…the whole problem was how to kill time. After a while, however, once I’d learned the trick of remembering things, I never had a moment’s boredom. Sometimes I would exercise my memory on my bedroom and, starting from a corner, make the round, noting every object I saw on the way. At first it was over in a minute or two. But each time I repeated the experience, it took a little longer. I made a point of visualizing every piece of furniture, and each article upon or in it, and then every detail of each article, and finally the details of the details, so to speak: a tiny dent or incrustation, or a chipped edge, and the exact grain and colour of the woodwork. At the same time I forced myself to keep my inventory in mind from start to finish, in the right order and omitting no item. With the result that, after a few weeks, I could spend hours merely in listing the objects in my bedroom. I found that the more I thought, the more details, half-forgotten or malobserved, floated up from my memory. There seemed no end to them. So, I learned that even after a single day’s experience of the outside world a man could easily live a hundred years in prison. He’d have laid up enough memories never to be bored. Obviously, in one way, this was a compensation.Albert Camus, The Outsider, The collected fiction of Albert Camus, Hamish and Hamilton, 1960, pp 44-45
‘I decided to become a writer because our society needs words of truth and people who can stand behind their words.’
Emin Milli, writer and dissident
Three years ago bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli were in a restaurant when two strangers attacked them. They reported the attack to the police. And then they were arrested for ‘hooliganism’. You might think this a strange twist of events. But this all happened just a week after Adnan posted a video on YouTube showing a man dressed as a donkey holding a press conference. Emin had ordered the donkey costume. It was supposed to be a satirical take on the government. It seems officials failed to see the joke. Emin: ‘They don’t jail all the bloggers. They pick up two or three who go – in their view – too far.’ Emin and Adnan had a history of criticising the government online – both prolific bloggers, they are active voices in the dissident community and regularly speak out against government abuses. But the video appears to have been the last straw. Unable to officially punish them for posting the video, however, authorities instead arrested them on trumped up charges of hooliganism. Adnan and Emin were later convicted of hooliganism and inflicting minor bodily harm at an unfair trial, and sentenced to two and two and a half years respectively.
Released, but not acquitted
We decided that Emin and Adnan had been detained for peacefully expressing their views and determined them prisoners of conscience. We joined several other human rights organisations in calling for their immediate release In November 2010, after spending 16 months in jail, the two were released on parole within a day of one another. “I want to get a full acquittal, because I’m not a hooligan.” – Adnan
This surprise early release was a great success but the two men should never have been arrested in the first place, and we continue to call on the government to fully acquit them of all charges.
‘The government guarantees the rights of journalists will be upheld – there is no official censorship – but anyone doing real journalism is at risk. Words are dangerous.’ Emin. Since their release, both Adnan and Emin have continued to risk their freedom to raise awareness of human rights issues in Azerbaijan and speak out against abuses. After moving to London for a year to study for a Masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies (and speaking at our Annual General Meeting while he was here!), Emin returned to Azerbaijan in 2012. He was arrested in January
2013 after attending a peaceful protest to demonstrate against the authorities’ violent dispersal of another, larger, protest a week before.
After his release he left Azerbaijan and has lived in various European cities and in the USA.From Amnesty International Website account, 2013, of Emin Millie:
Exile is now an unfashionable term compared to asylum seeker, migrate or refugee. Political discourse on immigration has gradually removed dignity, humanity and individuality from the immigrants’ themselves. We have surrendered the language of flight to the legal and political processes that make victims of those who flee for political, cultural, economic or conflict related reasons. Exile implies an element of dignity and perhaps even agency. The exile is a Nabokov like figure smoking cigarettes in Paris cafes or walking through the spa of Baden Baden. We do not call the bodies suffocating in the back of lorries or drowning in boats sank in the Channel or the Mediterranean, exiles. Refugee implies helplessness and statelessness. Ironically, it is also weighted with the burden of choice. “Economic migrants” are making “a choice” to try and sneak into the UK or other European countries and we must be protected from them. Those who leave, flee, or are expelled from their homes enter what is now perhaps the largest and fastest growing group of people living in the stasis of modern purgatory. My friend Emin Milli is a refugee, a migrant, but he is also a throwback, because you can only really describe him as an exile.
Exile became inevitable for Emin slowly by force of circumstance, belief and events. In 2005 he was working in Germany living a comfortable life working at an international NGO. On 2nd March 2005, seven bullets were fired at Elmar Huseynov, a fierce critic of the government of Azerbaijan and editor-in-chief of opposition magazine Monitor. Two of the shots hit his heart. “This could have been a contract murder, but we are examining all possible avenues,” city police chief Maharram Aliyev said in televised comments from the scene of the crime. Milli remembers that a lot of people in Azerbaijan wanted change before Elmar was murdered. Many more afterwards. But between change and the desire for change there was now real fear. Emin became a champion of convincing the government to change by rallying civil society to act. This culminated in 2008 in a forum at the British parliament to launch a manifesto for change: “I basically said that we need to change Azerbaijan and no matter what price we have to pay. I always was independent but at that moment they completely understood that I was outside of their control.”* (All quotations marked *are from an interview with the author).
But that speech in the British Parliament is not the story.
When I came back from Germany, I had a very nice life in Baku. I was organising parties every Friday. But I was saying everything is wrong. And then people in civil society, in opposition, they were telling me: “Who are you to tell us to do this or that. Do you know the amount of pressure we have to endure”? I started to have a feeling these people are right. I’m having very comfortable life. I’m representative of the middle class who is not ready to sacrifice anything to do anything. I’m not ready to step up to do some real work. I also felt personally guilty that Elmar Hussein was killed because I was having this comfortable. Ex-pat middle class, life risking nothing.*
Hence the increasing challenges to the regime culminating in the donkey costume press conference, arrest, and imprisonment. The donkey video remains online. He has written about his experience in prison here. After prison, he says, he stopped taking things for granted.
There are too many very small things that happen in our lives every day that we just don’t value because they are just so natural. Maybe two weeks I was alone in the detention centre. Every time when the guard would come open the window or the door. Or say something for me it was such a big event. Suddenly there was some interaction with a civilization, and it sounds crazy, but I am so happy that I was given this chance:
I very consciously tried to use the jail experience to multiply everything I was planning to do before. Because the governments chose this very aggressive response to our social initiatives instead of embracing it. I was for engaging government in order to push them to do reforms and the Government didn’t want this. Our generation is not empowered in Azerbaijan we are not the establishment. We are marginals. So, I came up with this idea of creating independent media outlet. Which became Meydan T.V. Meydan means square in Azerbaijan language, the idea was creating the square where voices could be heard because I realized that without reliable source of information no society can really understand what’s happening and how they can organize themselves.*
Emin worked tirelessly for six years after his release to create independent media. His team carved a space that remains unique in the political opposition to the regime: an independent journalistic space that is not tied to a particular political position. It has over 700,000 followers on Facebook.
After years of building independent media to provide a platform for civil society and the opposition to the Azerbaijan government, Emin suddenly stopped. His stasis became a way of life for a time, perhaps it had always been a way of life. He has described his prison as a golden cage. It did not confine him but to an extent it defines him. He travelled across the US. He perfected what he called the art of doing nothing but he was also escaping the other prison cell of the moral imperative to be doing something:
I don’t think about the deeds that we do in heroic terms. I think really that I have to do it. I would love not being in a position constantly to face this choice of being killed by governments, being silenced or continuing doing journalism and staying independent. It is an unpleasant choice, and it is not an enjoyable State of mind. I would rather sit on the beach drink wine in the company of a lot of beautiful people rather than being in this situation. I think hopefully independent media can contribute in a country like Azerbaijan to help people see that there are a lot of people who want to live in dignity and that government should respect it. This is fundamental. And I hope that by building independent media in our societies we can make a small contribution to this.*
He stopped doing nothing when the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh re-started. Every time I have spoken to him about Nagorno-Karabakh I have been struck by his innate nationalism. He was personally friendly and engaged with Armenians on programmes that I ran in which he participated but when it came to Nagorno-Karabakh he was impeccably on the side of his government. At first glance it might seem odd that the exile living outside their home in a stasis awaiting a change of regime should be a nationalist for the recovery of land taken in war by another state. The regime that has “won” this war is the regime that has imprisoned him twice and to which he cannot return. Yet he rejoices in the news that this regime has won a war for land against a neighbouring state and he further attacks international journalists and observers for not taking the side of Azerbaijan in the conflict but of accepting Armenian propaganda. I do not take a view on the conflict one way or another. It is a great failure of the international community that this kind of conflict could not be resolved by means other than renewed fighting.
But the exile is the nationalist. The regime is not the home of the exile, that is the existential place, land, nation state and ultimately idea from which they come. Most diasporas, the Armenian included in this context, is more nationalist than those who live within the defined borders of the homeland. The exile needs the idea of the place, imagined perhaps, but also in some sense whole.
Before the war he was attacked by many opposition figures for welcoming the release of political prisoners by the President of Azerbaijan. Always independent, he would not tow a simple party line feeling that if his words could help anyone get out of prison then he would use them. It is unknown if his gratitude to the President was welcomed by the regime. It is also not known how the regime will see his nationalism and his support for the retaking of land won in the previous war by Armenia. These are lines on maps in the end. At least two thousand people have died in their redrawing over the last couple of months. Our framing of war tends to remain as a beginning, a middle and an end. The reporting has been of victory and defeat. This is not how war operates. The Greek meaning of stasis is, as discussed in the first of this series of blogs, around the idea of a civil conflict between Greeks:
In ancient Greece stasis was recognised as just such an enabler, but one that also set out precise demands of relationship, moderation, and reconciliation, while holding the promise of new, energetic onward movement for all parties post-stasis.
This war has not produced a post-stasis condition between these two countries. Armenia will not accept the outcome anymore than Azerbaijan did. It was a war within stasis, as so many contemporary conflicts seem to be, without beginning and without end. In that sense it was probably appropriate that the exile, living in the stasis of his contemporary purgatory, supported his old government in their actions.