Sunday, June 23

Armenians who fled Turkish rule despair for Nagorno-Karabakh

Hilda Doumanian stood in the main hall of the Anjar museum, scanning the glass cases holding items her ethnic Armenian forebears salvaged from their lands before they escaped to Lebanon more than eight decades ago.

“This appears to be our fate: to be forcibly displaced every few decades,” she said, walking up to one of the displays: A collection of rust-encrusted kitchenware and bundles of braided silk from a village loom. Ancient-looking rifles. Religious vessels. Bibles so old their pages appeared more suspended dust than paper.

“The Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” she said, slowly shaking her head in resignation, referring to the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire.

“Now in the 21st century we see the first genocide, and it’s Armenians again.”

A person stands next to a tall sculpture.

A gardener tends to the plants at the Armenian Genocide Memorial in the historic town of Anjar in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley. The memorial commemorates the mass killings of Armenians as part of the genocide under the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

(Joseph Eid / AFP via Getty Images)

On Doumanian’s mind was the exodus taking place over the last two weeks from what many Armenians see as their ancestral homelands — a further erasure of their history.

More than 100,000 ethnic Armenians, fearing ethnic cleansing at the hands of their Azerbaijani adversaries, have abandoned their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh, the mountainous enclave inside Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized borders where they had established their self-declared state.

In the more than 30 years of its existence, the Republic of Artsakh, not formally recognized by any nation, had established the trappings of a country — a government, a standing army, a flag. But it all crumbled before a withering Azerbaijani blitzkrieg last month, with the enclave’s leaders forced to surrender and announce the republic’s dissolution by the end of the year.

Though Azerbaijan’s government offered to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian population as equal citizens, most, unwilling to countenance Azerbaijani rule, fled into Armenia in a refugee convoy that at its peak stretched more than 60 miles. Fewer than a thousand remain behind. Those who fled cite the Azeris’ decades-old animus toward Armenians and the triumphalist rhetoric of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev for their distrust, no matter what Azerbaijan says.

For millions in Armenia and the diaspora, the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the long-held dream of constructing a state on Armenian homeland, was a blow. The shock resonates in a personal way in Anjar, whose residents are almost all ethnic Armenians whose ancestors fled here from Musa Dagh, or Moses Mountain, a territory in what is now southern Turkey.

A standing woman holds a big bag, with other people standing near her.

An ethnic Armenian woman from Nagorno-Karabakh carries her suitcase to a tent camp after arriving in Goris, Armenia.

(Vasily Krestyaninov / Associated Press)

When the people of Musa Dagh heard of the coming genocidal campaign in 1915, they refused to obey Turkish authorities’ command to leave their houses in the mountains. They resisted for a month and a half, losing 18 people before a French naval vessel rescued and took them to Egypt, where they stayed for four years, returning after the Ottoman Empire’s loss in World War I.

In 1939, when French authorities controlling the area under a postwar mandate handed it to Turkey, the inhabitants of Musa Dagh faced yet another agonizing choice: Accept Turkish control or leave. Fearing a repeat of the bloodshed in 1915, they were escorted out by French troops to settle in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, on land bought from an Ottoman feudal lord.

“We refused to live under the Turks, because we knew they would do the same thing as before,” Doumanian said.

Watching a new wave of displacement hit Armenians brought back memories of long-held pain, said Isabel Kendirjian, a bedridden but alert 90-year-old who still remembers coming to Anjar when she was 6.

“It’s the same thing that happened to us. This is how we felt back then,” she said.

“They gave us eight days to leave Musa Dagh. We took everything we could and went on the buses to here,” she said. “There was nothing. Very few trees. We lived in tents.”

A poster of a man's face has many small red marks on it.

A Lebanese Armenian steps on a defaced poster showing Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

(Hussein Malla / Assoiated Press)

The new Anjaris stayed in those tents for roughly two years while authorities built up the town, organizing it into six neighborhoods, each named after a village in Musa Dagh. The houses the French provided were single-room structures measuring 12 square feet along with a bathroom.

“Four people, 20 people, it didn’t matter. Everyone was in one room,” Doumanian said.”We still call them beit Faransi, a French house, to this day.”

Tensions between Muslim Turks and Christian Armenians date to the days of the Ottoman Empire, but the war for Nagorno-Karabakh was rooted in the fall of a more contemporary empire: the Soviet Union.

In 1988, inside the roiling Soviet landscape, the enclave’s ethnic Armenian majority chose to secede from one Soviet republic, Azerbaijan, and unite with another, Armenia. The move sparked an ethnic conflict with Azeris that saw massacres and pogroms on both sides, and an estimated million displaced people, mostly Azeris.

Six years later, by which time the Soviet Union had collapsed, the ethnic Armenians won. They claimed Nagorno-Karabakh (which Armenians call Artsakh) and its surrounding districts in what other nations viewed as a violation of international law.

Donations poured in from the Armenian diaspora, including from the the late California businessman and philanthropist Kirk Kerkorian, whose largesse helped funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to fund schools and a major highway in the fledgling republic. Stop-start negotiations over the years never got anywhere.

In the meantime, Azerbaijan had used its vast oil and gas riches to retool its army. Armenia’s confidence in its ability to keep the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh, not to mention its contempt for an enemy it had long dismissed as cowardly, meant that it was woefully unprepared when Azerbaijan launched an assault in 2020 and snatched back most of the land it lost.

A cease-fire guaranteed by Russia, Armenia’s main patron, was to be the prelude to a peace treaty. But tensions continued, culminating in Azerbaijan blockading the territory in December, then launching a lightning onslaught last month that routed the Artsakh Republic’s army. Moscow, preoccupied with its war on Ukraine and displeased with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s recent overtures to the West, stood by as Azerbaijan pursued its campaign.

Pashinyan, aware of his military’s limitations and with little diplomatic backing, refused to intervene, infuriating many Armenians.

Varian Khoshian, the mayor of Anjar, feels ashamed at the loss. His passion about the concept of Artsakh runs so deep that he named his son — now an officer in the Lebanese army — after it.

He blamed the rout on Pashinyan and his policy of antagonizing Armenia’s traditional ally, Russia, for the West’s sake, pointing to another sign of fraying ties with Moscow that came Tuesday when Armenia’s parliament ratified the International Criminal Court’s founding Rome Statute.

Because the court in March issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war in Ukraine, the ratification means Armenia would have to arrest Putin if he stepped on Armenian soil. The Kremlin called the decision “incorrect,” a position with which Khoshian agreed.

“We had a strong umbrella. We like the West, sure, but we got a smaller umbrella from America that doesn’t cover us,” he said.

During Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, Khoshian learned to work with groups he didn’t like, but it was for the good of Anjar; Pashinyan should have done the same, the mayor said.

“I don’t love the Russians. But I need them for my homeland,” Khoshian said. “That’s how you have to think. Otherwise you lose.”

Despite all that, he insisted the war for Nagorno-Karabakh was not over.

“I can’t give up. We will come back. We have to,” he said. “Those lands are the property of our ancestors.”

And it was more than just a matter of emotions.

“We know the value of Artsakh, its strategic location for Armenia,” Khoshian said.

A group of people in helmets and uniforms face people who are moving around.

Armenian Lebanese protesters clash with security forces near Beirut.

( Houssam Shbaro / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Azerbaijan, he continued, was intent on taking parts of southern Armenia for a land corridor linking its territory to Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan’s exclave on Armenia’s southwestern side.

“It’s the first domino. Once Artsakh falls, you’ll find other Armenian cities in the south falling.”

Armenians have been demanding a stronger military response, with protests among diaspora groups in Southern California and frequent demonstrations in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, against Pashinyan and what many see as his capitulation.

In Armenian-dominated neighborhoods in Beirut, graffiti targets Azerbaijan’s president, Aliyev, and his top ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The stenciled graffiti calls Aliyev a killer and declares that Karabakh will always be Armenian. Lebanon’s main Armenian party held a demonstration in front of the Azerbaijani Embassy that turned violent. In Anjar, high schoolers had their own anti-Turkish protest, carrying placards with Erdogan’s face and chanting their support for Artsakh.

Yessayi Havatian, an agricultural supplies merchant and Anjar historian, wondered whether the future fate of Karabakh Armenians would be to go to war again, or whether they would become like the Armenians of Musa Dagh, cut off from their ancestral lands.

“Our people thought of going back. For 14 years they refused to plant orchards on the land here. Why? Because they said, ‘We’re not going to stay that long.’ They believed they would go home,” Havatian said.

Whatever Karabakh Armenians choose, he added, it was clear that Armenians couldn’t pursue the war as they had in the past.

“We the Armenians made a mistake: We relied on someone other than us to defend us. The world watched our people forcibly displaced and did nothing. And no one will do anything,” he said.

“No one will defend Armenia other than the Armenians. That’s the solution.”

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