I was asked to write because my voice is clear. I was told it resonates with the way many people feel, but can’t verbalize. Yet now my clarity can’t be further from reality. For the first time in decades, my voice is a stranger to me. I had to look for my voice after trying to forget the past for two decades, first finding it with the publication of my book almost a decade ago. I found it then, but it is silent now because it is too painful to talk. Writing has been therapeutic since I was a little girl, but since the end of the Artsakh War, aside from occasional posts on social media, I haven’t been able to bring myself to speak or write about any of it. Perhaps because writing it down will make it more real, more defined and if I start crying, I won’t be able to continue my work. Perhaps because so many in the community rely on me for emotional support, inspiration or hope. Perhaps because there was so much work to do that writing an article about what everyone already knows would be criminal. So many people dead; so many people in need. So much devastation and it doesn’t seem to end. But time has passed and here I am sitting down with my laptop 11 months since I last visited Shushi in January and felt a strange and urgent need to run over and take a photo by Ghazanchetsots Cathedral despite the heavy snow.
It has been three months since the war began and seven weeks since I heard the news about the Agreement. I was at work in a meeting when the text came in at the end of the workday. I rushed out of my office, dialing every phone number on my way home, trying to understand how the unthinkable could happen. I still don’t have the answers. I allowed myself a day to grieve the loss of my homeland, my second such loss in my lifetime. But my nature and my personal history would not allow for such luxury of wallowing for long. I went back to work helping the people of Artsakh. The truth is heartbreaking, but it is the truth. This is nothing new. I’m used to betrayal by our very own. I’m used to painful gut-wrenching indifference from the people who were supposed to take care of my people. I know the ugly face of self-interest over the national interest of the homeland. I had to look at that face as a child refugee from Azerbaijan and then for a decade advocating for the people of Artsakh.
From the age of 10, I lived the Karabakh Conflict. My family and my community of 400,000 lost everything in Baku. We were thrown violently around the world, so many maimed and killed, all survivors scattered and forgotten. All of this seemed to occur in a vacuum. Soviet authorities pretended it didn’t happen. Azerbaijan advocated for decades that we slaughtered ourselves. Armenia ignored us, and the majority of the Diaspora had no idea there were even Armenians in Azerbaijan, let alone that they were killed for their ethnicity or exiled.
Now we are called prophetic. Somehow we knew that Azerbaijan would attack us then. And then somehow we knew Azerbaijan would attack Artsakh, again, as if it wasn’t clear from the actions and words coming out of the Azerbaijani government. “My goodness, Anna, how come I didn’t know about the fate of Armenians from Baku? I wish I did.” I hear that a lot now, but back then the story was very different. We weren’t prophetic then. We were pests. In 1988, when we warned against the Artsakh movement in Soviet Armenia for fear of reprisal from Azerbaijan itself, we were told we were not patriotic, not Armenian enough, even by family members. When the atrocities occurred and Azerbaijan began to systematically exterminate its unarmed Armenian population, we fled our homes. Back then, we were attacked with questions of why we didn’t fight back, still grieving many of our slaughtered women and children. For years during the blockade and after during the collapse of the Soviet Union, my community was invisible to the masses in Armenia. The Diaspora for the most part couldn’t really understand who we were (strange Soviet Armenians who couldn’t speak Armenian), what the Artsakh movement was, and what we were so upset about. In Armenia we were ridiculed for our accents, our inability to speak Armenian, for our poverty, for our heartache, for the city that we once built – Baku. We weren’t Armenian enough. But we were Armenian enough to suffer ethnic cleansing in Azerbaijan.
We were invisible to the Armenian government who at first couldn’t deal with the humanitarian disaster of the Armenian exodus from Azerbaijan, especially so soon after the Spitak earthquake. And then we continued to be ignored by the Armenian government in all aspects of its responsibilities to the people. There wasn’t one effort to alleviate their economic, humanitarian and psychological trauma. Aside from one small khachkar for Sumgait, there wasn’t one monument in the entire country of Armenia (a country filled with monuments) dedicated to the massacres of the Armenians in Azerbaijan. Together with my community and friends, we built one for the 30th anniversary of the Baku Pogroms (a forest planting and a khachkar) with private funds and donations. Not a single government representative attended the unveiling and religious dedication of the event despite my many invitations. Forget the memorials around the world. While Azerbaijan markets its Khojaly propaganda worldwide with monuments, commemorations and academic conferences, Armenia itself chose not to remember our fate. Many youth in Armenia are shocked that I’m from Azerbaijan. Armenian people lived there before? Imagine if they learned what and how we lost.
The suffering of the Armenians of Azerbaijan and the dangers that still existed to the population of Artsakh were inexplicably invisible within the foreign policy of the Armenian government. For years I voiced them over and over again to both internal and external audiences, not because I like to relive the most painful part of my life that still sends me into panic attacks and nightmares, but because it’s a warning sign for Artsakh and its people not heeded by Armenia or the rest of the world. For three decades what we received from the people that were supposed to care for our people, the politicians who cloaked themselves in patriotism, was indignation and elitism. With all its genocidal ideology, its hatred for Armenia, its brainwashed masses and corruption, Azerbaijan has a lot to teach us. While Armenia was criticizing how Azerbaijan mistreated their refugees internally, we should have taken lessons from them on how they advocated for their refugees on the global stage. They glorified their pain, flaunted and paraded them around the world, sued on their behalf, played dirty, marketed narratives of Armenian aggression, won over allies, bought favors, sold media, united in vilifying Armenians in the process and in the end won the popularity contest. They weaponized their refugees. Armenia, on the other hand, couldn’t even acknowledge us.
When Azerbaijan sowed its genocidal propaganda which we were told was placating its masses, desperate to keep Aliyev in power, many now realize it was a public plan—not empty threats. Regardless of how much Aliyev robs his people, all this time threatening to invade Artsakh and Yerevan, Azerbaijan was building its military to advance its state policy. While Azerbaijan jailed its journalists, put down its opposition and ruled with an iron dictator’s fist, you will not find an opposition in Azerbaijan that doesn’t actually believe Karabakh is not Azerbaijan. Their national interests on this issue were clear to them and it was clear to their leadership. Yet ours is unclear to Armenia as a whole, with Artsakh recognition still lazily thrown around as an option even now.
While Azerbaijan was building a 21st century military to invade Artsakh, for 30 years the Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan had to remind the government of Armenia that we even existed. Our warnings of war were unheard. I personally had to beg the government of Armenia and its embassy to remember the 30th anniversary of the Sumgait Pogroms in February 2018. Members of the old parliament were visiting Washington, DC. They didn’t even say a word that day during an event held at the US Congress. Instead of taking that opportunity to share our history and educate members of Congress, they spent their paid vacation taking touristy photos. It never got better. The current Prime Minister shamefully couldn’t bring himself to admit (or remember) we were even a component of the conflict in a press conference with Aliyev. When I criticized him publicly, I was attacked and threatened by his supporters. Despite the hundreds of death threats by Azerbaijanis that I receive due to my public work – some that have even been investigated by the FBI – I can never get used to the hate from my very own people. To the criticism of me speaking out here, I will respond proactively. Spare me the talk of “unity.” Where was this unity for Baku Armenians who still live in abandoned Soviet-era hotels in modern day Armenia? Where was this unity for Shushi and Hadrut? Where was this unity for the bulletproof vests and modern weaponry our soldiers needed? Where was this unity in accepting the fate of Artsakhtsis as our own? Because it is!
While we bemoan our lack of allies, if you skim through pages of human history, we should finally learn the lesson that allies gravitate to the rich and powerful, that international law is fluid and what you need are muscles and a spine. We appear to have neither. We must acknowledge the fact that we are no longer Urartu or a large empire ruled by Tigran II. We had time and many opportunities to acknowledge our limitations and use our talents to prepare ourselves regardless of disparity of wealth with Azerbaijan. We had 30 years to prepare for the coming war that the enemy was threatening over and over again. Instead, all Armenian administrations robbed Armenia blind, milking the Diaspora cow with promises of Artsakh’s independence to finance the oligarchs’ luxuries, leaving nothing for the people. Even as we pick up the pieces of ourselves after war, the Diaspora still can’t get a clear answer of where those hundreds of millions of dollars donated to Himnadram fundraisers went. Ironically, people still donate, blindly but with an open heart, hoping it will somehow magically help the people on the ground. As Azerbaijan was spending billions on anti-Armenian lobby efforts, Armenia’s administrations deferred to Diaspora organizations with limited scope and grassroots networks to do their jobs. While individual diplomats, many of whom are my friends, worked their entire careers for their people, with many embassies hosting insulated commemoration events, there was no unifying strategy, no surgically precise PR campaign orchestrated by Yerevan. In January 2020, I was invited to speak on the topic of Baku atrocities at the Armenian Parliament, which frankly shocked me as no Armenian refugee ever spoke in the halls of this Parliament on this issue. During my speech after describing our fate, I discussed Azerbaijan’s active work vilifying Armenia around the world and organizing. I urged the members of the Armenian Parliament to pay attention and do something about it. After my speech, many of them ran up to me telling me how shocked they were to learn of Khojaly propaganda posters on New York City buses and that they are happy to help my work. The point of my speech was utterly lost on them: the people of Armenia and Artsakh needed them to do that work, not me, a private citizen of another country.
In September of 2016 my family and I watched the 25th anniversary of Armenia’s independence military parade in Yerevan at Republic Square. My children were impressed with this spectacle: so much bravado, so much show. Yet it was all a sham, an empty charade. The April War should have been a warning sign that no parades would save our people. These weapons didn’t protect our boys as promised, not then, nor in 2020. As Azerbaijan was buying more sophisticated weapons and moving troops to the border, the new administration squeaked about “pacifism” to my face — some 20-some-year-old appointee scoffed at my supposed lack of knowledge and standing to have an opinion. In the halls of the Armenian Parliament in 2019, I was almost accused of being a warmonger when I voiced concern that we are taking a pacifist stance with Azerbaijan. “Let the Diaspora think that the administration is pacifist. There is nothing wrong with pacifism,” I was told. Even with a genocidal reality to the east of you? Considering the casualties, it is likely that these pacifists lost family members in the meatgrinder of the Artsakh War. Was your mind-numbing ideology worth their lives?
While we justify these behaviors by blaming each other’s political affiliations or even better, on the fact that we are an oil-less country, one must remember that we have the Big Grand Diaspora. You’d think with all its financial and political power and might, Azerbaijan should be fearful of it. Yet they outplay us in every PR campaign, every lobbying effort, every cat-and-mouse game. But can we blame us? I believe the Diaspora can be more effective when it develops an unyielding selfless dedication to the homeland and a widespread understanding of a common national interest. But the Armenian government’s self-destructive lack of leadership in this area remains a barrier. Again and again, I hear the deflection, the fallacy, that the Diaspora must get involved in the Armenian government, that Armenians outside of Armenia should control the government of Armenia, that they can’t have a voice unless they do something politically. Every time I hear this, I am stung by the implicit admission that the Armenian government cannot alone serve the interests of the nation. And that is why the Diaspora doesn’t trust the government of Armenia. Yet Diasporans don’t trust each other either. In 2013, my husband and I had a great opportunity to work on a resolution to recognize Artsakh in my state of Maine. We were confronted by an Armenian community leadership who warned me not to “make waves” and that our annual Armenian Genocide proclamation might be jeopardized by this “Artsakh project.” Despite their active efforts to dissolve the resolution, I’m proud to say that the state of Maine recognized the independence of the Republic of Nagorno Karabakh. What they fail to realize is that in order to survive as a people, we need the waves! A few years ago, I was invited to the Embassy of Armenia to the US for a private meeting with Armenian organizations to discuss organizing celebratory events marking the 25th anniversary of Armenia’s independence. I was surprised that I was invited as a representative of the Baku Armenian community; I believe I was the only person in the room who didn’t represent an organization. I was happy to contribute my thoughts and was promptly made aware of the reality in the room. We boast about the Diaspora’s far-reaching stamina, yet we can’t come up with a national interest consensus, even on a cultural event. The effort was a failure, both on the part of the Embassy and on the part of the Diaspora. No Armenian cultural event occurred in Washington, DC that year because no one could agree on anything.
Judging from the highway connecting Fizuli and Shushi currently being built by Azerbaijan immediately after the war ended, I can confidently say that while the Armenian nation is imploding, Azerbaijan is doing exactly what benefits their national interests. When it comes to this conflict, Azerbaijan has been pursuing their well-defined, understood and accepted national interest methodically, surgically, and aggressively for the last 32 years. The concept of “national interest” does not exist within the Armenian nation. The lack of true public service for the betterment of the nation and not the betterment of your pocket is the reason we now have Azerbaijan building that road to Shushi. The last 30 years of self-destructive policies, summarized by the loss of this war, the disinformation campaign employed against us by the Armenian government, its post-war response, its disconnect of Diaspora from Armenia and the government’s disregard for our own people brought this home to me thoroughly and completely. That road is a perfect visual to put it all into perspective.
As they build their roads, our ancestral land of Artsakh is gone. Our people are refugees again. And there is still such infuriating, ripping-my-hair-out-of-my-head, have-you-NO SHAME, inaction in the face of an existential disaster. These refugees, these prisoners of war, these dead bodies, these limbless veterans with no support that the government couldn’t care less about are all pawns in their little game. The people of Artsakh, many of whom are my friends from Stepanakert, Shushi and Hadrut, are going back from Armenia to what’s left of Artsakh because there is absolutely no help provided for them by the government of Armenia. They are now faced with the option of going hungry in the winter of Armenia or going back to Artsakh, whether or not they have a home, in a status-less “homeland” with bloodthirsty Azerbaijani soldiers next door coming into Stepanakert unchecked and unchallenged. Why wouldn’t they return? What is the better option?
By many accounts, including my personal contacts, many Artsakhtsis are, right now, experiencing aggressive discrimination in Yerevan, similar to what Baku Armenians experienced 30 years ago. “More Armenian than thou” is being played out; their ethnicity is being called into question, from their accents being ridiculed to their men’s willingness to fight in the war being questioned, even as the widows with babies are stuffed into boarding houses, barns and shacks. And now the same Yerevan relatives who told us to be patriotic in 1988 and support the Artsakh movement tell me, “See Anna, it wasn’t worth it, this Artsakh of yours. Why did you waste so many years on it?”
Why stop there? How are Syuniktsis being treated now? Is Syunik worth it?
And here you have it. Here we are. In the process of these failed 30 years, due to our chronic self-loathing and self-destruction, real people died by the thousands. My friends died. Our boys died. While we boast that our military goes back for our dead and Azerbaijan leaves their 8,000+ dead on the battlefield, the reality is that Armenia left all our men to die, by failing to equip them with what they needed to defend themselves and their homes for decades or, during the last few weeks, sending them to their death, withholding reinforcements, knowing full well how it would turn out and lying shamelessly to their mothers and the rest of the Armenian nation. In the end, the two are the same. In the end we cannot claim the moral high ground any longer. All of them, with their political games, removed to their fancy towers in Yerevan, regardless of what political party they belong to, will go down in history with Armenian blood on their hands. And if they remove their egos from the equation, including the Diaspora, they will see what needs to be done to bring Armenia up from its knees, starting from its foreign policy, military, governmental infrastructure and down to corruption and the economy.
Can we do this now, however, feeling so defeated by the enemy and by our own failure to protect? I don’t know where to find the light at the end of this long stretched-out darkness, but I’m trying in my humanitarian projects and continued emphasis on the people of Artsakh. I also picked up quilting these last few weeks for personal sanity as I grieve for my loved ones and for the thousands who follow me on social media, writing to me because they don’t know what to do with all this pain. On winter weekends at our lake house here in Maine and with limited WiFi, quilting has become the most ideal way for me to distract myself from the world. It is frustrating at times, but worth it. The pieces of this hexi-quilt I’m making for my daughter remind me of how different we are, yet the same – fractured, yet strangely organized. My father, my sweet Papa, always warned me there will be a time in my Artsakh advocacy when I will throw my hands up in the air in disbelief at how infuriating we are as a people, and it happened, completely and thoroughly. My Papa also said the reason we survived for so many thousands of years is because we are fractured. There is no center to destroy; we have many centers. But wars are fought differently now, Papa, and we can’t play this game any longer. We will no longer exist as a people.
During these stressful times as I hand sew my quilt, I come to the same conclusion I reach at each painful chapter of my life: becoming a refugee, suffering spinal paralysis, losing a child in a failed pregnancy, learning my friends were killed by Azerbaijani aggression and watching my Artsakh in flames. With patience, I believe that we are simply part of a larger picture, important in holding the pieces together, yet unimportant in the larger scheme of things, that there is a time and place for tension and frustration, and then there is time for softness and comfort. In the end, we are a quilt-work of what it means to be “Armenia,” and we are more beautiful and stronger because of it, but only when we find that common goal, whatever it is. As I work toward believing my own words of encouragement, striving to find that hope again, I pray that my people, especially those in leadership, come to this conclusion soon. Think long-term. Think 100 years from now. Put aside your personal interests for the benefit of the national interest, for the sake of our people, in honor of our ancestors and the land for which so many of our friends and family, our youth, died then and died now. For once, do it for them.