, I had encountered the hatred in my home country.”

After the term of legal stay in Germany came to an end, the family had to leave the country and return to Azerbaijan. But since in her homeland Gunel was going to face serious problems, including arrest, it was decided to move to neighbouring Georgia.

However, within the first year of her stay in Tbilisi, Gunel was regularly receiving threats on her social networks from the residents of Marneuli region, mainly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis. And, when in 2016 the family applied for extension of residence permit for the third time, they were told that their presence in the country was undesirable.

“I think it was an order coming from the Azerbaijani government, and not only in relation to me, but also in relation to many Azerbaijani political refugees in Georgia. I am not angry about it, but I look at it more with humor, because the Georgian government was forced to act in the interests of Azerbaijan.”

She said that when the family was refused the residence permit in Georgia, the uncertainty was looming over her. The family could not return to Azerbaijan. Two of her brothers were arrested, and her mother was forced to renounce her daughter. According to Movlud, it was most likely linked to her activities as a journalist.

Entirely by chance, the case of Gunel was sent to ICORN (International Cities of Refugee Network), which offers shelter to writers and artists at risk. A few days later, Movlud was invited as the author to the Norwegian city of Levanger. Almost five years have passed since the family has lived in Norway. According to Gunel, she and her husband are no longer afraid for their lives, and their son, who was born in Germany and was without citizenship for a long time, had finally got the status. “I love my country very much, but I don’t want this love to blind me,” Gunel said.

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