Fighting for Artsakh “because it is ours”

108 years ago, my great-grandmother, Hripsime Tomikian, survived the Armenian Genocide at the age of nine. She was left orphaned and homeless, with nothing but the grace of God to aid her survival. September 21, 2023, was the 35th anniversary of her death. My entire life I have been told that I look like her, talk like her and think like her – that my stubborn and strong-willed personality comes from her. From a young age, I always prayed for and dreamed of the opportunity to speak to her, to ask her questions, to tell her about my life, and to tell her that her great-grandchildren are young professionals, athletes and a law student. Most importantly, I would tell her that her survival has led to the formation of generations of new Armenians. 

For the first time in my life, I am thankful I will never have that conversation, because it would mean having to tell her that the same atrocities she endured are happening again today. Over 100,000 Armenian people face the same fate she did – orphaned, starved, homeless, bombed, stranded and abandoned by the entire world – abandoned by the government of their own Armenian nation. For centuries, the Armenian people have been attacked by their neighboring “nations” who have one unified goal: annihilate the Armenian nation. Now, the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian people of Artsakh is being emboldened by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. That is the bottom line. For years we asked: “If the Armenian Genocide happened today, would the world stand by and let it happen?” Probably. But at the very least, I never imagined that the Armenian government would also be complicit. 

Summer 2022 AYF Interns pictured with the AYF youth of Artsakh

I had the honor last summer to go to Artsakh. I never thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That trip is forever ingrained in my memory. The drive to Artsakh took about 11 hours. Driving past Aghavno, mere months before it was gifted to Azerbaijan by Pashinyan, I was in awe of the bravery of its inhabitants. Isolated as the first settlement on the road to Stepanakert, its citizens endured the 44-day war and onward and proudly remained in their homes, marked by their signature red roofs.

After we stopped at a second or third military checkpoint, it felt routine. More than any sense of danger or fear, it felt sad to experience that many roadblocks to enter our own land. Time stopped, however, when we reached Shushi. For the first time in centuries, all that was left of it was a monstrous “Suşa” in red, surrounded by a Turkish and Azerbaijani flag on either side. While waiting for permission from Turks to enter our own lands, I thought of Ghazanchetsots. I was reminded of stories from the Genocide of 1915, when churches were either filled with Armenians and burned or turned into barns and stables. I tried to convince myself that Ghazanchetsots was not suffering that same fate. 

Upon arrival in Stepanakert, one of the first Artsakhtsis we encountered was a man who we stopped to ask for directions. Rather than explain where to go, he said, “Follow me!” and got into his car to take us to our hostel. 

The owner of the hostel was a veteran of the first Artsakh War, in which he lost his brother. In the 44-day war, he lost his son. Seemingly suffering from a severe case of survivor’s guilt and PTSD, he spent every day and night retelling the stories of both wars, often culminating in inconsolable tears. He took care of an injured 44-day war veteran who he also housed in the hostel. 

Stepanakert reminded me of a more beautiful version of Yerevan. In the center of Artsakh’s capital city was a memorial for those who lost their lives in the 44-day war. In the past week, Artsakhtsis have removed and saved the photos of their loved ones from the memorial to prevent the humiliation they would face once the Azeris made it into Stepanakert. Almost every Artsakhtsi in the area would visit the seemingly never-ending banner of photographs on a daily basis to pay tribute to the loved ones they lost in the war. With the military checkpoints, it would not be possible for them to regularly visit the graves if they were at the Yerablur military cemetery in Armenia. One night walking home from the memorial, I was approached by an older gentleman who looked around the age of my own father. He asked me if it was true that there were Turkish flags hanging over Shushi on the way into Artsakh. I could barely muster the courage to nod my head “yes.” He said he lost his son in the 44-day war. I wished there was something I could have said in that moment to take away his pain. All I could do was go to sleep that night dreaming of the Artsakh flag flying over Shushi again one day. 

We spent the rest of our days traveling around Artsakh, including Martuni, Vank and Askeran. Almost every person we spoke to, younger children especially, asked what we thought of Artsakh. They asked if we loved being there. I could not accurately express in words how much I truly did.

Everywhere we went, Artsakhtsis thanked us—a group of American diasporans—for visiting Artsakh. Thanking us? This heroic population who, through their survival and existence, was protecting the viability of the entire Armenian nation, was thanking us. It became very clear that the people living in Artsakh were the only ones deserving of living on such heavenly soil. All they wanted was to be able to stay in their homes and for the rest of the world not to forget about them. We failed them on both counts.

After just one week in Artsakh, it was painfully obvious why we have been fighting for it for decades—not for a corridor or regional domination, but because it is heavenly. Beauty aside—we have fought for it because it is ours. No amount of military attacks will transform Artsakh into Azerbaijan. I have faith that the land will reject them.

It is up to us to determine whether we will allow this chapter of our history to close, or if we will embrace the pen, the shovel and the sword and live up to our legacy. If not for our past, if not for our present—so that we will have a future.

From the horrors of the Hamidian Massacres grew the Nigol Dumans, Simon Zavarians, Stepan Zorians and Rosdoms of our nation. From the ashes of the Armenian Genocide grew the Aram Manoukians, Soghomon Tehlirians, Shahan Natalies and Armen Garos. From the decades of genocide denial came Hampig Sassounian and the Lisbon 5. From the struggle for a new independence came the Tatul Grbeyans, Darons, Bedos, Garods and gamavors who liberated Artsakh. Now the question we must ask ourselves is: who will come from this?

Mari Bijimenian

Mari Bijimenian

Mari Bijimenian is a senior at St. John's University in Queens, New York. Mari was a former ANCA Leo Sarkisian intern. She currently serves on the ANC-NY board. She is an active member of the AYF and serves as secretary of the AYF New York "Hyortik" Chapter. She also teaches at Suzanne and Hovsep Hagopian Armenian School at St. Sarkis Church.

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