July 23rd, 2020
Yesterday Karabakh, Today Artsakh, part II
As a follow-up to my article on the situation in Artsakh, I wanted to take the time to further underscore the fact that, despite Armenia’s victory in the conflict, the area remains disputed and isn’t recognized on the international level or by any UN member state. I wrote the article in response to the all hateful propaganda directed towards Armenians, which I’d been encountering on the internet over the past weeks, as the conflict was starting to escalate; and if there’s despicable propaganda on one side, you can be sure the same phenomenon is playing out in the other aisle as well. I can’t stress enough that both camps are guilty, but it seems like the majority of Turkish or Azeri people with whom I’ve had discussions just want to highlight the wrongdoings of the other side and never their own. I’m sure individuals from Turkey and Azerbaijan feel the same way when they encounter an Armenian, which is precisely why tensions escalate quickly and haphazardly, as was the case in Los Angeles recently, where Armenian protesters clashed with Azeris. According to the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the Azeris who showed up to the protest were chanting “Death to Armenia.” The newspaper which published the story didn’t confirm this but did embed ANCA’s Twitter post about the matter into the actual article.
Given the contentious history, there are always excuses for any hostilities between the peoples of both nations. On the Armenian side, for example, there’s much to be said about the Baku pogrom or Sumgait massacre, but very few openly comment on the horrors of Khojaly, for example. Why is that? Before we even get into a discussion of the various massacres committed by each side, let’s take a moment to focus on the current situation. It’s only natural for both sides to blame each other for breaking the ceasefire and each camp has in the past been guilty of violating it; there can no doubt about that. In the most recent case, however, if we only look at the 170 signatories who signed the UN global ceasefire appeal during the COVID crisis, we see that Armenia’s name is on the list, and Azerbaijan’s name isn’t. What do we make of this?
Again, there’s really been enough finger-pointing and the purpose of this article is to offer a complementary perspective to my first piece which set out to describe some of Artsakh’s history and the important figures that were either responsible for its foundation or who later shaped it in some meaningful way; along with the inclusion of some history, I also used various statements by US senators and representatives in order to truly highlight the fact that Artsakh is a disputed region. While internationally it’s recognized as part of Azerbaijan, the presence of Armenians in the area goes back thousands of years and the arbitrary transfer of the region to Azerbaijan by Stalin in 1921 played an essential role in Armenia’s decision to occupy the territory roughly seventy years later; thus, by using the statements of US senators and representatives, the article aimed to show that even in America—which, at the federal level, recognizes the region as part of Azerbaijan—the only thing which remains clear is that Artsakh is a disputed territory; it may belong to Azerbaijan, but self-determination has always proven to be a thorn in the side concerning issues like this.
It’s for all those aforementioned reasons that a complementary piece to the initial article is necessary in order to further show that while international recognition of the territory has never been disputed, international support in this matter isn’t only given to Azerbaijan, whose guilt alongside that of Armenia will be discussed.
In the interest of fairness, let’s begin with Armenia’s wrongdoing and subsequently discuss that of Azerbaijan. For starters, the Nagorno-Karabakh War resulted in Azerbaijan losing around twenty percent of its territory and displacing, according to a UN report, over 800,000 civilians. What Azeri authorities consistently fail to mention, however, is that, likewise, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there were “360,000 ethnic Armenians who arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan from 1988 to 1993 as a result of the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.” So displacement, unlike Azeri authorities would have us believe, isn’t really a one-way street.
Both sides suffered a great deal and the important thing isn’t to make it a competition but to acknowledge the humanity of both sides, which leads to the next point: During the Nagorno-Karabakh War, atrocities were committed by Armenian and Azeri forces alike. Again, in the interest of fairness, let’s begin with those committed by Armenians: The most notable in this respect is the 1992 Khojaly Massacre; the Azeri government claims that more than 600 lives were lost, but a 1993 Human Rights Watch report states the following:
On the Azeri side, no discussion can be complete without first mentioning the 1988 Sumgait pogrom. Again, like Azeri sources, those of Armenia are exceptionally liberal when it comes to calculating death-toll estimates, placing the number at over 200 while a Minorities at Risk (more about this project) report records the Armenian casualties at twenty-six, along with six dead Azeris. Although much lower than the figures at Khojaly, the more unfortunate thing about this is that Armenia experienced a devastating earthquake only ten months later, killing over 25,000 people and leaving over 500,000 without homes. According to another report by the same agency: “In the ensuing relief effort, Azerbaijan continued to block all shipments into Armenia. In response to what Azerbaijan authorities saw as attempts to annex Karabakh, Azerbaijan moved to punish Armenia and Armenians by firing Armenian workers and expelling them from their homes in Azerbaijan.” All this happened during a period when Armenia was experiencing its most severe crisis; now, they’ve refused to sign a UN ceasefire agreement during a pandemic. Let me ask: Where’s the humanity in that? In 1988, I was only one year old when the earthquake hit. My mother carried me out of a building in her arms, but enough sentimentality. Instead here’s an image from that event depicting what seems to be two men digging for survivors.
In many respects the Khojaly massacre perpetrated by Armenian forces was an act of revenge for the horrors of Sumgait; the former was orchestrated on the 26th of February, 1992 while the latter occurred on the 26th of February, 1988, culminating on March 1st of that same year. It’s this vicious cycle that I mention in the first article that causes so many problems in the resolution of this conflict. Payback after payback and it really doesn’t matter at this point who started the most recent fighting or even who began it in the first place—the only thing that matters is who’ll be the one to decide that it’s over.
Let’s continue with another Azeri massacre of Armenians—in this case Maragha—in which, according to multiple Amnesty International (AI) reports, between 45 to 100 people were killed, and not simply that, as stated by one source; their bodies were disfigured and indiscriminately thrown into mass graves. This particular AI document states the following and the full report quoted below can be viewed here:
This dossier compiled in 1993 by the same agency gives a lower death-toll and this is meant to demonstrate that there can be contrasting perspectives in eyewitness accounts, along with the fact that different reports may focus on important matters that another source may choose to leave out—things such as hostages that were never found or wounded individuals who didn’t necessarily perish during or immediately after the massacre but nevertheless died as a result of their injuries later on; naturally, we may give both sides the benefit of such doubts.
One of the biggest atrocities committed by Armenian forces was during the Capture of Shusha; this can be considered the turning point of the war as it signified the first major victory for the country. Azerbaijan claims that more than 193 lives were lost. I couldn’t find official data on this, but, in the interest of solidarity, let’s just say this was the case. Due to the heavy fighting, the city was reduced to rubble, as this picture shows.
James Carney’s article “Carnage in Karabakh” in Time magazine had this to say about the extent of the damage: “scarcely a single building escaped damage in Stepanakert.” War doesn’t justify the killing of civilians, so let’s not pretend otherwise, even if it serves Armenian interests to use that rationale. Who are we really benefiting with arguments like this when they can just as easily be made by the other side? What’s interesting is that seventy-two years ago a massacre against the Armenians was carried out in this very same city, causing the destruction of the entire Armenian-populated quarter; according to Thomas de Waal‘s book, Black Garden, approximately 500 people lost their lives and the event resulted in the removal of the town’s entire Armenian population.
Indeed, though deadly and gruesome, the massacres during the Nagorno-Karabakh War didn’t amount to nearly the same casualties as those which occurred before and immediately after the creation of the Soviet Union, which was able to suppress and shelve the conflict not long after its formation, relatively speaking.
The so-called March Days were responsible for over 10,000 casualties. Orchestrated by the Bolsheviks with the help of the Dashnaktsutyun (the Armenian Revolutionary Federation), it was an attempt to suppress a possible revolt against Soviet authorities by Azerbajain’s Musavat Party. To demonstrate how dirty politics in fact are, we may simply look at this example: During the period of Soviet Azerbaijan, more precisely in 1978, the country’s leader at the time, Heydar Aliev, issued the following statement at a meeting dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Stepan Shahumian (the man who helped the Bolsheviks orchestrate the March Days) in Baku on October 11, 1978: “В марте 1918 года мусаватисты подняли антисоветский мятеж в Баку, намереваясь задушить Советскую власть. Благодаря решительным и твердым мерам, принятым большевиками, мятеж был ликвидирован.” The verbatim English translation is as follows: “In March 1918, the Musavatists launched an anti-Soviet revolt in Baku, intending to strangle Soviet power. Thanks to the decisive and firm measures taken by the Bolsheviks, the rebellion was liquidated.” Exactly twenty years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, of course, that very same leader, Heydar Aliev, according to a UN General Assembly Security Council report, issued a very different statement: “Taking advantage of the situation following the end of the First World War and the February and October 1917 revolutions in Russia, the Armenian nationalists began to pursue the implementation of their plans under the banner of Bolshevism. Under the watchword of combating counter-revolutionary elements, in March 1918, the Baku commune began to implement a criminal plan aimed at eliminating Azerbaijanis from the whole of Baku province.” What version are we really to believe?
The only thing crystal-clear here is that the same man isn’t simply an individual of his time, but a politician of it. Thus, which politician are we to believe—Soviet Aliev or the post-Soviet one? Should we believe that the Bolsheviks with the help of Stepan Shahumian are heroes for crushing an anti-Soviet revolt in Baku or that those very same Bolsheviks with the help of that traitorous Armenian were responsible for killing more than 12,000 people? Perhaps we can simplify things by complicating the issue with the addition of a scholar: According to Michael Smith’s article, “Anatomy of Rumor: Murder Scandal, the Musavat Party and Narrative of the Russian Revolution in Baku, 1917–1920,” which states: “The results of the March events were immediate and total for the Musavat. Several hundreds of its members were killed in the fighting; up to 12,000 Muslim civilians perished; thousands of others fled Baku in a mass exodus.” Issues like these are exactly what I was trying to highlight rather subtly in my first article, but since the point may not have gotten across to some people, I’ve decided to take a more direct approach. Let me pose the question again: Which Heydar Aliev do we believe?
Moving right back along now to Azeri atrocities committed against the Armenians. Aptly named the September Days, it’s not difficult to realize at this point that this event was an act of revenge for the March Days—a sort of reverse Khojaly, if you will. A 1995 Human Rights Watch report summarizes the two events nicely, although their death toll for the March Days could’ve perhaps been higher, but who cares about a few lives here and there, right? One death can be a genocide if there’s enough hate involved.
What do all these unfortunate events show? Precisely what I was trying to suggest in the first article: “Indeed, Azeris will never forget the atrocities of Khojaly while at the same time deliberately choosing to ignore the pogroms committed against Armenians in Sumgait, Baku, and Stepanakert; however, this has more to do with realizing political objectives than any kind of genuine hate for a people.” In this conflict, when one side has committed or commits an atrocity against the other side, it really isn’t that difficult to find something equivalent that has happened at some point in the past, or will probably happen in the future; all this needs to stop.
While Armenian and Azeri politicians are busy pointing fingers, people are dying; that was another thing which I initially attempted to illustrate by using the statements of US senators and representatives. The back-and-forth will never stop; tomorrow, an Azeri will find some other international lawmaker to back up his own cause and what will that really do to further the relations between the two countries themselves? Something else is needed—something besides politics. A few people I’ve spoken to about this disagree—they believe politics is the only solution. When I mentioned that our family knows an Armenian man and an Azeri woman who are married to each other, one person even discounted such cultural contact as not really relevant in the process towards building better relations between the respective countries; I find that very hard to believe.
Politics isn’t everything because the majority of Armenians and Azeris aren’t actually politicians; they’re just regular people. It’s therefore up to us to build bridges, to form bonds and go places where governments can’t take us. It’s my firm belief that the true resolution to this conflict will not come from the political arena but from Armenians and Azeris themselves. The eighteenth-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, who wrote both in Armenian and Azeri, along with Georgian as well, thought of himself, according to de Waal, precisely “as a bridge builder.” The poet was most content when, in de Waal’s words, he could move “between the different nations and regions of the Caucasus,” never tied down to a single identity. In one of his Azeri poems, he writes:
The word “nation” in the poem is ambiguous; however, Sayat-Nova’s biographer, Charles Dorsett (quoted in de Waal), states the following about why the poet may have chosen that specific word: “What nation? If the Armenian nation, or the Georgian, why is the poem in Azeri? It would seem his horizons are broader, and that he is thinking in such terms such as the Caucasian unity, in which Armenian, Georgian, and Azeri might live together in harmony, under the beneficent rule of a wise leader like Irakli II, and Azeri, as the common language, was the best vehicle for the message.” An Armenian poet writing in Azeri? Truly, this is something that both sides probably wouldn’t want to acknowledge, but it’s precisely what proves my point—politics isn’t the solution. It’s the power of art and culture that will serve to mediate whatever differences exist between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.