Editor’s Note: Congressional Armenian Caucus leaders joined with human rights advocates and Armenian American community leaders in a solemn remembrance of the 30th anniversary of the anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku, featuring bipartisan calls for continued U.S. humanitarian aid to Artsakh
The event featured moving keynote remarks by Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte, who, along with her family, fled the anti-Armenian attacks in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in the fall of 1989, finding safe haven in the US in 1992. An accomplished lawyer, author, and human rights advocate, Astvatsaturian Turcotte, explained, “The same anti-Armenianism that made my grandfather an orphan and that made me a refugee is alive and well today. Just as with anti-Semitism, rooting out the hatred toward Armenians cannot be done by brushing aside this history. The avoidance of calling things as they are contributes to the anti-Armenianism at the highest level of Azerbaijan’s government. These crimes continue with shooting across the Artsakh and Armenian borders at civilians.” Below is the complete text of Astvatsaturian Turcotte’s remarks
My name is Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte. I am here today as an Armenian-American, an elected official, as a daughter, a wife and as a mother. But most importantly I am here today as an Armenian refugee from Baku. I am incredibly honored to be here today. This is the 3rd time I’m speaking in the heart of our democracy about my personal experience, and it never gets easier.
But I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to speak for my community that still tries to heal, still has nightmares, and still finds itself to be the forgotten refugees from the Soviet Union during what seemed like, from west’s perspective, a positive thing – a collapse of the Eastern Block.
What makes talking about this even more difficult is that 75% of my life ago, two years of my childhood defined who I am today and now, 30 years later we are commemorating these events here today knowing full well that the conflict is ongoing, and Armenian children are still in danger of annihilation in Artsakh and in Armenia.
Three of my four grandparents were born in Armenia. After World War II they moved to Baku, Azerbaijan for work. My parents were born in Baku and so was I, along with my little brother Michael. In the last 100 years of my family’s history we survived mass atrocity in the form of genocide and crimes against humanity three times.
In January 1990 my childhood died.
30 years ago I was 11.5 years old. I remember the day we escaped to Yerevan a few weeks before the final massacre of Armenians in Azerbaijan in January, 1990.
But the events that destroyed my childhood started much earlier, in the city of Sumgait, a 30-minute drive from the capital, where innocent Armenian civilians were maimed, slaughtered, raped and set on fire. This happened in February of 1988 as a government-orchestrated attack to target ethnic Armenians that repeated few months later in mass form in the city of Kirovabad.
That event in Sumgait changed the lives of all Armenians in Azerbaijan. The unclassified recently CIA documents reveal and confirm the background and truth of these government orchestrated events.
The separate massacres might have appeared to be isolated to an outside observer, but they were waves, coming and going, building in hatred and strength, and during that entire time, we were on edge, and our communities were attacked in single-family events or in events on mass scale. We spent months hiding in our apartment, hoping that the violence against Armenians would end. But it never ended.
My father was ready to leave, despite difficulties of leaving everything behind and trying to find a place to live and permission to work in other parts of the Soviet Union. My mother didn’t believe that something horrific could happen to us in intellectual, multicultural Baku. But something happened to her one day, she came home and told us that we were leaving. We left everything behind and fled. We barely escaped.
My father travelled separately from us because he looked very Armenian and didn’t want to put us in danger. We survived. Many of my neighbors and family friends were not so lucky.
In January of 1990 my home and everything and everyone I knew were taken away from us by the last pogrom of the Armenians of Azerbaijan. The next two years we lived in horrid conditions as refugees
Many of you heard my story and many of my speeches across the country so I will try to bring it down from the historical background of my family’s 100 years of ethnic cleansing and genocide – that happened in 1915, 1918 and in 1989 to a more personal level of the people that I met across the world since my book came out and since my first public statement, here in this very building in 2012.
I have traveled extensively, representing my personal story and 350 thousands of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. 60,000 of them are your neighbors, your constituents, proud Americans. You will not find them being too pollical or speaking about their past. They are building their lives, putting their kids through college and trying to live a typical American life.
But everywhere I go, the story repeats itself. The trauma is compounded by denial. The trauma is compounded by continued aggression against Artsakh. The trauma of my people continues when Azerbaijan comes to our new country, US, and spreads lies about Armenians—antii-Armenianism.
It has been 30 years, yet I remember these violent days as if they happened yesterday. I can close my eyes any time and any day and anywhere in the world and be transported to my house in Baku, a few blocks away from Lenin square, and remember the smell of the sea walking the Caspian seaside boulevard.
I can count the number of olive trees in front of my house on the way to School #27.
I can also remember the utter horror of being injured by a grown Azerbaijani neighbor whose arms I scratched and hit to get away from his sweaty grip.
I was told not to tell my father then until we came to United States. My grandmother explained to me that my father would try to avenge my attempted rape or go to the policy – and we will all die, because we were Armenian.
I imagine the sweet faces of my neighbors and relatives as if I saw them yesterday.
I remember walking down the street with my face down to hide my distinct Armenian features. My father said if I was asked, to tell them I was Greek.
I remember my uncle Alexander who was badly injured trying to retrieve valuables from his apartment. He didn’t realize that it was already being looted by the Azerbaijani government thugs, ready to empty or move into tens of thousands of Armenian homes.
I remember beautiful Zhanna, who was my best friend’s mother. She died in January of 1990 at 35 years old at the hands of violent Azerbaijani thugs.
Her mother Lilya died of injuries and of a broken heart a few months later.
Her son, my best friend since age 5, Vilien, grew up with debilitating memories as an orphan in Russia. I will never see them or anyone from Baku again.
A stranger lives in my family’s house now. My neighbors were killed. My grandparents’ graves were bulldozed over, as were all Armenian graves, wiping out entire cemeteries.
Our friends and relatives are now spread across the world from the U.S. to Russia, Germany, France, Latvia, Ukraine and Armenia.
Many of these relatives are strangers now because we grew up so far away from each other and almost never get a chance to see each other.
We and our children speak different languages.
So many spirits were broken. So many lives were destroyed; the lives of 350,000 of people like me.
But here we stand as survivors, as victors. Successful in all walks of life, all professions, all locations.
Many of us have horrible memories of years living in cold and blockaded Armenia escaping with nothing, losing everything. I am constantly asked why I left Armenia. If you would see where I lived for three years during the war with no hope in sight, you would understand why my father thought his children deserved more, a better future. And he gave us that future.
Some of our refugees still struggle to find a comfortable life in Armenian and in Artsakh. Many die waiting. Artsakh, while fighting for its independence from a violent neighbor, also supports thousands of Azerbaijan’s refugees, all of whom are forgotten by the international humanitarian organizations, including the UN, because it’s a “frozen or ongoing conflict.”
It’s far from frozen, and these people still need assistance 30 years later while being shot at every day.
With all that said there is only one perpetrator responsible for this. My community agrees that Azerbaijan is to blame for its disproportionate and violent response toward its own citizens in retaliation to a legal process of Artsakh’s call toward self-determination in February of 1988.
We know that Azerbaijan got away with crimes against humanity and mass slaughter, exodus, and theft of our property, and the world, US and Europe included, generally turned a blind eye to these crimes.
As the Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan were happening, when the Soviet Union was still intact, the some western countries, including the US adopted resolution and statements condemning these pogroms based on ethnicity.
However, the world, including US and EU, continues to turn a blind eye on these events when talking about any further development in the region.
The same anti-Armenianism that made my grandfather an orphan and that made me a refugee is alive and well today. Just as with anti-Semitism, rooting out the hatred toward Armenians cannot be done by brushing aside this history.
The avoidance of calling things as they are, contributes to the anti-Armenianism at the highest level of Azerbaijan’s government.
These crimes continue with shooting across the Artsakh and Armenian borders at civilians.
This is the same autocratic Azerbaijan that pardoned and made a hero of a convicted ax-murderers of a sleeping Armenian soldier during a NATO Partnership for Peace Program in Hungary. Azerbaijan is treated with kid gloves, yet the US State Department warns American-Armenians, even the ones that were born in US, from traveling to Azerbaijan in fear of ethnic violence against them.
This is the same Azerbaijan that commits war crimes on civilians living in Armenia during the April, 2016 war when not only Artsakh civilians were killed, but also Armenian civilians were mutilated on the border with Azerbaijan.
And the story continues. And that’s because back then in the 1980s there was no justice for the ones that died, no justice for the property we lost. No one but Armenian side remembers us during negotiation process over Artsakh. No politician dares to mention us when visiting the so-called “Democratic” Azerbaijan that recently proclaimed that ALL Armenians of the world are its enemy.
History falsification, disinformation and false propaganda realized by Azerbaijan, are points of fact within the premises of this very body. By condemning the ethnic hatred and racism and demanding Azerbaijan to assume the responsibility alone, the US will assist in curbing Azerbaijan’s genocidal rhetoric and will prevent a repetition of such events within the region.
By not funding the Azerbaijan’s military and contributing to peace building, demining for example, in Artsakh, the US will contribute to the future peaceful life of children in the region. Artakh has no humanitarian assistance to its 150,000 people, children and elderly. The frozen conflict status prevents UN from entering the region. Human Right Watch and Amnesty International do not consider it to be a priority, yet thousands of Azerbaijan born Armenians refugees live in Artakh without any aid for 30 years. They are not considered to be refugees in status, because they are technically in Azerbaijan, but would they survive if they went back to their homes in Baku?
Back then the world turned a blind eye on us because we were nobodies, and we took care of ourselves. We scattered, trying to feed our children, learn the new language of our adoptive countries, build our own futures.
The world instead rejoiced at the collapse of the Soviet Union and not the destruction left in its dissolution.
We had nothing. But now we are here. Now we visit our state and federal capitals and remind the world who we are, and what happened to us. We are not going away. We will not allow this history, our history, and the history of Azerbaijan, to be painted over in the name of convenience.
And with that ongoing aggression and xenophobia, how does the world expect any concessions on the Armenian side over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict? If any part of Artsakh is to be government by this xenophobic and autocratic regime you will be sending Armenians of Karabakh to the slaughter house similar to Sumgait and Kirovabad and Baku.
In closing I want to tell you how incredibly amazing my life has been despite so much loss and pain. I am in awe standing here in-front of you honoring my community. Thirty years ago I was a little dirty refugee girl and the world did not care for me. The world did not mention my loss on the news. The world did not care for the region where I was born.
Now, I am an American lawyer and elected official who travels across the world writing and speaking about what happened to my people. The strength in me comes from the sun, the water and soil of Syunik region and Nakhichevan region of Armenia where my grandparents are from, from the memory of my great grandparents who perished during the Armenian genocide, from the history of my resilient ancestors my father told us through family stories and his art.
Until the day I die I will do everything in my power to ensure my people are safe from mass slaughter, that the country of Armenia, including Artsakh, thrives, that Armenians of the world are connected by a common love and purpose to survive. I will ensure that the US and European legislators know over and over again, decade after decade if needed, that the same threat that made me a refugee and hurt my loved ones still threatens the Armenian people in Armenia and Artsakh.
After losing so much, the Armenian people from Azerbaijan stand strong. Azerbaijan wants us conveniently forgotten. You must never forget us.
We know enough from painful experience of the last 30 years that we stand alone. Finally, prove us wrong.