BY ANNA ASTVATSATURIAN TURCOTTE
This past September I had the great pleasure of visiting the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic for official meetings, a presentation in Stepanakert and to personally acquaint myself with the people that rebuilt this Armenian nation from the ashes of Azerbaijani aggression.
The trip was emotional in many ways. I was a ten year old child when the independence movement started and I was finally standing in Stepanakert, at the epicenter of the conflict that brought my peaceful childhood to a standstill. This independence movement led Azerbaijan to destroy not only my life, or my family’s life in Baku, but lives of nearly 400,000 Armenians of Azerbaijan. The government orchestrated violence lead to further efforts to erase from history every contribution of the Armenian population toward building of Azerbaijan as a nation, especially building of Baku, its capital. It is as if we didn’t exist.
In September of 1989 we were fleeing Baku for our lives while the peaceful people of Nagorno-Karabakh pushed against Azerbaijani oppression and crimes against humanity and demanded a right to self-determination through a democratic referendum. Exactly twenty five years later in September of 2014, surreal as it may be, I was standing in Stepanakert as an American citizen, raised, since the age of 14, with a deeply American sense of freedom, independence, self-determination and courage, the traits I felt were true for every person I spoke with in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Almost every man I met in Nagorno-Karabakh fought in the war twenty years prior. Their children have never experienced anything but a peaceful Karabakh but now they serve their nation and guard the borders. I knew of the courage of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and wasn’t surprised. But to my surprise I met a large group of displaced Armenians from Baku, Sumgait or other places in Azerbaijan. They were refugees like me and they’ve settled in Karabakh for life. About 30,000 of Armenians from Azerbaijan live in Nagorno-Karabakh. I was informed that nearly one thousand Baku refugees fought and died in the war against Azerbaijan. The survivors, many wounded, built lives in the peaceful Karabakh. Many live in the rural areas, many in the cities, some started businesses.
That fact was astonishing to me. Blockaded from all directions but on the border with Armenia, Karabakh is an open air prison to some 150,000 Armenians. Azerbaijan threatens them with a violent war daily and their civilian aircraft cannot use its newly rebuilt airport in fear of being shot down by the Azerbaijani military. They are not recognized as an independent sovereign nation by any nation in the world. Jobs are limited and the pay is low. Yet Baku refugees feel so strongly about the importance of the country’s independence from Azerbaijan after fleeing the Azerbaijani ethnic cleansing campaign to come to Nagorno-Karabakh and start and live a life there.
What also surprised me is that with the issues that this tiny country has to deal with, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic works diligently on the humanitarian issues of the “frozen,” as many westerners call it, conflict. It is providing the Armenian refugees from Baku and other areas of Azerbaijan in addition to the war displaced Nagorno-Karabakh citizens with humanitarian aid. Nagorno-Karabakh is not simply a nation fighting for its rightful independence, but it’s also a country that is taking on the heavy weight of caring for the Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. The refugees stayed in Nagorno-Karabakh willingly, but not without hardship. They require housing and jobs.
Since 1988 the government of Nagorno-Karabakh has dedicated a portion of its budget to a fund which is used to build housing for the refugee families. The work to accommodate them is slow and many still don’t live in their own housing, living in dormitories and temporary housing. This fact is also true for Armenia, however I was not aware of it in Nagorno-Karabakh on such a scale. I was not aware how actively the Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan participate in the rebuilding of the nation and how dedicated the nation is to providing them with basic necessities, with all its obvious limitations. Soon after leaving Karabakh, I wanted to illuminate this issue to the Diaspora upon my return. I also want to discuss these facts to my representatives in the US legislature.
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and its people are my inspiration in the day to day life. The stories of their courage bring everything into perspective for me, more so now than before my recent visit to the country. Knowing that twenty years ago this tiny nation without an army fought bravely and won its independence from an oppressive and genocidal regime of Azerbaijan is inspiring enough. The fact that its government is democratic and transparent is also very admirable. But the knowledge I’ve gained that while it is struggling for its survival, Nagorno-Karabakh Republic also proactively and enthusiastically cares for thousands of displaced people from the country that made me a refugee – that is beyond any words I can find.
This is what we need to tell our leadership when talking about Azerbaijan. Free ideals we hold true for ourselves as Americans should be true to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, born there and those born in Baku. That is what we need to tell each other when discussing recognition efforts of Nagorno-Karabakh, in addition to its long Armenian history. This is the true face of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic and we, as a people, need to encourage and support them along their difficult but commendable journey.