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“If only my nation could live in peace”: Armenian students’ experiences of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

Diasporic perspectives on a war of generations
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It was the first day of November, and the sky was overcast to match the occasion. A large crowd had gathered with their cars outside the Armenian Community Centre of Toronto. I didn’t know most of the people there personally, but on that day, we all knew each other’s history. 

Even though I had never spoken a word with most of the other protesters, I knew that every single person who gathered there carried the same weight on their shoulders as I and every other Armenian in the world did. 

Growing up in the diaspora, we have all learned about our ancient history that spans dynasties and thousands of years. We have heard stories of Tigran the Great, who expanded the kingdom of Armenia from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. 

We have learned that, during World War I, the Young Turks massacred over a million Armenians and deported hundreds of thousands from their ancestral lands in a genocide that Turkey denies to this day — ironic, since the word ‘genocide’ was coined in reference to the atrocities committed against the Armenians, as well as the Holocaust. Over 105 years later, we know again the importance of upholding our culture and language, lest we face another genocide.

We gathered on that gloomy day for what was called a ‘drive-a-thon’ to protest the accelerating aggression between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh — called Artsakh by native Armenians — and to bring awareness to the humanitarian disaster that is being ignored by the rest of the world. Tri-colour flags draped over our cars — red, blue, and orange — banners at hand, Armenian music blaring at the highest volume, we took off, headed toward downtown Toronto.

The conflict between Azerbaijan and Artsakh, a small region to the east of Armenia de facto controlled and inhabited by Armenians but internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, has been brewing for decades.The conflict finally reached a tipping point on September 27, when full-scale fighting restarted. 

This war claimed many lives, and across the ocean in Canada, diasporic Armenian U of T students had to reconcile with their culture and heritage in a new way. However, to understand where it all began, we have to go a bit further back in history.

The history of the conflict

It was February 1988. Something unprecedented was happening in Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh and part of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic at the time. A group of Artsakh Armenians staged a political rally in the central square of Stepanakert, calling for secession from Azerbaijan and the unification of Artsakh with Armenia. 

Earlier in the month, the regional government had held a referendum asking its citizens if they wanted to secede from Azerbaijan, which had passed with an overwhelming majority. The Azerbaijani government and the Soviet Union didn’t recognize the referendum, sparking the protests that had quickly started spreading outside of Stepanakert. Within weeks, hundreds of thousands were out in the streets, including in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, peacefully protesting and demanding the transfer of Artsakh to Armenia. 

Following the protests and the growing unrest within the region, Azerbaijani demonstrations started in the city of Sumgait, which escalated into violence when, on February 28, angry crowds took to the streets seeking out Armenians. Around 29 Armenians lost their lives, hundreds were injured, and almost the entire 14,000 Armenian population of Sumgait left the city. If there was any hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the Sumgait tragedy had completely crushed it.

A full-scale war erupted in 1992 and went on until 1994, when it came to a halt with a Russian-brokered ceasefire, leaving not only the vast majority of the Artsakh region under Armenian control, but also the regions surrounding it. 

Throughout the years following the ceasefire, tensions between the two countries stayed high as multiple attempts at peace negotiations failed. Armenia repeatedly refused any compromises, and the territorial losses of Azerbaijan fostered an increasing anti-Armenian sentiment among Azerbaijanis, which was further fuelled by state propaganda.

In July of 2020, clashes resumed. By September 27, it was full-on warfare. “I think in the big picture, Azerbaijan saw an opportunity here,” said Professor Robert Austin, the associate director of the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, at U of T in an interview with The Varsity. “I want to stress that the government of Azerbaijan was heading for a degree of trouble because it started to lose its legitimacy.”

Austin also mentioned that since Azerbaijan’s heavy loss in the 1990s, Azerbaijan has been able to fortify its economy and war-making abilities through its increased oil and gas production. Meanwhile, in Armenia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan maintained the same firm line of previous Armenian presidents who were veterans of the first Artsakh war and refused to accept any compromise during peace negotiations. 

With reconciliation still off the table, the result of all of this was a bloody war that lasted 45 days, ending recently in a ceasefire agreement between the two sides, brokered by Russia. 

The agreement came as a huge blow for Armenia, as all of the territories surrounding Artsakh that were gained in the 1990s, in addition to a few cities in Artsakh, were ceded to Azerbaijan. The war ended as abruptly as it had started, and tens of thousands of lives were permanently changed.

The conflict’s impact on U of T students

A significant difference between the war in the 1990s and the war in September was the immense social media campaign that accompanied the actual fighting. For those in the Armenian diaspora, we saw everything unfold in the news or on social media, as we were bombarded with all kinds of information and disinformation and tried to break through the chaos to raise awareness about the conflict.

I spoke with Gabriella Batikian, a first-year student at U of T and the communications executive of the U of T Armenian Students’ Association (ASA), who shared her personal experience with dealing with the war. 

“It’s definitely been difficult to cope with everything that’s been going on for the past month and a half, especially since, as many diaspora Armenians do, I have a lot of family who live in Armenia right now,” Batikian said, highlighting the difficulty of being thousands of kilometres away, worried about her family members in Armenia. 

It was especially hard for her since some of her family members were fighting on the front lines. 

“Unfortunately, I did lose a family member because of that,” she said. The way she tried to cope was through contributing to fundraisers, protesting, and supporting Armenian-owned businesses. 

“[It’s] very important, especially in times like these, to do everything we can to financially help all the people in need in Armenia and Artsakh,” Batikian said. As part of her role at the ASA, she also helped with spreading information and raising awareness about what was going on, and sharing resources on how people could help. 

“We have been referring students to different organizations [to donate]; for example, there’s one organization called Kooyrigs, which is based in [the US], and [it’s] usually very transparent in terms of showing where the money goes to help everyone in Artsakh,” she said. 

Participating in the social media campaign to raise emergency funds and get people to pay attention to the conflict became a duty of every Armenian in the diaspora. In addition to online activism, many Armenian communities around the world organized peaceful protests and marches, including those in the US, Argentina, France, and Canada. 

On November 1, we drove instead of marching to follow physical distancing guidelines for COVID-19, but the message was the same. Karnie Iskedjian, a U of T student in her final year and a member of ASA, who was also a participant at the rally, said that it was a success. 

“I think [the goal of the rally] was accomplished in the best possible way you could accomplish it as a drive-a-thon,” she said. “There were a lot of people that approached different cars and asked what was going on, what the flags were on the cars, what we were chanting.” 

It was easy to see the effect that the rally was having, as some people even asked if there was a celebration of some kind, which I think speaks most to the lack of widespread coverage of the war.

The tragic irony that I find in this situation is the fact that the world turned its back on Armenians as civilians were being killed, cluster bombs were being used, and tens of thousands of people were being displaced and left homeless, and the burden of demanding attention fell on those affected.

“Each Armenian had to take it upon themselves to educate the people that they knew and the people around them because the media wasn’t,” Iskedjian said. 

Education plays a vital role in establishing a collective consciousness about issues that are otherwise seen as far away and insignificant. Even U of T isn’t doing enough in this case. When Iskedjian took a class that explored the history of the twentieth century, she was surprised that the Armenian genocide wasn’t mentioned at all. 

“I ended up writing my essay for that class on the genocide because you could write about any topic within the century, but it was only read by my [teaching assistant (TA)] so it didn’t really make much of a difference,” Iskedjian said, since her TA already knew about the genocide and was frustrated as well about its absence from the curriculum. 

For now, for some Armenian students, the job of spreading awareness is our own. 

“People our age were dying on the front lines, and people our age are being displaced from their homes, so it’s the least we could do,” Iskedjian said. “But being in Canada, it’s also the most we could do because we are so far away.”

Being away from your ancestral lands while your peers die to protect them takes an immense psychological toll, and the subsequent feelings of guilt can be very difficult to reconcile. However, Batikian thinks that fighting through those feelings can bring you closer than ever to your homeland. 

“I definitely feel more connected to Armenia than I ever have before,” she said, noting that she is constantly being updated on what is happening and that her social media feeds are filled with news about the war. “It’s very difficult at times because some of the news we get [is] hard to process… but then I try to sometimes stay away from my phone, just so I don’t completely damage my mental health.”

Looking forward 

In a difficult post-war atmosphere, while we must look back to analyze history, we must also remember that we shouldn’t give up on the future, and that the real work is only just beginning. After the agreement was signed, many Armenians felt betrayed and took to the streets of Yerevan to protest the decision and mourn the loss of thousands of their own.

Huge concerns have also been raised regarding the preservation of Armenian cultural heritage sites in the territories that are being transferred to Azerbaijan. As Armenians leave everything behind and move from the region, the fear is that the Armenian history of those lands could be erased, as was the case in Nakhichevan, an autonomous republic of Azerbaijan where thousands of cemeteries, churches, and traditional ornate stone carvings, called Khachkar in Armenian, were destroyed by the Azerbaijani government. 

“[Armenians] are taking everything with them because they’re not planning on coming back,” said Austin, “and now we have to ensure that Armenian cultural heritage is preserved.” 

The days and months following the conflict are as critical, if not more crucial than the conflict itself. 

“The population is going to have to accept this and focus on what the next stages are,” Austin said. “And this will be a long process, which is going to involve what will happen to Karabakh in the long run and what type of relationship it will have with Armenia.” 

Indeed, the status of Artsakh is a huge point of contention for Armenians, and it plays a key role in the future of the region as well. There is hope, however, as the French senate passed a resolution on November 25 recognizing Artsakh as an independent republic. With such a precedent being set, there is a chance for a future in which Artsakh can have the right to self-determination and independence.

I often find myself wondering how different things could have been if I didn’t have to grapple with history this much; if only I could wake up one day without the weight of the past pushing on me, ever present, always lingering in the back of my mind; if only my nation could live in peace, and my people could live without the fear of a looming war. 

Perhaps one protest, one petition, one Instagram post, isn’t enough to change our future. However, I am certain that we cannot move forward if we only dwell on the past.

At the end of the day, after driving through downtown Toronto and representing our country, our people, and our freedom, we arrived back at the Armenian Community Centre. I stepped out of the car onto the wet pavement. The rain had just stopped, the clouds were dispersing, and in the sky was the biggest and brightest rainbow I have ever seen.