They campaigned for a memorial to victims of Stalinist repression, and now they are sending peace-keeping missions to war-torn regions of the former Soviet Union
The current situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is very fragile and tense. The Soviet Army has been withdrawn. The army was both a protective and provocative presence, reportedly siding with one group or another, or attacking themselves. However, its withdrawal may allow unrestricted warfare to begin. Reportedly as army units have left in the past, both Armenian and Azerbaijan villagers have "disarmed" departing units. This means that the soldiers are selling off their weapons and equipment to the local inhabitants. Since many of the soldiers are being demobilized into an uncertain economic situation, they are looking out for their own welfare by selling off hardware in their possession.
The members of Memorial have proposed an ongoing international presence in these areas. They know they are seen primarily as a Russian initiative. As many of the Republics are seeking international recognition, they will be very respectful of internationals. when a commission from Europe visited Nagorno-Karabakh in December of 1991, all acts of aggression stopped for the duration of their visit, even though many of the partisan fighters are said to be under no central control. Memorial's proposal suggests teams that would be made up equally of internationals and volunteers from Russia or one of the outer Republics.
Memorial has been organizing observer missions to the Transcaucasus region because these conflicts "are the most deadly in the former Soviet Union at this time," explains Dmitri Leonov, chair of Memorial's Human Rights Section. "If these conflicts are not resolved, they could detonate a much wider conflict throughout the Caucasus region." Already the conflicts in Ossetia (northern Georgia) and in the Karabakh (Azerbaijan Republic) are claiming up to three lives per day in political violence.
Conflict thrives on disinformation and lack of information. The primary reason for Memorial's observer missions is to seek out the truth of the allegations and report them in anon-partisan fashion. Dmitri feels that an additional success of their program has been their ability to empower people as social change activists. "People who never even wrote letters to their mothers are now writing political analysis for national magazines and doing it well," he says.
The Inter-Republic Society Memorial is a people's initiative that began in the summer of 1987. Six people went to Arbat Street in Moscow to collect signatures on a petition appealing to the Supreme Soviet to construct a memorial to all those who were victims of repression in Stalinist times. This memorial should include not only a monument but also an archive and library on state repression and terror. The library should be open to all who wish to use it. Every time this initial group tried to collect signatures its members were arrested within a short time and taken to KGB offices for interrogation. In November of 1987 the group was fined by a regional court in Moscow. During its inception, well into Gorbachev's reign it should be noted, it was still difficult to speak in public about political repression. People involved in Memorial this time lost their jobs and were intimidated from further work. Moscow deputies stated they would stop Memorial from collecting signatures. Some theatres, however, allowed them to take signatures during intermissions. In all, Memorial collected 50,000 signatures throughout the Soviet Union. Memorial groups began in nearly every Republic. In the end the Communist Party proposed that there should be a monument to the victims of Stalinist repression and claimed the idea as their own.
Memorial has maintained a leadership group of 24 people. When I asked why, I was told it was the maximum number that could fit in any of their flats!
The Human Rights section of the organization conducts research and publicizes ongoing human rights violations with in the C.I.S. their most recent report is on the penal colonies in Russia. Memorial has also recently published a book called Chains.
Beginning in January of 1990, the Memorial Human Rights Section has sent Observer Missions to two regions of conflict in the C.I.S., the Azerbaijan/Armenia frontier and a point on the Georgia/Ossetia border. These two regions were chosen because both conflicts are currently contained in relatively small geographic areas, but could become full scale wars if not resolved, and opportunities exist to pursue peacebuilding measures and cooperation acceptable to both sides.
Memorial's teams have usually been two to three people. They have sent a total of 15 teams since the beginning of the programs.
The purpose of these teams has been to publicize the most serious and massive human rights violations. They publish all their reports in New Times Magazine, which appears in several countries and languages. They have also used radio and television, Agency of News and Information (ANI) and co-published reports with Helsinki Watch. They distribute copies of their findings to European governmental agencies through their embassies in Moscow.
Memorial now is developing a second type of team to visit these areas. The focus of this team will be to aid negotiation and reconciliation, to mediate, and to observe how negotiated obligations are fulfilled. They have had one experience in this type of program. In the summer of 1991 they agreed to help the leaders of the Azerbaijan and Armenian communities of Moscow draft a joint statement about the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. This effort ultimately failed due to problems within one of these communities. However, both sides felt supported by Memorial, as far as the process went, and have indicated their interest in trying again with Memorial's help.
Another opportunity that has come Memorial's way is to establish a third party presence in the town of Njuvadi. This is the last Azerbaijani village within Armenia to be vacated (fled or evicted depending on which side you ask). An agreement has been made between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the return of residents of this town. Memorial has been asked, and has agreed, to maintain a presence in this village should the refugees begin their return. Currently one of the leaders who signed this accord has run into internal opposition so the process of return has not yet moved forward.
"Perhaps the most inspiring an unexpected result of our activities," Dmitri said to me before our parting "has been the unknown abilities and capacities of regular people. In the beginning I had expected that we would try many people and choose only a very few to travel to these points of conflict. We would have to find
women and men who were able to document and be negotiators. Our volunteers have been almost universally successful in their missions. These are people who have never tried anything like this before in their lives.
More information is available from Peace Brigades International, International Office, 5 Caledonian Road, London, Nl 9DX Britain.
To offer financial support to Memorial's Observer Teams contact: Inter-Republic Society Memorial, Human Rights Section, Cherniakhovskogo ul. 2, Moscow 125319, Russian Republic, CIS.