Women in war - women in peace: Meeting women from the Caucasus


Caucasus is a region of the former Soviet Union which lies between the Black
Sea and the Caspian Sea. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, conflicts
in this area erupted, sometimes in very cruel forms. In some of these
conflicts, women have crossed the lines to find peaceful means of
reconciliation. Here, some of these women tell their stories.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the beginning of the 1990s gave people
in this region hope for something new. But this hope was quickly killed as
daily life became bleaker than ever. Many are struggling to find their place in
a society in which conflict abounds and the economy is in shambles.

No peace in Caucasus

There is no peace as long as the
seeds of conflict still exist.

Natella comments on the situation in Abkhasia, which was at war with Georgia in
1992-93, resulting in a huge refugee problem. She represents a small population
of about 100,000 - but she underlines that the Abkhasians represent 17% of the
population in the neighbouring state of Georgia. "Throughout history our people
have been in danger of eradication several times through deportation", Natella
says. She comments on the situation today: how the hatred is enormous, and
Abkhasians are committing cruel acts of revenge on individual Georgians.

"There are Russian leaders who wanted Chechnya crushed once and for all", says
Zoia from the northern part of the Caucasus. "The war might break out again
anytime. There are still provocations at the borders, and it is all about oil.
Several ethnic groups are living in the region, and to isolate them is the best
way the Russians can keep their power."

A model of war

Arzu from Azerbaijan gives us a model
of what is happening: propaganda, largely in the form of evil-looking images of
the "enemy", is created by and transmitted through the mass media, serving to
"heat people up" on both sides. Rumours of encroachment are spread, along with
horror stories and accusations. War hysteria increases, starting in more
isolated regions and eventually spreading to the big cities. Psychologists and
sociologists colour the picture further. At this point, the process is

A third party often has an interest in promoting conflict. In the Caucasus,
that third party is Russia. The presence of weapons helps make war inevitable.
If it looks like one side is winning, Russia will make sure things are evened
out, providing more weapons to the side that is behind. This is what's
happening in Arzu's region.

Veronica from Georgia says that Arzu's model fits the situation in Georgia,
where the political leadership has had a policy of divide and rule. The third
party (again, Russia) played an active role in presenting one-sided
information. A policy of isolation cut contact between people on different
sides of the border. Mass media provoked and fanned the flames of hysteria, and
as the conflict grew, smaller ethnic groups were chased out of Abkhasia.

Russia as the third party

There are historical reasons
for Russia's role as the third party in these regional conflicts. Essentially,
the Caucasus are Russia's traditional "scapegoat". The finger of
blame is
often pointed at organised crime - though the Chechnyan mafia, for example,
has been given mythical dimensions in the effort to justify Russia's war in
Chechnya. Statistically, many other groups commit more crimes than the

Since the Russian tsar's conquests in the last century, the Caucasians were
stigmatised as "wild warriors". The regime wanted to widen its territory, but
the Caucasians refused to submit. (Their opposition to the tsar was perhaps the
most effective of its time.) Since then, the stereotype has continued among the
Russian population, and has frequently been used by Russian politicians and
leaders. Historians and authors have also contributed to the shallow
stereotypes, writing about a people who are "warriors, dark-eyed beauties with
exotic traditions and a magnificent nature". In addition, the people of the
Caucasus are Muslim (while Russians are predominantly Christian).

During and after the Stalin period, the picture remained largely the same: in
the absence of a civil society with free speech, and combined with the massive
propaganda machine of the government, the Russian people were indoctrinated to
think in terms of stereotypes.

A model of peace

Arzu also presents a model of peace
as a reversal of the model of war: access to media is vital so
counter-information is available. Travel arrangements could make it possible
for people from both sides to come into peaceful contact. She says, "They must
understand that war is not a good way of solving conflicts. We invited
Armenians to stay with us, and we did it in a visible way."

During the Nagorno-Karabach conflict, Arzu worked with Annait from Armenia.
They both crossed the border to find a common language. Annait says "It was
important that Arzu and I worked together, and that our work became visible in
a time when people in Armenia and Azerbaijan didn't dare to say that they had
friends on the other side... We traveled to each others' capitals and held
public meetings. We also had many practical tasks, such as exchanging prisoners
of war. We tried to open people's eyes about how it felt to be on the other
side. We used mass media to show the positive work people on the other side
were doing."

Women cross the lines

Women played an active and
important role during and after the wars in the Caucasus. Zoia says that this
is not their usual role. In general, women have low status in Caucasian and
Russian societies. They are expected to care for their family, not for society.
Work outside the realm of the family has often been met with suspicion. Other
factors contributing to women's isolation include the economy and long queues
for food, which force some women to stay at home. However, in extreme
situations such as war or natural disaster, women have become very active and
engaged in peacemaking and rebuilding work.

Zoia notes two recent tendencies she's become aware of in her work: 1) women
returning to the home, and 2) divisions between NGOs. It seems war keeps these
groups together, but when the conflict is over, the contradictions begin to
show. For this reason, Zoia feels it's extremely important to maintain the
meetings across the borders.

There are many challenges in the Caucasus. Poverty, unemployment and crime are
all playing major roles in the everyday life of the family, where women do have
a central position. Society needs rebuilding - economically, physically, and
democratically. It is arguably more vulnerable now than it was during the

Annait points out that this is the third year without war and a crucial phase.
They are dependent on support from the outside to help prevent a relapse into
open conflict. More specifically, they need help finding means of
reconciliation and solutions to underlying oppositions - as well as a path
forward toward democracy. Natella says they have reconciliation on their
agenda, but don't know where to start.

Natella and Arzu both emphasise the importance of NGOs in this process. Arzu
points out that even if the authorities fear them or try to ignore them, these
groups get a lot of respect from people, especially people in the West. In this
way, the groups can function as a link between the grassroots and the


Natella says that normally negotiations happen only between political leaders
and on their premises. They often ignore the knowledge and experiences of NGOs
- especially when it has to do with reconciliation. Veronica adds that the role
of women needs to be taken into account. After all, they have contributed so
much to peace, and are ready to contribute more.

Programmes & Projects

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.