“Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others stiffen.”
—Billy Graham, American evangelist and author (1918-2018)
Unfortunately, there was no “brave man” to take a stand against the unprovoked and brutal attack by the Azerbaijani government on Artsakh, an autonomous Armenian enclave in the South Caucasus, and her 120,000 indigenous inhabitants. Prior to the attack, the 9-month blockade of Artsakh’s Berdzor (Lachin) Corridor—the lifeline and only road where aid from Armenia could reach the people—was blocked by the Azeris. No one, especially reporters, and nothing, was allowed in or out of the region. With so many months of dwindling food, medicine and other essentials, the people were slowly and painfully suffering genocide by starvation. In an instant, an ancient civilization—Nagorno Karabakh to the rest of the world, but to the Armenians always Artsakh—was gone due to the Azeri government’s agenda to rid the indigenous Armenians of Artsakh from their homeland.
Artsakh was a part of historic Armenia, as was Nakhichevan (an Armenian word meaning “place of the first descent,” and linked with Noah’s Ark). Nakhichevan too suffered the same fate as Artsakh, when in the summer of 1918, the Azeris massacred its Armenian population. In 2006, 2,000 Armenian khachkars (cross-stones) were destroyed by the Azeris, a Turkic people, in the medieval Armenian cemetery of Julfa, Nakhichevan. Today, no evidence of Armenian civilization remains there. Similar atrocities against the Armenians had occurred in the Azerbaijani cities of Sumgait in February 1988; in Kirovabad, again in 1988; and in Baku in 1990. In those pogroms, thousands of Armenian lives were lost as the Azeris slaughtered them, robbed them, burned their homes and expelled those who survived, who fled to Artsakh and Armenia. Armenian history is being rewritten, whose population continues to decrease because of the invasions, pogroms and annihilations over the centuries.
The atrocities against the Armenians had also occurred even earlier. In General Andranik and the Armenian Revolutionary Movement, Andranig Chalabian explains that the Armenian revolutionary movement was “clearly a misnomer, since the movement was essentially defensive in nature.” It was formed to save the lives of the defenseless people against the constant atrocities committed against them—the indigenous Armenians of Western Armenia, now eastern Turkey, by the Turks in the 1800s and 1900s. Chalabian writes of the inhuman treatment of the Armenians: “Although other Christian minorities, such as the Greeks and Assyrians, lived in Turkey and suffered discrimination, the treatment of the Armenians was particularly nefarious, because its objective was to eradicate a people living in their own ancestral homeland.”
The author also includes a chart, showing that the Armenian population in 1000 A.D. was six million; in 1890, it was three million; and in 1920, five years after the 1915 Genocide of the Armenian people by the Turkish government, it was one million. Today, the total number of Armenians worldwide is about 10 million, with under three million in Armenia. He also presents a revolting example of the Turkish government’s treatment of their Christian subjects: “From the 16th century through the 19th century, when an Armenian died in Turkey, a funeral service could not be held without first obtaining a burial permit from the authorities.”
The following is an example of such a burial permit. “Dressed in a gown as black as tar, the crown of Satan on his head, banished from the throne of the Lord, his beard salt and pepper, his hair black, eyes sunken, body bulky, appearance detestable, religion savage, his existence harmful, he denies God, bad from the start, you cursed creature, you old lizard, priest Nahabet!” The permit continues, “We are informed that one of your multitude of blasphemers…a subject of the majestic Ottoman state…has suddenly died…May the Most High God annihilate and turn to dust all the blasphemers. Although the soil and earth will not accept his detestable and nauseous carcass, what to do…? The heat and air will create a loathsome smell and will discomfort the Muslims…We hereby allow you to dig a deep pit in the dung place of the blasphemers and, while reading and singing, you can throw him in there and bury him.” It was Frederick Davis Green (1863-1962), an American author, clergyman and missionary to Armenia, who responded to the claim that “the Turks are tolerant of members of other faiths…” “Yes,” he said. “So long as Christians submit to all forms of oppression, and make no claims in regards to rights, they are gladly tolerated.”
In a recent YouTube video, an Artsakh Armenian family, gaunt and weak from the blockade, said after fleeing Artsakh, “The conditions were unbearable. Our village was surrounded by Azeri military. There were explosions, bombings and attacks on all sides by the Azeris.” When they were asked how the behavior of the Azeri military was towards them as they left Artsakh, they responded, “If there was a reporter or the French at the border, the Azeri military did not behave badly, but when there was no one to watch them, such as in Shushi, the behavior of the Azeris towards the Armenians was different. It was horrible.”
In another YouTube video, the story of a 13-year-old boy was presented. The boy had completed the ninth grade and had driven his mother, younger siblings, grandparents and a few neighbors to safety in Armenia, as his father was in the military. The boy explained, at times with tears welling in his eyes, “I have never driven a car before, but I had to drive my family and neighbors to safety. If I did not succeed, I would always blame myself…It took us such a long time, many hours—day and night, to reach Armenia…I slept at the wheel to rest sometimes,” he said, and added wistfully, “My father bought me a bicycle, but I never got to ride it, and he bought my mother a washing machine, but we could not bring it with us.” He continued, as he wiped away more tears from his dark, melancholy eyes that had seen far too much, “Now, I must find work to support my family.” Overnight, the small boy of 13 had become a man.
In yet another YouTube video, a frail and elderly man said softly and sadly, “My two sons were killed in the 2020 war, and I lost an eye…Everything can be replaced, and a new life can be started somewhere else, unless one is elderly, but we cannot take the graves of our families with us. What will happen to the graves of our loved ones now?” As the elderly man paused, then sighed, he continued, “This is my destiny, or rather the destiny of the people of Artsakh. We are now relying on the Armenian government. I hope that, to at least a small degree, they will understand the feelings of those who were forced to flee.” It had taken the elderly man 24 grueling hours on horseback to reach safety in Armenia. An Armenian villager and his wife found the man near their home. They explained that the elderly man, exhausted, had been bent over on his horse and unable to get down. The couple had helped him off his horse and had carried him into their home, where they washed his feet and fed him.
“Let no one believe that we, the people of Artsakh, left our sacred land for the sake of saving lives. We were forced out! We did not leave voluntarily!”
In one more YouTube video, a young Artsakh mother of five and her husband, a military veteran, who had suffered severe physical and emotional trauma, was interviewed. “My husband is no longer able to care for himself or for his family. He has lost his mind,” she said as she lowered her head for a moment, then added, “Now, I must find work and be the head of our family.” She added, with measured emotion, “Let no one believe that we, the people of Artsakh, left our sacred land for the sake of saving lives. We were forced out! We did not leave voluntarily!”
After the forced takeover, or rather the theft, of Artsakh, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised what had occurred in Artsakh. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev stated, “The entire Republic of Armenia is our historic land!” A day after the takeover of Artsakh, Aliyev sauntered into the Armenian government building in Stepanakert, originally called Vararakn (Armenian word meaning “rapid spring”), trampled on the Artsakh flag, which had been strewn on the floor of the building, walked over to a window and opened it. With his hand, he made a gesture, as if to shoo something out the window, as he wrinkled his nose.
As I thought about what had happened so easily to Artsakh and her people, and the silence of those who could have easily stopped this barbarism, I wondered, is it really true that no one cares? Not long after, I received an email from a Mr. Humberto Ortega, a high school teacher in Costa Rica, who had, on October 25, 2022, read my articles titled “Artsakh and the Edelweiss” and “Pages from Armenian History” in The Armenian Weekly. The teacher said that he was assigning the two articles to his students and was teaching them about Armenia and Artsakh. Then, upon learning that the Artsakh Armenians had been driven from their homes, Mr. Ortega wrote, “Dear Knarik, you do not know how much we are suffering from the new reality that is occurring in Artsakh, and the worst thing is how the world looks the other way. Please keep me informed about what happens.” When I responded to the teacher that Artsakh was now in the hands of the Azeris, he wrote back, “Is it true? Oh, my God!” and included this prayer for Artsakh: “Our Lady of Narek, our Lady of Narek, pray for your people.” He then asked, “How can I get a small image of Our Lady of Narek, the Marian Patroness of Armenia, and a little flag from Artsakh and Armenia? I want to put them on my car. God bless your people and the Artsakh people!”
In my reply to Mr. Ortega, I asked if he was Armenian or part Armenian. He responded that he was not Armenian, that he was Costa Rican, but loved Armenia and the Armenian people. I then wrote to let him know that I was in the process of collecting and mailing to him all the items he had requested, plus the English language book (translated by Thomas J. Samuelian) titled St. Grigor Narekatsi – Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart, and St. Nerses Shnorhali’s prayer, “In Faith I Confess.” Upon receiving the package, Mr. Ortega wrote a “Thank You” note. Soon after, he wrote the following about Artsakh:
“‘To see a crime calmly is to commit it.’—Jose Marti, Cuban poet, writer, philosopher, nationalist leader (1853-1895)
This idea is what runs through our heads and does not allow us to adequately reason why it can happen that two countries that are located next to each other…one of them (Azerbaijan) wants to take by force a territory (Artsakh) that does not belong to them…It tries to take it by force, without taking into account the mistreatment, the deaths, the expulsion of what belongs to the indigenous Armenians, as well as the erasure of any signs of their religion, churches and customs.
From Costa Rica, a small country in America, that tenaciously defends its democracy, I want the voice of one of its children to reach out and cry out for the application of justice. It cannot be that by force they try to destroy a region like Artsakh, and that they also are trying to take away an entire area of southern Armenia, Zangezur/Syunik, by any means possible. To remain silent is to agree with these crimes, which is why we must make the cry of the Armenians and those who are being expelled from Artsakh reach everyone. I finish my words with another quote from Jose Marti, apostle of Cuban independence:
‘Freedom is not a flag in whose shadow the victors devour the defeated and overwhelm them with tireless resentment: Freedom is a robust madwoman who has a Father, the sweetest of parents—Love, and a Mother, the richest of mothers—Peace. Without mutual love, without mutual help—always a stunted country. Happiness is the prize of those who create, and not of those who destroy.’
Your people have been, are, and will be an example of effort, struggles and love for others.”
After reading Mr. Ortega’s message, I read Alexander Pope’s (English poet, 1688-1744) poem “Universal Prayer.” The last two stanzas reminded me of the Armenian people of Artsakh, their ordeals, their current plight—homeless refugees, who were forced from their ancient homeland by the Azeris, their sacred soil where much blood was spilled, and far away now from their centuries-old churches and monasteries, learning centers, ancestral graves, ancient graveyards and Armenian headstones—the khachkars (cross stones).
One cannot help but wonder what will become of the khachkars; the fourth century Amaras Monastery and Church in Artsakh, founded by St. Gregory the Illuminator; the fifth century first Armenian school at Amaras, founded by St. Mesrob Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet; the 12th century Yeghishe Kouys Church; the 13th century Anapat Church; the Monastery of Dadivank, built in 1214; Gandzasar Monastery, built between 1216 and 1238; Gtich Monastery, built between 1241 and 1248; the 14th century Monastery of Spitak Khach; and other churches of antiquity, and more recent.
For now, Artsakh, like the Edelweiss, the sweet-smelling flower that dwells high in the mountains of Artsakh and symbolizes “deep love, sacrifice and devotion,” as well as “rugged individualism,” will dwell in the hearts of the Armenians of Artsakh. Their land was also their altar, the blossoms in the fields their incense, the moon and stars their candles, the birds their choir and the rain their blessed water.
To think that on November 30, 1920, months after Azerbaijan became the first Soviet Republic in the Transcaucasus, Azerbaijan recognized “Mountainous Karabakh (Artsakh) as an integral part of the Socialist Republic of Armenia,” but suddenly, in 1921, they again claimed Artsakh, and in 2023, they simply took it.
Shortly after I had mailed my package to Mr. Ortega, I learned that the Armenian Evangelical Church’s (Mt. Prospect, Illinois) guest minister on Sunday, October 22, 2023, would be Pastor Joel Tenney, who has been involved in missionary work with his wife, also a missionary, in Artsakh and Armenia for the last three years. He has produced videos about what has been going on in Artsakh and Armenia. His documentary titled Artsakh’s Cry will be shown on YouTube, social media and in select theaters in a few weeks. His book on Armenia titled I Entered the Land of Promise will be available before year’s end. Pastor Tenney, who had initially studied to become a Catholic priest, decided he could serve God better by becoming an evangelist and serving people, especially widows, orphans and unfortunates. Pastor Tenney is 27 years old. He and his wife have five children. Their youngest, born this past August, was given the middle name Ani by their parents because of their love for the Armenian people. The pastor and his wife have applied for Armenian citizenship, and he has learned to speak Armenian and has studied Armenian history and music, especially the works of Komitas Vardapet.
While Pastor Tenney waited for church to begin, he began to play the piano—a piece by Gomidas Vartabed (1869-1935, ordained Armenian priest, composer, musicologist and considered the founder of the “Armenian National School of Music”). It was the deeply moving song, “Hov Arek Sarer”—”Make a breeze dear mountains, make a breeze. Bring cure to my agony…” After opening prayers, the pastor began to speak, at times with tears in his eyes, as he described some of the things that he had witnessed in Artsakh behind blockaded “doors,” upon entering the territory “illegally,” as he described it. “There was sniper fire, children decapitated, women raped and murdered, and other horrific things too difficult to speak about.” He paused to compose himself and then continued to describe the hungry and emaciated parents, who did not eat in order to give their meager morsels of food to their children. The pastor’s children had said to their parents that because they had everything, they wanted their Christmas gifts this year to be given to “the children of Artsakh, who have nothing.” Pastor Tenney then spoke of the situation in Goris, Armenia. “The situation there is unimaginable, with six to 10 thousand people flocking into the area, collapsing from exhaustion and severe malnutrition. They are nothing but skin and bones, like the photos you have seen of the emaciated people in Auschwitz…”
Pastor Tenney then stated, “While other countries receive billions of dollars in aid from the U.S., Armenia has received only one million dollars.” The pastor continued, “Plenty of Armenians have been speaking out about the situation in Artsakh, but there is no response.” To do his part in aiding the people of Artsakh, the pastor has become the voice for the Armenians in Washington, D.C., and has “warned” officials and politicians that they will not be reelected if they do not help the Armenians.
After the sermon, Pastor Tenney and the congregation opened their song books and sang hymns, followed by the singing, in Armenian, of the “Hayr Mer” (Our Father), led by the pastor. At the end of the church service and luncheon, as Pastor Tenney walked out of the church and into the parking lot, he looked up toward heaven and began singing, “Hov Arek Sarer.” We listened with amazement to the young American pastor who had become an Armenian at heart. As he walked to his car on his way to St. Gregory’s Armenian Church in Chicago he said, as he looked up toward heaven again, “Gomidas’s song is a prayer.”
There are people who, indeed, do care about the Armenians of Artsakh. These lines from Mary Carolyn Davies’ (American writer, 1888-1974) poem titled “A Prayer For Every Day,” describes a caring heart, similar to those mentioned in this article. “…Help me to know the inmost hearts of those for whom I care, their secret wishes, all the loads they bear, that I may add my courage to their own…”