Craig Simonian of the Peace and Reconciliation Network helps explain the current suffering of Armenians in Artsakh.
Do you know what’s happening right now in Armenia? Many Armenians, including neighbours here in Canada, are enduring great heartache that is lost in the cacophony of current world events. The World Evangelical Alliance’s Peace & Reconciliation Network (PRN) invites you to understand the backdrop of the current reality with our PRN Caucasus Region Network Coordinator. You can listen to more here.
On December 12, 2022, a group of Azerbaijani agents in civilian clothes began a total blockade of the only road connecting Artsakh from neighboring Armenia. Artsakh (known through the Soviet years as Nagorno-Karabakh) is an independent Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan comprising 120,000 Armenians. Historically, Artsakh was one of Armenia’s 15 provinces, referred to as such by ancient authors as Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy and Plutarch. Though history’s many epochs, Artsakh had fell under the rule of Persian and Arab invaders. And, most recently, in the early 19th century, it was annexed to the Russian Empire. Nevertheless, through all of this, Artsakh continued to be populated and led by Armenians, a people whose history dates back to the mid-bronze age.
By the time the Bolshevik Revolution had reached the Caucasus Region in 1920, Artsakh had already convened its first congress, becoming an independent Armenian state. But, in spite of the fact that 95% of Artsakh was Armenian, Azerbaijan (supported by Turkish military units) sought to prevent their statehood, launching a series of massacres against Artsakh’s Armenian population, killing over 40,000 men, women and children in March of 1920 alone. At this time, the Armenian Genocide was in full motion, where 1.5 million Armenians were being killed by the same Ottoman Turks. As a result of their actions against the Armenians in Artsakh, the international community rejected Azerbaijan’s request for membership in the League of Nations.
Soviet Union Forces Artsakh Under Azerbaijan SSR Control
With the tight grip of the Soviet Union now encircling the region, it was agreed by the Supreme Soviet that the predominately Armenian provinces of Artsakh and Nakhijevan would remain under the authority of the Armenian Soviet Socialist State. However, just after this was confirmed and documented, Joseph Stalin, embracing his typical “divide and conquer” strategy of destabilizing non-Russian states, dictated that Artsakh and Nakhijevan (another historic province of Armenia) would now come under the authority of the Azerbaijan SSR as autonomous oblasts. Though Armenians comprised 95% of Artsakh at that time, by the 1980s, that number was reduced to 75%. Most were either killed or forcibly migrated. And, along with its ethnic cleansing of Armenians, they similarly destroyed countless Armenian monuments, cemeteries, and churches.
This program of ethnic cleansing of Armenians by Azerbaijan was even more pronounced in Nakhijevan, which sits directly on Armenia’s southwestern border. While under Armenian rule for centuries before Christ, through a series of Muslim invasions, the Armenian population sat at around 45% when it became an autonomous oblast under Azeri control. Not only were 10,000 Armenians killed in a single massacre there, but within a few decades, the Armenian population was completely eradicated. And, again, it was not only the Armenian people that had been erased from the land, but their history.
Researchers at the US-based Caucasus Heritage Watch confirm that a full 98% of all Armenian religious and cultural sites in Nakhijevan had been destroyed by Azerbaijan, including the largest Armenian cemetery in the world, located in Djulfa. Between 1997-2005 alone, 108 medieval and early Armenian monasteries, churches and cemeteries in Nakhijevan were completely destroyed. In 2000, UNESCO called on Azerbaijan to end their destruction of Armenian “Khachkars,” which are beautifully carved crosses in stone. Nevertheless, they continued to destroy a full 12,000 khachkars, dumping the rubble into the adjacent Araxes River. It was an act that some had called “the greatest cultural genocide of the 21st century.” And yet, in spite of countless historical documents to the contrary, including decades of satellite imagery showing the presence of ancient and early-modern Armenian churches, Azerbaijan not only denies their complicity but denies any claim that Armenians even inhabited Nakhijevan.
Artsakh Declares Independence, Azerbaijan Retaliates
By the late 1980s, the Armenians of Artsakh claimed the right of self-determination, not willing to simply “disappear” as was the case in Nakhijevan. As a result the Azeri authorities organized massacres and ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population across all of Azerbaijan’s territories, particularly in the cities of Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad. Several years later, in 1991, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Armenian provincial government of Artsakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan as per the Supreme Soviet’s ruling regarding autonomous oblasts. This Article, number III, followed the directives of Article II outlining the process by which Soviet states would declare independence. Ignoring the appeals made by the international community, particularly the UN Security Council calling Azerbaijan to cease military actions, Azerbaijan immediately launched a large-scale Azeri military incursion against the newly formed Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh).
This fighting further erupted as Artsakh demanded to be reunified with Armenia, as it had been for millennia. And so, from February of 1988 the fighting grew more and more intense as Azerbaijan fought to destroy any semblance of succession. By early 1992, the fighting escalated to a fever pitch leaving huge numbers of Armenians and Azeris dead. However, in May of 1994, after six years of fighting, a Russian-brokered ceasefire was signed with Artsakh now in control of its main cities as well as a broader enclave surrounding them. This ceasefire required that Artsakh not unite with Armenia but, instead, form a de facto state called the Republic of Artsakh. In addition, they secured a clear passageway between themselves and Armenia, a mountain pass known as the Lachin Corridor.
Following the Nagorno Karabakh War the OSCE Minsk Group sought to develop a bona fide peace treaty between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but suitable agreements could never be reached, leaving the situation vulnerable at best. Over the following years, there had been many incursions against Armenia, which violated the terms of the 1994 peace treaty. But, on September 27, 2020, Azeri and Turkish forces ended the 30 years of relative peace by bombing nearly every part of Artsakh with weaponry that far surpassed what was owned by the Republic of Artsakh and Armenia. For 44 days, Armenians were being driven out of seven regions within Artsakh, including its spiritual capital of Shushi.
Once again, Armenians were being purged from their historic lands. In 1921, for example, in order to appease the newly formed Turkish government, not only was the city of Ani (known as the “land of a thousand churches”) taken by the Soviets and given to the Turks, but the heart of Armenia, Mount Ararat, was simply taken from them and given away in the Treaty of Kars. And all this, while Armenians and Armenian history were being erased throughout Eastern Turkey. And now, a hundred years later, 5,000 young Armenian lie dead with 10,000 wounded. Thousands of hectares of Armenians forests were burnt to the ground by illegal Azeri phosphorus bombs. Armenian grandmothers and grandfathers, who have already suffered so much, were forced into basement bunkers listening to Azeris chanting “death to the Armenians” week after week. Sixty-one schools and ten kindergartens were destroyed and hundreds of thousands without homes. Even their main maternity hospital was destroyed by Azeri shelling.
Azeri Attacks on Armenians Violate International Law
The UN Commissioner for Human Rights declared that, by any measure, these attacks could be seen as war crimes. And, while Azerbaijan claims that Armenia was guilty of the same, the Human Rights Watch and Human Rights Defender both verified that they could only verify Azeri abuse. In fact, captured mercenaries who had been hired by Turkey verified that they were offered an extra $100 for each Armenian head they would cut off. And sadly, both the Azeris and the mercenaries from Syria would take the Armenian soldiers' phones and record their torture live on their Facebook pages for their Armenian families to see. The executions, beheadings (of women as well as men), the torture of both soldiers and civilians (including women and elderly), the forced displacement of thousands and thousands, all speak to the gross violation of international law perpetrated by the Azeris. And, as a result, the organization Genocide Watch issued a genocide emergency for Armenians in Artsakh. And the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies expressed dire concern regarding the “increasing risk of genocide” against the Armenians. And yet, the attacks continued, even within the borders of Armenia proper.
And, if all that wasn’t enough, on September 13, 2022, Azerbaijan again launched an attack on the sovereign territory of Armenia, using multiple rocket launchers and attack drones. The cities of Vardenis, Goris, Kapan and Jermuk, for example, were all shelled, leading to the deaths of 210 Armenian soldiers as well as numerous deaths of civilians. The International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) published a statement strongly condemning “Azerbaijan’s invasion of the Republic of Armenia and the ongoing aggression against the Armenian people in the Republic and in Artsakh and expresses concern about the risk of genocide against the Armenian population.” The concerns were heightened as a number of Armenian prisoners of war were executed. Over the course of just four days, 7,000 civilians were displaced. According to the IAGS, “civilian homes and local infrastructure [was] destroyed in an attempt to ethnically cleanse Armenians from a large portion of the Republic of Armenia.”
The IAGS also notes Turkish President Erdogan’s reference to Armenians as “occupiers” in the land despite centuries of history in that region. According to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, such language represents a serious risk factor leading toward genocide. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has made statements that add to these risks when he said that “Armenia as a country is of no value ... a territory artificially created on Azerbaijani lands.” And so, as Aliyev boasted after the 2020 four-day war, “we chased them out of our lands like dogs.” All of this, the IAGS insists, represents the systematic attempt to end the presence of Armenians from their homelands, demonstrating the very real risk of genocide. The International Court of Justice has also recognized the seriousness of this profound hate speech as well as Azerbaijan’s “cultural destruction” of Armenian culture.
Attack Against Armenians in Artsakh Continues Today
As was mentioned at the beginning of this article, this attack against Armenians in Artsakh continues. The International Association of Genocide Scholars reports, “On December 12th, 2022, the government of Azerbaijan imposed a blockade on the enclave of Artsakh creating an ongoing humanitarian crisis for its 120,000 remaining Armenian inhabitants.” This blockade is a direct violation of the 2020 Trilateral Ceasefire Statement signed by Azerbaijan, Russia and Armenia. During this blockade, now in its 56th day [as of Feb. 6], Azerbaijan has deliberately cut off the gas supply for a full seven days and has offered just a few hours of gas during the other days, preventing schools and hospitals from functioning because of the intense cold. In March of 2020, Azerbaijan similarly detonated a critical portion of Artsakh’s natural gas pipeline from Armenia and left its population without gas for 20 days. According to the Human Rights Defender, Azerbaijan had also damaged the sole high-voltage electric line to Artsakh from Armenia in January, leaving Artsakh with just a few hours of electricity per day. And so, the Armenians find themselves without any real access to heat and hot water.
Unable to cross the blockade of Artsakh’s Lachin Corridor, a great number of families living in Armenia and Artsakh remain separated from each other, including 250 children. It is through this 5-km corridor that Artsakh had received, each day, over 400 tons of essential goods from Armenia. Since this blockade began, however, almost all of these goods, which includes food, fuel, hygiene products and vital medical supplies, has been prevented from reaching the 120,000 Armenians there, including 30,000 children, 20,000 elderly and 9,000 disabled. This has already led to a significant humanitarian crisis. At this time, no Armenians are allowed to pass the Azeri blockade, leaving one critical patient in Artsakh dead because of the impossibility of being transferred to a proper medical facility in Armenia. Over 570 people have had vital surgeries canceled because of lack of necessary surgical supplies not to mention the lack of heat and hot water as a result of the massive shortage of gas, electricity, and diesel fuel. The blockade continues to keep all those who are regularly traveling to Armenia for their cancer treatments from getting the vital care they need. Syringes, diabetic medications, and other drugs are all at critical levels.
To add further distress, they have also cut the sole fibre optic cable supply to Artsakh, leaving the Armenians there without internet for several days. Currently, ongoing disruptions of Artsakh’s internet and communication persists. All these things are in direct violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Culture Rights. But in addition to all of that, the blockade has created severe economic damage as many businesses, which have had to shut down. At least 5,100 people have lost their jobs and sources of income. Agricultural work is shut down because there isn’t fuel to power their equipment. Forty-one kindergartens (affecting 5,528 children) and 20 schools can no longer serve Artsakh’s children due to lack of heating and food. The banks are nearly out of cash money and the government has lost the revenues it needs to fulfill social obligations such as welfare payments.
In a recent declaration of the IAGS executive and advisory boards, they call upon “the international community to hold the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev accountable for the crime of aggression, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and violations of international humanitarian law (including blockades and embargoes that cause starvation) perpetrated against Armenia and Armenians since September 2020.” This blockade of Artsakh’s 120,000 Armenians is simply an ongoing attempt on the part of Azerbaijan to rid “their land” of Armenians. In fact, the 120,000 Armenians have been instructed to leave Artsakh, but only with the understanding that they will never return. Each day, Armenians are threatened with violence if they don’t abandon their homes. Residents are regularly reminded of what non-compliance looks like as there are daily shootings from various caliber weapons into various Armenian villages, stopping any agricultural efforts, making the food crisis even more dire.
Pray for Armenians Amidst Possible New Genocide
If the ongoing historic actions of Azerbaijan to eliminate the Armenians of Artsakh isn’t addressed by the international community, then the concern of many organizations regarding the very real possibility of genocide will certainly prove true. At present, the European Parliament has condemned Azerbaijan’s blockade of Artsakh and have called President Aliyev to immediately reopen the Lachin Corridor in keeping with the 2020 Trilateral Statement. Numbers of US Congressmen and Senators are urging the Biden Administration to use “maximum pressure on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to end his month-long (now 57 days) blockade of the 120,000 people in Artsakh. The Lachin Corridor should be opened for unimpeded movement before the current humanitarian crisis becomes catastrophic. If the United States and our international partners fail to act immediately, there is no doubt that President Aliyev will continue to escalate his deadly aggressions against the Armenian people in Artsakh.”
It is time, if you haven’t already, to add the ongoing suffering of Armenians to your prayer and action list.
Craig Simonian is Caucasus Region Network Coordinator for the WEA’s Peace and Reconciliation Network. This blog series and related podcasts are produced in collaboration with the Peace & Reconciliation Network. Read all the blog posts at FaithToday.ca/AllThingsReconciled.