Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, is Armenian, just like me. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the 1,700 square mile region, which was 95% indigenously Armenian at the time, was included within Azerbaijan’s borders.
Armenians, furious with this failure at self-determination, fought an agonizing, bloody war with Azerbaijan over Artsakh. Artsakh declared itself an independent republic, adopted a flag — itself a symbol of the hope to one day rejoin Armenia — and the war never ended. Azerbaijan and Armenia are in a perpetual ceasefire with one another, their guns drawn ad infinitum.
This feeling, when ethnic land and cultural heritage is ripped from your grasp with cruel intent, is one Armenians know all too well. The ancient nation, the first to fully adopt Christianity in 301 AD, has lost most its historic land to bordering countries. My mother’s ancestral home, the city of Van, now resides in Turkey. So too does our biggest cultural symbol, the twin peaks of Mt. Aratat. You can see them from one of the oldest churches in Armenia. You can practically touch them, but right below the horizon you’d see a barbed wire fence, and past that you’d see Turkish border outposts, taunting Armenians for even daring to look at our hallowed peaks.
Azerbaijan is in lockstep with Turkey. Ilham Aliyev, the country’s authoritarian leader, is a Walmart-version of Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Reccip Tayip Erdoğan. They walk in stride, Turkey refusing to acknowledge its perpetration of the Armenian Genocide, Azerbaijan again threatening the Armenian people with ethnic cleansing.
On September 27th, 2020, Azerbaijan breached its ceasefire with Armenia. Between then and November 9th, it bombed Artsakh’s capital city of Stepanakert, killing multiple civilians. Azeri troops videotaped themselves beheading Armenians. Russia made multiple efforts at diplomacy, and while Armenia was eager for peace, Azerbaijan broke multiple ceasefire agreements and refused any olive branch. On November 9th, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan agreed to give away large plots of land from Artsakh to Azerbaijan in order for the violence to end.
Since the ceasefire, Armenia’s government has thrown the country into chaos. Protests erupted following the November 9th agreement, culminating in the apparently new trend of angry citizens storming the legislative body’s chambers. As Azeri forces formally seize control of their won lands, Armenian prisoners of war remain missing, most no older than myself, and reports suggest Prime Minister Pashinyan has been sheepish in asking for the safe return of his compatriots. Pashinyan has drawn the ire of Armenian citizens both domestically and abroad, and full-blown campaigns to get him to resign and elect a new government have found popularity.
This is, of course, a view from the outside looking in. Armenian-Americans each have their own favorite source of information, their own opinion on what exactly Armenia needs to do to prosper, and what the right plan of action should be for our ancient nation. Armenian-Americans, arguing on Facebook and taking to the streets in the U.S, are justified to attempt to wield influence from across the world. A majority of them have immigrated from their homeland, forced to learn a new language and live in a new country. Our history of pain, ethnic cleansing and land loss and forced emigration, is what enforces our strong diaspora in the U.S.
I grew up in Glendale, California. My parents, both Armenian, left their birthplace of Iran following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. My family was forced out of our ancestral homeland during the Armenian Genocide in 1915. The Armenian community in Southern California is massive yet close-knit; there are different Armenian schools and churches and rec centers to choose from, but everyone knows each other. And no matter what church you went to or what school you attended or what basketball team you played for, one thing you hear, and then say, and then shout, is, “1915, Never Again.”
Never again will we allow aggressors to drive us out of our homeland. Never again will we burn our own homes down in order to prevent them from being looted. Never again will we retreat from Armenian towns for genocidal maniacs to pillage them. Never again will we permit for historic cities like Van, Erzurum, Kars to have their churches destroyed and their history erased. Never Again.
The flag raised over the territories Armenia has handed over to Azerbaijan will not be the only change in those regions. A report published in 2019 alleges that Azeri operations in Artsakh in the past 30 years have surmounted to a campaign of indigenous cultural erasure.
Artsakh boasts 3,500 monasteries, each filled with “khachkars,” distinctive Armenian cross stones. There is also a wealth of pre-Christian monuments, and multiple Muslim ones. Cultural research teams in the region — at least the ones who didn’t leave at the peak of violence — are running against the clock to compile an official list, fearing that many of these monuments will be destroyed by Azeri occupation.
And that fear is justified: 89 churches, 5,840 khachkars, and 22,000 tombstones were destroyed between 1997 and 2006, according to that same report, including the largest Armenian Medieval cemetery in Djulfa. A couple old rocks kicked about, and a millennia of history gone with them.
The parallels between 1915 and today are becoming more and more stark. Photos taken of Armenians fleeing Stepanakert in long car lines, with some homes on fire, drew a direct comparison to photos of our people’s death march through the Ter Zor desert during the Genocide.
The pain of losing ancestral homeland, of a millennia of history being deemed superfluous to border negotiations, of an international community essentially ignoring crimes against humanity and gifting the spoils to the assailant, have unfortunately found their way to Boston.
Alen Margaryan was an Armenian man who was recently accepted into Boston University’s Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study Program for Educational Leadership & Policy Studies. He’d spent most of his life in Armenia, and he was eager to travel to Boston to begin the next step of his life. Education was something he deeply cared about, and he was hoping a degree from America would better allow him to shape the education system in Armenia.
Alen, however, chose to defer his admission to complete his duty in the Armenian army. Alen died fighting for his country in October. He’ll never attend Boston University. He’ll never have the chance to make the world a better place. He, like so many others, died defending his culture in the face of ethnic cleansing.
Alen Margaryan is my hero.
We learned of Alen after a woman named Olimpia wrote a letter sharing his story to an Armenian alum from BU. She forwarded it to members of the BU Armenian Student Association. I’ve emailed Dean Kenneth Elmore asking for him to stand with the Armenian community in Alen’s name and received no response.
Growing up Armenian is a bizarre experience. Your nation is thousands of years old, your republic only three decades. Nine tenths of ancestral Armenian land is no longer in our control. Personally, I’ve met more people whose family’s homes were outside of modern day Armenia than inside the country (Armenia today is about the size of Maryland while its peak as a kingdom saw it span from the Mediterranean to the Black to the Caspian Sea).
You celebrate two independence days: one from Soviet rule and one from Ottoman rule. Half your friends speak a different dialect because people whose families fled the Genocide to Lebanon or Iraq speak differently than those of you whose families wound up in Iran or stayed in Armenia.
Different diasporan organizations and activist groups have different perspectives on Armenian current events. Some Armenian-Americans have organized protests to demand the resignation of the Armenian prime minister for making these concessions to Azerbaijan, while others are urging for patience.
But the solidarity shown by the Armenian community in these past months of reignated military conflict in Artsakh, the biggest crisis our people have faced since the Armenian Genocide and initial Artsakh War, is extraordinary. We have risen to the occasion, raising money effectively, using social media in this new activist way brought about during the pandemic, hosting protests safely in the midst of the pandemic.
To an extent, nothing I’ve seen since September, from the spectre of ethnic cleansing of my people to the immense sense of community in response to it, has surprised me. There is a bizarre feeling to hearing and learning and preparing for this crucial moment — having to fight for our land all over again — all our lives, and then it happening and being “over” just as quickly. But, much like the bigger-than-ever Black Lives Matter protests this summer guaranteed that our national conversation will never truly gloss over racial injustice again (let’s hope!), I feel confident the Armenian community will remain this connected, vibrant, angry and loud.
Armenian-American author William Saroyan once wrote:
“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
I pray to God Alen Margaryan didn’t die in vain, and I pray to God Saroyan is right.