During the Artsakh War of 2020, my group of Diasporan friends and I rushed to the homeland to volunteer. On October 18, 2020, we visited Shushi and lit a candle in the shelled Ghazanchetsots cathedral. I’m sure we all prayed for the same thing: that we’d win this round as well. A week later, in the evening time, when we were at our post, my friend’s father called him from Jerusalem worried about a video of Artsakh’s president Arayik Harutyunan in which he claimed Azeri forces were quickly closing in on the Fortress City—the strategic and symbolic cornerstone of the narrative that the third republic of Armenia was founded upon.
I finally understood there and then what I had been suspicious of for years: that the Diaspora is in all honesty useless. The concerned voice of my friend’s father was all the proof one needed to expose the Diaspora as a helpless mass. Because while a large number of protestors flocked the streets of Los Angeles, Paris and Jerusalem, the Turks took Hadrut. Because while Diasporans passionately lobbied and petitioned around the world, the Turks made it to the gates of Shushi. And while every Diasporan dedicated their social media pages to the war effort, Shushi slipped away. The candle I lit a mere week before it was snuffed out exemplified nothing but the unanswered prayers of a depressed nation.
In 44 days, Armenia went from being one of the safest countries in the world to a failed state—broken, fragmented and defenseless. Neo-Ottoman forces had finally crashed through our doors and set a foothold in our home. Russian peacekeepers for their own interests barged in to preserve something of their once-upon-a-time Caucasian ally, and the most incompetent, inexperienced and treacherous Armenian government stubbornly clutched to its seat while trying to juggle the myriad of new challenges the country had to deal with. The Diaspora could not stop any of this, no matter the protests, the donations, the petitions, or the poetic Facebook posts.
Yet, when we ultimately capitulated, I turned to my fellow volunteers and said that I preferred losing with my feet planted on Armenian soil rather than being disoriented in the Diaspora. Because what the Diaspora has failed to understand over a century is the following: the one who lives on the land keeps the land. Sure, our tumultuous bloody history might suggest otherwise, but the basic tenet of that idea still stands. Artsakh, the size of many recognized countries with millions of inhabitants, had a population of 160,000 on the best of days. That is abysmal and a testimony to our failure as a socio-political collective.
I assured my volunteers that despite all the blame game unfolding post-war, we, there, standing shoulder to shoulder with the people of Artsakh and southern Armenia, were neither responsible nor guilty. The culprits were the Diasporans who found it more comfortable fighting the war from a distance on the internet. The culprits were the Yerevantsis whose geography of Armenia is limited to Yerevan and a long weekend in Dilijan during summertime. The culprits were those young men of Artsakh who deserted the front and hid away in Armenia. The culprits were the government officials who ran the war in criminal mismanagement, disorganization and idiocy.
If me and my guys were guilty of one thing, it is what everyone else was guilty of. That is, we took Artsakh for granted while enjoying it as a tourist hotspot for its divine beauty. It turned into the background of our social media pictures, but it never made it to the tangible forefront of our daily lives.
For 30 years, Artsakh was in a bureaucratic limbo yet still secure. Today the remaining parts of Artsakh linger in purgatory while Armenia is lost and confused in a dark tunnel that refuses to show a light at the end of it.
So where do we go now?
First, we have to accept that we are the generation that lost Shushi. When my father was 30, Shushi was liberated in the famous operation of the Wedding in the Mountains. I turned 30 a few days after the end of this war, having lost Shushi and watching Armenia coming apart at the seams. Therefore, we can only look at ourselves in the mirror and admit that we are losers— basically, a new set of losers in the unrelenting loop of the past 800 years. In this loop, the victory of the first Artsakh War is only a random miracle—an outlier that does not fit the norm.
Second, we have to decide whether we want to be like our grandparents who, after the Genocide, withdrew into their corner, resigned themselves to the tragedy and told themselves they would focus on preserving what they had; or, we make the decision not to become our grandparents, not to let Shushi slowly turn into a modern Kars and work on breaking the loop. We do that not by preserving what we have, but by strengthening what we have. It’s a simple turn of the wheel that will make a difference.
As Diasporans, we need to change the way we utilize our resources. We do not need to sustain the Diaspora; we need to end it. Armenia’s weakest point, the chink of chinks in her armor, is the miserable demographics. Just like there wasn’t a sizable population in Artsakh, there also isn’t one in the Armenian countryside. If you’re a young Diasporan family raising children in the Armenian culture, but planning a life for them that mostly transpires in the Diaspora, then you are perpetuating the loop. If you believe that your childrens’ enrollment in an Armenian school is enough and you fail to prepare them for a life in Armenia, then you are perpetuating the loop. If you are gaining the wealth and knowledge of the outside world and not actively using it for the benefit of Armenia, then you are perpetuating the loop. I can go on and on about how the Diaspora can so easily and subconsciously perpetuate the loop while thinking it is doing otherwise.
Saying “never again” but repeating the same half-hearted patriotism is something the future of Armenia cannot afford any longer. To be poetically cruel, it is time we snatch your children away and send them to Armenia; deprive the sloths from their comfort and send them to Syunik; gather all the good-for-nothing drunkards and underachievers wandering on our Diaspora streets and relocate them to the Lachin corridor with the promise that they’ll get a daily batch of vodka as long as they drink away on Armenian soil. Yes, it’s time to use the resources of the Diaspora with clear-cut strategies and even manipulation that result in concrete tangible results on the ground in Armenia.
Finally, we must accept the new trauma haunting us. If my forefather lived the last Armenian days of Sepastia and Western Armenia, then me and my volunteers lived the last Armenian days of Shushi and Karvajar. I did not experience these losses through a history book or an Instagram story; I was there. And I can never unsee the last time I drove away from Shushi with Ghazanchetsots in the rearview mirror. In the West, it is a trend to reconcile with trauma in the hopes of letting it go. But, on the contrary, we need the trauma. I have been refusing my friend’s endless invitations for an ayahuasca session. Because, deep in me, at this moment, there is both a little boy crying rivers wider than Arax and a raging monster thirsting for revenge. And they both have a role in rebuilding our homeland.
There’s much to do and not much time. The Caucasus is a geopolitical region built on quicksand, constantly changing and offering new challenges and opportunities. For military strategists and students of political science, a quick scan of the map and a digest of the news can provide countless scenarios that could and will occur in the region. It’s time we built a country that is strong and cunning enough to adjust and adapt to the pendulum. That also requires the more politically savvy amongst us to look at things not from an immediate angle, but from an evolutionary point of view on a scale of 50 years, or a hundred, or even more. Once you adopt that aerial view, you realize the 800-year confrontation with the several Turkish onslaughts makes up barely 16 percent of the 5,000-year-old Armenian history. To put it simply, that is 800 pages in a 5,000-page book. It’s clearly not the longest chapter. But because we are living in the here and now, every word of every sentence in these 800 pages is amplified and occasionally makes us lose sight of the grander horizon.
In this loop, we usually end up on the losing side. At the same time, nothing is infinite. Just as the Armenian hold over Shushi was not infinite, the Turkish hold over Kars cannot be considered infinite. Who’s to say the Armenian hold over Yerevan is? But one must be truthful to the cosmic loss Artsakh experienced this time around. For the first time since the dawn of Armenian time, Shushi, Hadrut and other towns in Artsakh do not have Armenians, Armenian life or an Armenian hearth. That is a reality that should freeze you for a moment and pull you into the depths of an incurable despair. Yet sooner or later the pendulum will swing again, and we will have a chance to break the cycle, to untie the knot at a specific point and either begin a fresh loop of new outcomes or, in the best case scenario, no longer be tied to a loop but rather forge a linear course.
This can only happen if we prioritize the strengthening of what we have at all costs with any means necessary. When Gyumri comes before Los Angeles. When Goris comes before Paris. When Stepanakert comes before Jerusalem. When the modest income of Armenia is seen as more fulfilling than the millions of dollars one can strive for in the West. When knowing the ins and outs of a random rural town in the Armenian countryside becomes more a source of pride than knowing the streets of London.
Nobody is asking you to shed your individuality or personal ambitions. I, for one, am not. But at the end of each day, ask yourself what you did that day to strengthen Armenia. Because, after all is said and done, we still have an Armenia. It lays naked, exposed and lacking a new narrative to take it forward. The riches of Glendale or the intimacy of Bourj Hammoud do not even cut the threshold; they are not ours and never will be. Mother Armenia, with the spleen of Artsakh, is all we have. And only we, the generation that lost Shushi, can make sure that we prepare the launching pad for the future generations that will carry the homeland forward.
The responsibility resting on the shoulders of our generation is heavy, and our task is multifaceted. We are the motley of losers that must begin paving the paths to victories which we will never see, never celebrate and never smell. You’re going to be lowered in your grave content with what you did and with the faith that someone else picks up where you left off. That is our chapter in the continuous Armenian history book. Accept it. It’s better than not having a book at all.