WASHINGTON—The Washington, D.C. Armenian community demanded immediate release of over 200 Armenian prisoners of war and civilian captives with a protest and “Freedom Caravan” organized by the Armenian Youth Federation “Ani” Chapter.
The March 20, 2021 rally began at the Azerbaijani Embassy, where protesters also urged the Biden Administration and U.S. Congress to play a more active role in pressuring Azerbaijan to release Armenian POWs by working closely with the OSCE Minsk Group co-Chairs and passing House Resolution 240, introduced earlier this week.
AYF Ani Chapter Secretary, Nareg Kuyumjian, led the impassioned crowd with a series of chants including “Free Armenian POWs Now!” and “Stop the torture, stop the hate!” Kuyumjian shared the community’s solidarity with the families of those who continue to be held hostages and those who lost loved ones during the war, vowing to continue advocating for their release until all are returned.
Members of the AYF, including Alina Yousefian, Areni Margossian, Nayiri Shahnazarian, Galy Jackmakjian, Kristine Antanesian and Kuyumjian, then recited the poem “Ashkhari Tsavov” (“With the World’s Pain”) by Moushegh Ishkhan.
These solemn words were followed by a compelling speech by Aram Balian, AYF Eastern Region Central Executive Treasurer.
“Today, though the fighting may have ended on the front line as a feckless and demagogic prime minister signed a disastrous peace agreement, hundreds of Armenians are still kept captive to satisfy the cruel and malicious nature of the despotic dictator in Baku,” Balian declared. “So I stand here, in front of the Azeri Embassy with my fellow Armenians, to demand the release of our heroes. To demand justice for the crimes committed against our people and our nation. To demand humanity from the butchers in Baku.”
Rev. Sarkis Aktavoukian of Soorp Khatch Armenian Apostolic Church, a stalwart supporter of the community’s demands for justice, participated in the protest. ARF Washington DC Sebouh Gomideh members offered guidance throughout the planning process.
The crowd, buzzing with the energy from the speech, then lined up to drive out for a 15 mile “Freedom Caravan”, following a digital truck with action items lit across the back and two sides of the vehicle. In neon lettering, the truck read “Release the 200 Armenian POWs Being Tortured by Azerbaijan.” The ad went on to urge onlookers to support passage of H.Res.240. The “Freedom Caravan” was inspired by similar events held in Philadelphia and New York, organized by members of the Philadelphia ARF Gomideh to share a strong message heard clearly by thousands.
The route strategically targeted DC main historical and touristic destinations. Increasing international visibility, it passed through Massachusetts Avenue, a street lined with embassies representing countries from all around the world. It crossed Dupont Circle, Chinatown, and Georgetown, three bustling hot spots with plentiful outdoor restaurants, businesses, and shops. Additionally, the caravan passed through the national mall, marked by the beautiful monuments and memorials that DC is famous for.
“To me, this protest symbolized the Armenian resilience. No matter how hard Turkey and Azerbaijan want us to give up and lose hope, we will never stop fighting for what is right,” said AYF DC Ani member, Nayiri Shahnazarian.
Before finally returning to the Azerbaijani Embassy, the “Freedom Caravan” drove by the White House. A serpentine line of cars, adorned with tricolors of the Armenian and Artsakh flags graced Pennsylvania Avenue, turning the heads of passersby along the National Mall. The Armenian Cause, in its demand for the release of Armenian POWs, was placed front and center in the streets of DC.
“This type of protest was the first of its kind in Washington DC, where we were able to bring awareness throughout our nation’s capital. We had passersby ask us questions, engage with us positively, and learn about our Cause. Being able to target a wide audience on the Armenian POW issue felt empowering and inspired hope, especially considering the lack of international response during the war. It’s so important for the Armenian diaspora to take the streets and demand justice for our captive heroes,” said Alina Yousefian, Chairwoman of the AYF Ani DC Chapter.
In addition to the “Freedom Caravan”, the AYF Ani Chapter has raised over $3000 for an ongoing legal effort to secure the release of the Armenian captives, led by the Yerevan-based International & Comparative Law Center and the Armenian Legal Center for Justice and Human Rights. The AYF Eastern Region Central Executive has a goal of $15,000 to support the initiative, with chapters across the region participating. Support the effort.
The legal efforts and the current plight of the Armenian hostages was discussed in a Facebook live discussion, on Sunday, March 21, co-hosted by the Armenian Youth Federation Eastern Region, ANCA Eastern Region, and the Armenian Legal Center.
Under the 1949 Geneva Convention, POWs must be released without delay after the end of conflict. Azerbaijan still holds over 200 Armenian POWs, of which about 10% are civilians, despite the ceasefire on November 09, 2020.
The Geneva Convention also mandates that all prisoners of war be treated humanely, protecting POWs against murder, torture and inhumane treatment. Azerbaijan has violated these international conventions by not only illegally detaining the captives, but also brutally torturing them for four months since the ceasefire’s signing.