(Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in Shushi - Photo by Aram Kirakosyan)
For the people of the Artsakh region (Nagorno Karabakh), and by extension the people of Armenia, much more has been lost than the lives of soldiers, as civilian homes, schools, centuries old cathedrals, and hospitals, including maternity hospitals, were all directly bombed by Azerbaijan. The damage is done. The land, taken. The loss, real. War is over.
Today, there are an estimated 100,000 Armenians that are having to walk away from their cultural heritage and homeland. And many, like father and son, Vagif and Saro, have burned their family homes and fled with their animals and possessions. Besides a humanitarian crisis, there are many remaining Armenian cultural and religious markers, literal holy land, now in the hands of those who have a history of Armenian erasure.
(Father and Son, Vagif and Saro, burn home, gather animals, and flee - Photos by Areg Balayan)
On the day the resolution was signed, a resolution Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan called “unspeakably painful,” there were joyous celebrations in the streets of Azerbaijan – an unsurprising territorial victory dance. Followed by violent decries against Pashinyan from Armenians as a ‘traitor’ for his capitulation of Artsakh. A few days later, Aliyev, the Azerbaijani leader, was photographed in the war spoiled lands, smiling and raising a peace sign. Meanwhile tanks bearing the flags of Azerbaijan and Turkey, rolled into set-ablaze and deserted towns. These events, however, are sadly common results of war, but the interests and role of Turkish and Russian troops in the region, leave lasting peace strongly in question.
(Vagif and Saro, gather animals - Photo by Areg Balayan)
On October 22, in an in-depth story on the war and the heartbreaking continuum in the region, there was illustrated one critical and inherent view – the people of Artsakh have the right to sovereignty, away from persecution, and the right to preserve their way of life. Now, several weeks later, the question remains – ‘Where was the rest of humanity?’
On November 11, in an interview with disability and human rights activist, Karine Grigoryan, formerly of Armenia, who now lives in Quebec, shared: “I always believed in human rights and Democracy, and was proud with our collaboration with international organizations from different countries, US state government, UN, and the EU, who all supported our organization to promote the rights of all. I am very upset and disappointed, those countries, which were teaching us Democracy and human rights, were silent.”
Today, Armenians sitting with the immense loss of war, the effective seizure of holy Armenian lands, must evoke calls for justice. Revealing, sanctioning, and condemning tragedy ought to be part of the aftermath – though it is, perhaps, a bit too late. Regardless, humanity must say something; be sad, be angry – do something. Of the few spirited condemnations I’ve seen from influential people thus far, Cher’s tweet, – ‘Hell is waiting 4 U, Azerbaijani Murderers’ – illustrates the current-day emotion of the loss.
(The Road to Shushi, lined by the dead - Photo permissions by Armenian Breaking News)
Just Before the End of the War
Rumors of $100 bounties for each beheaded Armenian, by the very same people who committed the Armenian Genocide, spread through the country. But, in an interview with BBC on November 9, Aliyev claimed that the well-documented atrocities against the Armenian people was “fake news.” All of this playing out day-by-day for six weeks during intense conflict and warfare. And, then it was over. For me, part of justice is speaking up, revealing the devastation, regardless of present-day circumstance.
Medieval Forests – On October 30, Armenian news agencies (here, here, and here) began to share disturbing open-source evidence that Azerbaijanis were using white phosphorous munitions on ancient forests in the region. The use of which, no major international media outlet covered. The chemical agent, white phosphorous, which by itself has multiple uses, when used on people, is defined as illegal chemical warfare by international bodies, including the Geneva Conventions in 1949 and the UN’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in 1983. For clarity, the UN has done nothing.
White phosphorous is a highly flammable wax that ignites on contact with oxygen and can literally sear the skin off any living creature. The effect is an intense fire nearly impossible to douse, in a primeval biodiverse forest, with not just innocent people, of whom it seems nobody cares about, but also hundreds of critically endangered plants and animals, such as the Caucasian Leopard, Bezoar Goat, and Eurasian Lynx. With as few as 1000 Caucasian Leopards left, and a habitat on the verge of ecological collapse, it is unlikely the species will rebound.
On top of that, groups like Halo Trust and the Armenia Tree Project have been working in Armenia and Artsakh for years to improve the ecological and economic damage done from decades of war and deforestation. Painstakingly removing land mines left from the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh war and the explosives left from war today, or by reforesting and preserving its rich biodiversity. As such, the use of chemical warfare as a modern day ‘scorched earth’ policy will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on all life in Artsakh.
(Art Theater in Artsakh, bombed - Photo permissions by ARM Unified Infocenter)
The New York Times – Six thousand miles away, at the foot of the New York Times (NYT) headquarters building, another event occurred that went widely unreported. On November 1, hundreds of Armenians and allies gathered and chanted “the New York Times supports genocide” and “tell the truth” – after a series of Pro-Azerbaijani articles were published by the NYT Istanbul Bureau Chief, Carlotta Gall, who currently lives in Turkey, and is originally from the U.K.
In this, Gall’s own Wikipedia page (an open source website, editable by anyone) is enough, for me, to put into query the substrates of the protestor chants, when Gall is specifically and oddly defined as an “uncorrupted journalist.” The website goes on to claim that, among many falsities, Syrian insurgents were being hired by Armenians to kill Azerbaijanis – a claim that is diametrically opposite to the truth.
On October 29, Anthony Moumjian penned a piece in Medium, entitled The New York Times Has A Lot To Answer For, where he draws speculation on Carlotta Gall and a $2.9 billion Azerbaijani money laundering scandal, the Azerbaijani Laundromat, with shell companies and contacts in the U.K. The scandal, which was minorly reported in 2017, coincidentally was also used as a slush fund for Western media ‘silence’ on numerous kidnappings, jailing, and disappearances of journalists and others in Azerbaijan. Although the beneficiaries of the 16,000+ transactions of this slush fund have not been identified, it sets an uneasy tone. And perhaps, explains in part why the atrocities in Artsakh have been consistently ignored.
Grey Wolves – On October 29, there was a march, or as some have called ‘hunt for Armenians,’ in Armenian neighborhoods adjacent to Lyon, France. During which, hateful slurs and calls for violence against Armenians were reported, as well as the defacement of an Armenian Genocide Memorial. The group that organized this ‘hunt’ was an ultra-nationalist Turkish diaspora group called the Grey Wolves, a group that has subsequently been banned in France, and was already outlawed in Austria and other countries.
In 2019, I traveled to a Turkish enclave in Vienna, smoking hookah in humming basements and lounging on street corners in espresso cafés – in prospects to observe life. Although there was no forms of extremism, the reality of a strong Turkish identity and political ideology, living in Central Europe, was apparent. While in France, in 2018, I saw this perspective again. France, however, has numerous and diverse Armenian and Turkish populations – some welcoming, others isolating. Among this all, is a line that has already been crossed between the Armenian will to survive in Artsakh, and the ongoing tensions abroad.
The parallel between the burning of ancient forests in Artsakh, and contemporary groups called Grey Wolves, who hunt, is a tragic picture. As I watch the leaves fall again this autumn, quarantined at home, and see these events unfold on a global stage, I daydream of what real peace would look like. Instead of Jews selling weapons to Muslims to blow up Christians, instead of imperialist and ultra-nationalistic propaganda spewing into the world – it could be simpler. We could value our independent heritages, without death. Plain temperance, if not celebration. Our differences are few.
Armenia is both a cultural thread that runs the length of most of written history, as well as something intangible. With many diaspora Armenians around the world, with differing cuisines, differing vernaculars, slightly different customs and viewpoints – there is a certain metaphysical substance that comprises ‘Armenia.’ These differences are what make the tangible and the metaphysical so special, Armenia is ancient and complex, it can be remembered and yet still felt.
But one cannot notice a certain longing of the peoples of Armenia, today, to be both accepted and respected. Seen and heard. A perspective reiterated on November 8, in an interview with Detroit business owner Stefan Dallakian, who shared “For Armenians, we feel that we are grasping at anything to give us confirmation that somebody cares. Having survived Genocide, only to have it denied by the perpetrator and each US president to follow suit, cowering to Turkish threats, and instead calling it tragic events or great losses of human life.”
Walking down the streets of central Yerevan, in 2018, I saw the many French inspired cafes, and the frequent use of ‘thank you’ as ‘merci’ in the language, instead of the Armenian word ‘shnorhakalutyun.’ I attended a French festival, XVIIe Sommet de la Francophonie à Erevan, and was witness to the many French diplomats, including President Macron, in town for political purposes. A lasting imprint. Armenia seeks to be free from the tyranny of its neighbors and has been culturally and politically for years extending a hand to the West.
(Sevanavank beside Lake Sevan, Photo by Julien Godman)
Paradoxically, many Armenians claim that Armenia is the birthplace of the West, and certainly has a right, being the first country in the world to adopt Christianity, in 301 A.D, and where it is said that Noah from the Book of Genesis landed, on Mount Ararat. But besides a handful of money and medicine, what has the West ever truly done for Armenia? The Armenians have gone through repetitive pogroms, genocide, cultural erasure – untold travesties – and each time, the West has offered only words.
Perhaps words of prophets may stop a war, but words given to the people of Armenia have proven entirely weightless, for decades. And U.S. President Elect Joe Biden is no exception to this rule, offering his own words in late October. The real tragedy is that nobody is a true friend to Armenia.
When I was little, I remember my grandmother, several times, buttoning up my jacket or retying my shoelaces. What stuck with me then, and still today, was her heavy though still steadying voice.
“You are Armenian, Julien. Remember that. Remember, you are Armenian” she would say. Like a sonnet comprised for just my ears, yet I carried on in a very American existence. Ode to the colloquial “remember who you are.” Over the years I have thought on these words of my late grandmother – a descendant of the Genocide. The cultural erasure by the Turks half a world away and over the last century, coupled with global indifference, had won. I am Armenian, but I am constantly trying to find out what that means, finding culture, finding language, becoming Armenian over-and-over again.
In a follow-up interview with Stefan Dallakian, he shared – “My great grandparents were Survivors of the Armenian Genocide. I was taught gruesome details from a young age and it was just confusing to my developing mind. ‘They cut the pregnant mother's belly open and pulled the baby out so she could see them murder it? How could someone do that? Why?’ These were the questions I had to stories I heard growing up. As a 5-year-old, I didn't yet fully understand injustice, racism or genocide. I understood that there was something very wrong with the imagery. With all the questions in my head, there was one that I kept asking my father. ‘How did the world allow this to happen?’ Now almost 40-years-old, I finally have answers to these questions. I have realized nobody cares.”
On November 20, in an interview with Los Angeles resident and Executive Director of Equality Armenia, Armen Abelyan, shared words of encouragement but also caution, “I just hope this tragedy is a catalyst for a rebirth for our people. Finding each other across the globe, the Armenian community should remain connected and involved in rebuilding Armenia rather than retreat into victimhood for a century.”
Armenians have been seeking recognition of crimes against humanity for over a hundred years, and yet, nothing has changed. Today, with renewed devastation, it is critical to redefine, unify, and elect something entirely different. Unorthodox to history. A new and likely lonely path lay beneath Armenian feet.
Today, when I say the damage is done – it very much is. There are only new beginnings for the Armenian people now, whatever that may look like, and however arduous. Solidarity, yes. Condemnation of aggressors, yes. Invitation for others to care, yes. Fighting for unequivocal truths, yes. But a new tangible Armenia, to an extent a spiritual one as well, is the only path forward. For the diaspora around the world this path is one that weighs immensely heavy on already battered hearts, but for those in Armenia, living it today, its unimaginable.
How to Help
You can donate. The best source for this is armeniafund.org or himnadram.org. You can also contact your representatives and demand justice – such as kicking Turkey out of NATO and sanctioning Azerbaijan and Turkey, or more. You can share this and other Armenian stories.
Written and copyright by Julién Godman • Managing Editor Julién Godman • Editor Anthony Brancaleone
Published first on November 24, 2020 in The Metropolitan