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Op-Ed: Why Armenians everywhere stand with those in Nagorno-Karabakh

Aram Arax, standing, with Yervant Janigian shortly after they arrived in Fresno, Calif. in 1920.
(Courtesy of Mark Arax)

A century ago, our grandfathers, survivors of the Armenian Genocide, traveled 7,000 miles by ship and train to start a new life in California. Yervant Janigian and Aram Arax, uncle and nephew, took one look at the San Joaquin Valley — flat, rich loam stretching out to a Sierra filled with water — and declared it a new Armenia.

They raised the grapes they had raised in the old country, brewed their raisin moonshine in the same copper stills, sang as they mourned, and taught us that their embrace of America did not mean they had severed their souls from the homeland.

We were part of a fierce, proud tribe that had withstood thousands of years of slaughter by Mongols, Tatars, Persians and Turks. The Phoenicians were gone. The Babylonians were gone. But the Armenians had managed to hold on to a remnant of their ancient empire and endure. It was our obligation as exiles in the new land to make sure the old land and its people did not vanish into history.

Today, as we pen these words, the nation of Armenia and its neighboring enclave Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as Artsakh, face the gravest threat to their survival in a century. The stakes could not be higher in an escalating war between the Armenians and the Azeris, who are actively backed by their ethnic kin in Turkey.

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To the casual observer, the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a small plot of earth in the Caucasus, may seem a squabble between neighbors. But it was the forebears of these same Turks and Azeris who massacred 1.5 million Armenians living under Ottoman rule in the years 1915 to 1918. And to this day, they continue to deny the crime of genocide. This denial is not simply an erasure of history. It sets the stage for what Armenians now fear is an attempt to inflict a mortal wound to what is left of our homeland.

Imagine for a moment that Germany denied it had ever slaughtered Jews. Indeed, it insisted that Jews had slaughtered Germans, and that the word “Holocaust” could not be uttered in public. Imagine now that Germany wasn’t 2,000 miles removed from Israel but shared with it a border, and that its hatred of Jews was so consuming that it closed the border and claimed that Israel was the greatest threat to peace in the region.

For Armenians residing in Armenia and adjacent Nagorno-Karabakh, squeezed between Turkey and Turkic Azerbaijan, this scenario is not a hypothetical. It is what they have lived through for a century, and what they are still living through.

The 3 million Armenians in the homeland and the 8 million like us scattered far and wide believe Nagorno-Karabakh is part and parcel of our survival. It is where our people, a majority of the population for millennia, have built their churches and buried their dead, a land that Stalin, in his maniacal attempt to quash ethnic identity, handed over to Soviet Azerbaijan in 1923.

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This seizure made no sense as a matter of culture, history or geography, since the tiny Soviet republic of Armenia sat only a few miles from Nagorno-Karabakh. But from that moment on, the 150,000 Armenians inside the enclave had to rely only on Russia as protector. Then in 1988, as the USSR began to crumble, Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh voted for independence. In response, Azeris set about murdering Armenians in the city of Sumgait and other parts of Azerbaijan.

In the winter of 1990, American reporters landed in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. “Here and there, boarded windows or soot-blackened walls mark an apartment where Armenians were driven out by mobs and their belongings set afire on the balcony,” Bill Keller of the New York Times wrote. “The Armenian Orthodox Church is now a charred ruin.”

Beyond Baku, in a town called Julfa, it wasn’t enough that the local Azeris killed and drove off Armenians. They obliterated 10,000 uniquely carved Armenian stone crosses from the town’s medieval cemetery, one of the great cultural catastrophes of the modern age.

By 1991, both Armenia and Azerbaijan had become independent nations. Fearing annihilation, Armenians hunkered down in Nagorno-Karabakh and fought for its liberation. A shaky cease-fire has more or less stood for the past 25 years, even as Armenian control of the enclave continues to enrage Azeris and Turks.

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Over the past few weeks, as fighting has intensified, Armenians from Los Angeles, Beirut, Buenos Aires and everywhere else the diaspora reaches have taken to the streets to remind the world of their history, and why it must not be repeated.

They have called out the government of Israel for supplying Azerbaijan with weapons that are pulverizing Nagorno-Karabakh’s capital. They have called out President Trump for failing to apply any pressure to Israel, Turkey or Azerbaijan. They have called out Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo for playing blind to the fact that 90 million neighboring Azeris and Turks pose an existential threat to Armenians.

Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan, has tweeted, “Armenia is not even a colony. It is not even worthy of being a servant.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, has vowed that “Turkey will continue to stand by its brothers in Azerbaijan as it has always done.” He has made good on his pledge by sending war machines and Syrian jihadists to the battlefront. “We will continue to fulfill the mission our grandfathers have carried out for centuries in the Caucasus.”

The two of us are descendants of that mission. Our grandfathers passed down to us the story of the crane, the groonk, the mythical bird of Armenia. It would fly thousands of miles to other lands, but it would never forget the way home. We are 11 million groonks. But in this time of peril, what will home be?

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Aris Janigian’s most recent novel is “Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach.” He is co-founder of The Artifa[ctuals], a new arts and culture magazine. Mark Arax is the author, most recently, of “The Dreamt Land,” which was a finalist for the 2020 L.A. Times Book Award.


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