Current Student Raffi Joe Wartanian, founder of Letters for Peace

Letters for Peace (LFP) by Current Student Raffi Joe Wartanian Moves Online, Publishes Collection

BY Audrey Deng, August 11, 2020

In September 2018, current student Raffi Joe Wartanian launched Letters for Peace (LFP), a project to publish letters between youth in Armenia and Azerbaijan. The fifty-four letters are now available to read in full on Letters for Peace’s website, and will soon be adapted to a physical book published by Zangak Publishing House. These limited edition physical books will be kept in various libraries and institutions in the Caucasus, Middle East, Europe, and North America.

According to the organization’s press release, participants in the program attended workshops and lectures to “[explore] the possibilities for peacefully transforming the protracted conflict over​ [Nagorno-Karabakh].” Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked mountainous region that has been the subject of an unresolved dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia for decades.

“For most participants,” states the press release, “LFP marked the first opportunity to have an extended dialogue with a citizen on the other side of the closed border.”

Wartanian with the Yerevan workshop

The letters were translated into English, Հայերեն, and Azərbaycanca. In the video below, LFP shows a preview of the letters, read aloud.

Letters for Peace was made possible by the EU-funded Peacebuilding through Capacity Enhancement and Civic Engagement (PeaCE), a program “aimed to re-engage Armenians and Azerbaijanis from geographic areas affected by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in peacebuilding activities, as well as revive the peacebuilding process within and between these societies.”

We talked with Wartanian about this ambitious project.

How did you translate the 54 letters into English, Հայերեն, and Azərbaycanca?

I worked with collaborators in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the US who helped us translate and edit the letters. Whenever possible, I helped with the English and Armenian language translations.

What inspired you most about what these young students wrote?

In this region, the conflict is laced with inherited trauma, resentment, and antagonism. The border is closed. The land dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved. Mainstream media promulgates hate speech, stereotypes, and problematic othering. What most inspired me about what these young students wrote was their willingness to even express a desire for peace in a context where opposing the dominant ideology of conflict is considered controversial and dangerous. This is why we take specific measures—e.g. not disclosing their names or images—to protect their safety. Some of the most powerful letters were written by former soldiers, residents of border regions where the fighting is most active, and youth who have lost loved ones due to the conflict. I think their words have many lessons for people around the world who find themselves surrounded by polarizing rhetoric and state-sponsored violence, things we see in the US on a daily basis.

Did you notice any common themes in their letters?

One common theme was exasperation with war. These youth are tired of the fighting, death, and hatred. They also shared memories from parents and grandparents who experienced life before the conflict, when Armenians and Azerbaijanis were friendly neighbors who lived side-by-side. What surprised me was their eagerness to turn the page, and build toward a common destiny rather than extend the troubling status quo. I also admired how they acknowledged the possibility to continue fostering constructive dialogue even if their respective governments and militaries did not. This speaks to the true nature of transformation: it happens from the bottom up.

What's next for Letters for Peace?

With Letters for Peace, we're finalizing the publishing and distribution of the physical book. We're printing a limited run of 300 copies, which will go to our writers, project partners, and libraries for posterity. Beyond that, we're brainstorming opportunities for future workshops or conferences, whether that takes place virtually or analogue. As for me, I'll continue to strive for social and personal transformation through writing, teaching, and partnerships.

Letters For Peace 2019 Workshop | Նամակներ հանուն խաղաղության | Sülh Naminə Məktubla