Artsakh’s Battle for Survival: A People and Heritage Under Threat

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Issue 1, Volume 114

By Angela Mashuryan 

Nestled within the present-day borders of Azerbaijan lies Artsakh, a region etched with the rich history and cultural heritage of the Armenian people. This picturesque land among the Caucasus mountains has now become the epicenter of an urgent and harrowing crisis that demands global attention. Over the past 260 days, a suffocating blockade has hit the region, pushing its 120,000 Armenian residents to the brink of humanitarian disaster. As an Armenian myself, this crisis isn't just a distant concern for me; it’s a haunting reality that cuts deep into my own identity, compelling me to shed light on the situation.

This current crisis has its roots in the complex history of the region, dating back to 1921 when Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, was separated from Armenia by Joseph Stalin and placed under the Soviet Azerbaijani administration, despite its population at the time being 94 percent ethnic Armenian. Stalin’s intentions are a matter of contention; he may have been trying to solidify Soviet control during the establishment of the USSR. This resulted in the geographical severing of Artsakh’s historical ties to Armenia. However, even with decades of Soviet Azerbaijani rule, Artsakh still maintained a distinctive Armenian identity.

In 1988, the residents of Artsakh demanded the transfer of the region from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. The Azerbaijani government fiercely opposed this. Clashes and violence ensued, but the collapse of the Soviet Union also gave rise to full-on war, the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, as Armenia and Azerbaijan both declared statehood while Artsakh declared independence. This brutal conflict saw 30,000 lives lost, hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and countless communities uprooted, creating a legacy of trauma that still reverberates through the region. After the signing of the Russian-brokered Bishkek Protocol in May 1994, which established a ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Artsakh remained a self-declared republic with de facto control over its territory. 

Artsakh’s quest for independence was never merely a matter of territorial sovereignty; it is an assertion of cultural identity and a determination to safeguard a heritage that has been intertwined with this land for centuries. The Armenian people have long cultivated a profound connection with Artsakh, where churches, monasteries, and historical sites stand as testaments to the endurance of their culture. Many of these have since been destroyed under Azerbaijani control.

For my family and me, being Armenian is a significant part of our identity and a source of pride that runs deep. However, I’ve come to realize that maintaining a strong connection to our Armenian heritage can be complicated, especially when we live so far from Armenia. Having one of the world’s largest diasporas, with eight to 10 million Armenians spread across the globe, the Armenian story is one of dispersion and survival. And while Armenia remains very special, for many, it’s a place of roots, not necessarily a place of residence. The scars of the Armenian Genocide, coupled with the decades of struggle and war, have pushed and pulled our people to other lands, seeking safety and stability for future generations.

In my uncle’s home in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a lineage tree adorns the wall—a silent but tacit storyteller of our family’s journey spanning back seven generations. Though I’ve never been to Armenia, and though the letters on the tree’s branches are written in Armenian, a language I’ve yet to master, the importance of the tree transcends all those barriers. It is a testament to the unwavering spirit of Armenians, both within and beyond my own bloodline. Above all, it reinforces, for me, the idea that the Armenian identity connects us all, regardless of the many challenges and borders we may face and the moments when we may feel that sense of connection waver. We will always remember our roots, our family, and all of the sacrifices that have been made to allow us to live and prosper today.

For Artsakh, while the Bishkek Protocol marked a temporary halt to the violence and bloodshed, it did little to address the underlying tensions and deep-seated animosities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The agreement merely established a ceasefire, and a peace treaty was not agreed on, hence failing to provide a comprehensive and lasting solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. As a result, the fragile peace that emerged from the protocol was overshadowed by unresolved grievances and unaddressed aspirations.

The years following were characterized by sporadic clashes, skirmishes, and border incidents. The situation still remained highly volatile, with periodic flare-ups threatening to plunge the region back into full-scale conflict. In 2016, the Four-Day War saw Armenia and Azerbaijan engaging in the most intense fighting since 1994, with hundreds of lives lost. However, 2020 was the real turning point that ultimately reshaped the destiny of Artsakh.

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War began in September 2020 with an Azerbaijani offensive attack. Heavily supported and armed by Turkey, Azerbaijan used armed drones and heavy weaponry against the already militarily disadvantaged Armenia. Azerbaijan’s alliance with Turkey, a nation steadfast in its denial of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, casts a somber shadow over the situation. Their partnership perpetuates a distressing cycle of pain and suffering as both nations attempt to erase Artsakh’s cultural and historical ties to Armenia and even the Armenian people themselves.

After weeks of intense fighting and over 7,000 casualties, a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement was reached in November 2020. Under the terms of the agreement, Azerbaijan secured significant territorial gains, including areas that had been under Armenian control since the 1994 ceasefire. This included most of the Lachin District, which holds the Lachin corridor, the only route connecting Artsakh to Armenia and the outside world. The peace agreement stated that the corridor would remain under Russian peacekeeping control until the construction of a new route connecting Armenia with Artsakh is outlined within three years. The agreement also stated that Azerbaijan is to ensure that people, vehicles, and goods can travel safely in both directions through the Lachin Corridor, a promise that was not kept.

Artsakh’s already fragile situation, still recovering from the last war, became even more precarious in late 2022. Under the guise of environmental concerns, a group of Azerbaijani “eco-activists” blocked the Lachin corridor. They claimed to be protesting against illegal mineral exploitation in the area. However, their sudden emergence and the timing of their actions have raised suspicions about the true motivations behind the blockade.

The Azerbaijani government has continued to hold the Lachin corridor under an illegal blockade for over 260 days, beginning on December 12, 2022. The 120,000 Armenian residents of Artsakh have since been in a dire humanitarian crisis. Supplies of essential goods have dwindled to alarmingly low levels, leaving people grappling with hunger, limited access to medical care, and insufficient access to basic necessities like fuel, electricity, gas, and water. 

The Azerbaijani government’s deliberate denial of aid attempts by the Red Cross and Russian peacekeepers highlights the degree to which the blockade is a calculated strategy, one that uses the most vulnerable population as pawns in a larger geopolitical game. The Azerbaijani government has repeatedly stated that its goal is Artsakh’s integration into Azerbaijan, despite the opposing wishes of the population. The actions of Azerbaijan’s government speak clearly. They want the Armenians of Artsakh to have two choices: either abandon their ethnic ties, ambitions for self-determination, and cultural identities or be permanently wiped out.

In his recently released report, Luis Moreno Ocampo, a legal scholar and former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, leaves no room for ambiguity, unequivocally labeling the situation as nothing short of genocide. His statement, “Starvation is the invisible genocide weapon,” holds profound significance as it echoes the past, particularly the horrors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The systematic starvation and deprivation that characterized that dark period are mirrored in the current plight of Artsakh, and in order to fully understand its gravity, we must confront the historical context of denial and complicity. 

The lessons of the past must ultimately guide our actions. The cost of inaction is steep, and just as we solemnly pledge “never again” in the aftermath of past genocides, the time has come to shield and protect the Armenians of Artsakh currently amid another devastating event. “Never again” must be more than a phrase—it must be an unwavering determination to prevent further atrocities. Awareness and action are our weapons against this looming tragedy, and our responsibility is to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

There are several ways we can effect change and contribute to the cause. First and foremost, education is necessary for shedding light on the dire situation and building understanding and empathy. Utilizing our voices on social media platforms amplifies the message, and staying connected with Armenian sources like @zartonkmedia ensures we’re well-informed. Engaging with our representatives and signing petitions propels the call for international support and intervention. If circumstances allow, donations can provide critical aid to those affected by the blockade. As a starting point, a valuable resource hub can be found at https://linktr.ee/supportartsakh.