ANCA-ER, GenEd connect the 2020 Artsakh War and the Armenian Genocide

“If Turkey is held accountable for its actions,” said The Genocide Education Project’s (GenEd) Sara Cohan, “then there can be better repercussions and responses to ongoing aggression against Armenians today.” Cohan was referring to the crime of the Armenian Genocide, as well as the 2020 Artsakh War, which were the subjects of her presentation as part of the March 11 webinar entitled “Unending loss and trauma: teaching about the Armenian Genocide in context of the 2020 Artsakh War.”

The online event was presented by the Armenian National Committee of America Eastern Region (ANCA-ER) and GenEd, broadcast live on the ANCA-ER’s Facebook page with over 5,000 views and conducted over Zoom with 60 participants. Ani Tchaghlasian of the ANCA-ER welcomed everyone to the event, highlighting the commitment of the ANCA to genocide education, both through legislative efforts and ongoing professional development for educators.

While there have been many events presented by GenEd and the ANCA-ER which have provided resources for teachers about the Armenian Genocide, this workshop highlighted the relevance and importance of the 2020 Artsakh War as part of current historical context directly related to the Genocide. Cohan’s presentation included background about the region known internationally as Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) which she described as roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, along with information about Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia.

Cohan has worked for GenEd for 16 years. She is the granddaughter of an Armenian Genocide survivor, and her background combines research, study, curriculum development and teaching. Cohan discussed the political realities of the region and between the countries, in particular the “brotherhood” between Turkey and Azerbaijan. She highlighted Azerbaijan’s family-based oligarchic autocracy and its oil-based economy which primarily benefits the ruling elite; Turkey’s neo-Ottoman and pan-Turkic ambitions, particularly as a threat to the Middle East and northern Africa; Russia’s motivations which include pulling Azerbaijan and Turkey away from Europe in order to destabilize NATO, as well as discouraging any emerging democracies in the region; and Armenia as a democratic republic with a population of less than three million people facing many economic challenges and crises and ongoing existential threats.

Referencing Turkish president Erdogan’s statements in support of Azerbaijan during the war when he said that Artsakh would eventually “return” to Azerbaijan, Cohan explained that the war was an act orchestrated by both Azerbaijan and Turkey. She further illustrated the war crimes committed by Azerbaijan, as well as the fact that Azerbaijan attacked Artsakh during a pandemic. Geopolitically, Cohan pointed out that Turkey and Russia are repositioning themselves as world leaders. She discussed the moral issue of the rights of indigenous peoples to live on their historic lands and the fact that Armenians were forced to evacuate their indigenous lands in Artsakh following the agreement signed on November 10, 2020.

“This is extremely necessary information, especially because of the deniers,” said Fresno educator Hilary Levine in a conversation with the Weekly. Levine is currently pursuing a masters in Holocaust and genocide studies and found the maps particularly helpful in putting the gravity of the events in perspective. “Letting people know that this did happen and just happened months ago is really important,” said Levine. “We’re still dealing with potential genocide.”

Cohan connected the 2020 Artsakh War to the Armenian Genocide through Turkey’s pan-Turkic agenda and ongoing campaign of denial. At the forefront of pan-Turkism during the Armenian Genocide was the intent to destroy all Armenians and non-Turkic peoples, such as Assyrians and Greeks. She went on to the explain that denial of the Genocide is both an act of aggression and personal. “Denial has its own level of violence in its ability to continually destroy a people,” she stated.

Cohan then went on to share her personal history with the Armenian Genocide through photographs of her grandfather and the seven surviving members of his 70-plus person family, noting that there are no extended family members pictured. “This is the man I grew up with,” Cohan recalled. “He was a tremendous part of my life, and he died without justice being served…That’s incredibly painful for me as a grandchild,” she said. Cohan offered that violence has touched her life now as a third-generation survivor, referencing the destroyed Armenian community center building in San Francisco. “Last fall I got a taste of what it was like to have something you’ve worked on for so long destroyed because of hate,” said Cohan. The building housed the GenEd offices, and all of their resources were destroyed, along with much of the building, in the September 2020 arson fire which is still under investigation as a hate crime.

Sara Cohan’s personal photos (l to r): her grandfather and his surviving family members, Cohan as a child with her grandfather and the fire-ravaged Armenian community center building San Francisco

Genocide is a reality, and for Armenians the 2020 Artsakh War feels like a continuation of the 1915 events, explained Cohan. She stressed that any loss of land and lives is ongoing genocide for Armenians, especially when brought “at the hands of Turks and Azeris.” In addition, Cohan explained that the silence of the international community has been painful for Armenians, highlighting the need for justice for the Armenian Genocide 106 years later. “The 2020 Nagorno Karabakh war illustrates to educators in the US what we, as Armenians, already know—Turkey and Azerbaijan’s aggression will not stop until the international community holds Turkey responsible for the Armenian Genocide,” stated Cohan in a conversation with the Weekly following the event.

“When we teach about the Holocaust, it is important for students to know the history of the persecution of the Jewish people as well as the factors after WWI that allowed Hitler to garner the backing of the German population,” explained participant Paula G. Olivieri in a conversation with the Weekly. Olivieri is the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Education Center Education Coordinator in Providence, RI. “To put events such as what is going on now in Artsakh in an historical context can only lead to a better understanding of the event itself,” she said.

Tchaghlasian, for her part, provided historical background on Armenians in the region post-Genocide, including the pogroms in Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad in the early 1990s and the barbaric methods used to kill Armenians that harkened back to the Genocide, driving about a half million Armenians from their homes creating a refugee crisis in Armenia at the time.

Tchaghlasian, who visited Armenia and Artsakh in late November 2020, then brought history to life for the participants by discussing her conversations and interactions with Armenians from Hadrut and Shushi. She spoke with about 25 refugee families of fallen or missing soldiers and POWs. Connecting the Armenian Genocide to the modern day, Tchaghlasian outlined the history of one particular family she met. In this family, the great-grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide, and they were refugees from the Baku pogroms, now refugees from the 2020 war. The patriarch of the family was killed in the first Artsakh war in the early 1990s, the son was killed in the 2016 four-day Artsakh war, and the daughter’s husband was killed in the most recent war. “This family has 106 years of trauma with history being repeated,” said Tchaghlasian.

“We always say that genocide denied is genocide repeated and that’s what’s going on today,” asserted Tchaghlasian. “We are all watching it happen, watching an ethnic group on their own land being driven out by force.” Referencing the intergenerational trauma being felt by Armenians in reaction to the 2020 Artsakh War, Tchaghlasian said, “Now there is a direct line from the Armenian Genocide to basically Armenian Genocide 2.0 today, and this is what I think triggered a lot of ethnically Armenian people across the globe.” 

Pauline Getzoyan

Pauline Getzoyan

Pauline Getzoyan is editor of the Armenian Weekly and an active member of the Rhode Island Armenian community. A longtime member of the Providence ARF and ARS, she also is a former member of the ARS Central Executive Board. An advocate for genocide education, Pauline is the chair of the RI Holocaust & Genocide Education Commission and co-chair of the RI branch of The Genocide Education Project. In addition, she has been an adjunct instructor of developmental reading and writing in the English department at the Community College of Rhode Island since 2005.

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