Watching the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, I think of my Armenian ancestors fleeing their home

My family story is bound up in the displacement of Armenians from their ancestral lands. In the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, I hear echoes of that history.

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Like many of my fellow Armenians scattered around the world, I have never been to Nagorno-Karabakh. I have never taken the six-hour drive in a marshrutka (minivan) to its capital Stepanakert from Armenia’s capital of Yerevan – a journey that would be a 35-minute flight if it weren’t for the risk of Azerbaijan bringing down passenger planes in that airspace.

I have never toured the medieval geometric monasteries nestled in its lush mountainsides, nor come face-to-face with the giant volcanic rock faces of Tatik yev Papik (grandma and grandpa): a Soviet-era monument complete with suitably strong Armenian brows.

And I have never been forced to flee the country I call home.

Yet as attacks escalate against the region, the disputed territory feels closer to me than ever. I hear of the death toll rising every day, and the ceasefire breaking. I see photos of Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in the city of Shushi shelled by Azeri rockets. I watch interviews in footage snatched between bombs with scared residents – including a young woman who shares my first name – and hear echoes of my history.

My family story is bound up in the displacement of Armenians from their ancestral homes. As the Young Turk regime killed 1.5 million Armenians in a genocide between 1915 and 1923, my grandparents fled the Armenian region of Cilicia in the south of Turkey to Iskenderun, which was then part of Syria. When that fell into Turkish hands just before the Second World War, they escaped to Beirut, which is where my father was born and brought up (fleeing yet again to Cyprus during the Lebanese Civil War, and ultimately on to the UK). Instead of names, six branches of my family tree simply read: “Lost without a trace.”

Most of us in the eight million-strong global Armenian diaspora, more than double the population of the country itself, are directly connected to this history of genocide. We exist now to watch our countrymen and women at war from afar only because our ancestors were forced to flee during the First World War. For us, the parallels with today are painfully stark.

Then as now, the rest of the world was distracted by a global crisis, allowing Armenia’s more powerful neighbours to act with little scrutiny (to this day, Turkey refuses to recognise the Armenian genocide).

Then as now, nationalist sentiment was ripe for exploitation. Then, it was by leaders of a declining Ottoman empire; today it’s by Ilham Aliyev and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, respectively the autocratic presidents of Azerbaijan and its loudest cheerleader, Turkey.

Then as now, a global order that preached self-determination was ready to abandon Armenians to the will of countries with greater geopolitical influence to the east and west. And, as it always has been throughout the history of the Russian empire and Soviet Union, Russia is but a fickle friend (as my father used to say: “When Russia sneezes, Armenia catches cold”).

Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenian in history, identity, governance and by population, yet is stranded within Azerbaijan – its Azeri status imposed in 1923 by Joseph Stalin in an age-old imperial trick of divide-and-rule. Earlier this month, Armenia’s foreign ministry said it “stands ready” to engage in peace talks mediated by France, Russia and the US, whereas Azerbaijan was refusing to cease fighting until Armenians withdrew.

False equivalence in media reporting of Armenian and Azeri actions in today’s war is bleakly familiar. Every Armenian remembers Turkey’s favoured line of genocide denial: that there were “deaths on both sides”.

Nagorno-Karabakh felt distant to me in childhood. In our Armenian Sunday school, teachers, including my own father, would unfurl a map of the Caucasus and gravely point out what we knew as Artsakh – its historic Armenian name deriving from 189BC – and try to explain why it was important. Older, more rumpled maps were used to display how the once mighty ancient kingdom of Armenia shrank over the centuries at the hands of empire. This was a cartographical call to us children of the diaspora to cling to any scrap of land left.

I have been to Armenia only once; a chaotic family reunion with relatives from Paris, Beirut, New York and London touring around a homeland that was never home. We drank earthy pomegranate wine in basement restaurants, steeling ourselves for the obligatory group dancing in circles before starters were even served. We helter-skeltered between monasteries, churches and the idiosyncratic khachkars (stone crosses) that speckle the landscape of the first ever Christian nation, interspersed with bombastic Soviet memorials and clusters of tower blocks that spell “USSR” from the sky. My sister and I even tried to free a bear, much to its bored keeper’s amusement.

Yet my most vivid memory from that trip is of the view of snow-capped Mount Ararat, a holy icon of Armenia where Noah’s Ark was supposed to have landed. You won’t find an Armenian household, restaurant or business anywhere in the world without a picture of Ararat hanging up somewhere. It is at the centre of the country’s coat of arms, and is the name of the famed Armenian brandy Stalin gifted Winston Churchill at Yalta (he was so impressed he ordered it yearly from then on).

It was a beautiful view, but we couldn’t travel to Mount Ararat for the next stop of our tour. Closer on the horizon was a long fence: the Turkish border. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993, in reaction to the earlier war in Nagorno-Karabakh, when the region tried to secede from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed. Another symbol of hope in the patchwork of Armenia’s vanishing lands, Ararat lies on the Turkish side of the border, out of reach.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?

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