BY ANNA ASTVATSATURIAN TURCOTTE
Special to Asbarez
There is something liberating in telling a group of strangers about the most painful part of your life. Your loved ones usually know what happened. It is discussed once or twice but never repeated again, whether because it is uncommon in our Armenian culture to dwell on the painful past, or perhaps it is our pride – we are not very good at letting anyone know we are still haunted by the things that make us who we are.
I have been on the road for six years since the publication of my book, “Nowhere, a Story of Exile.” It is my voice at 11 to 14 years old; the years of my life when my innocence was lost and a sarcastic, jaded, resentful and hurt adolescent emerged, quiet in my own pain. Alone, with my lined paper and a modest, yet cherished collection of new American BIC pens to use up on the manuscript, I channeled my loss. Since publishing my book 20 years after I wrote it, I have been invited from the largest of Armenian communities to the smallest, to speak on the Capitol Hill and the European Parliament.
Non-Armenians who never heard of us hosted my presentations, and human rights activists whose work is inspired by the stories of victims reach out to me. Dozens of refugees write me weekly to thank me, to tell me their stories, and to encourage me to keep going. I continue to speak of my family’s collective pain and the pain of my people as a duty, to be the voice for the ones that cannot speak any longer, making my small contribution to the work of so many. I should be satisfied by my work after six years. But it’s far from it.
“You speak about these events so calmly,” I often hear from my audience members. These kind people know there is more to my delivery and acknowledge a deep pain laced with a sense of duty. This duty is what drives me to leave my children at home with my husband, take vacation time from work, and travel to these often-obscure destinations to expose my soul to strangers.
There is more, I think, thanking them but rarely breaking down. The emotional part comes when I am alone, overwhelmed by the back-to-back presentations of mass murder, mutilation, exile, while most of the world around me is oblivious. It is hidden in the nightmares and in the memories of an Azerbaijani neighbor whose skin I punched and scratched to escape an attempted rape in the patio of our apartment building as a 11-year-old child living in Baku. I still get revolted by the smell of alcohol and smoke mixed together. After it happened, I told my grandmother, but I did not reveal this to my parents. It would mean my father would retaliate, perhaps killing the man. Then we would be killed. For the next months as my parents were preparing to escape, the man whispered, “erməni” (Armenian), in the vilest manner every time he saw me on my way home or to school. This neighbor in his mid-twenties, whose family was part of the Azerbaijani government, haunted my life since that day. I barely mention it in my book and I often never speak about it publicly. Yet, that is what makes me who I am. And I am the lucky one who is alive, who wasn’t technically raped, whose family was beaten, exiled and terrorized for months, but lived. Yet, I still can’t join peaceful and patriotic marches in America because of childhood trauma of being surrounded by marching thousands of violent men, the dark clothed masses of bloodthirsty thugs ready to kill me, an Armenian girl, had they known I was hiding in that first-floor apartment on Ahundov street. And despite the Azerbaijani media mocking my truth, the truth is, I get startled if I hear Azerbaijani speech in close proximity to me physically.
That is the curious case of our trauma. Many times it isn’t visible. Many times it isn’t about the numbers of the dead, like a ghoulish competition; any life lost should be mourned. It is about the systematic traumatization of the Armenian population of Azerbaijan through misinformation, infliction of fear and horror, exile and loss of property and, most importantly, in the manner in which these murders took place, and in the manner they were instantly forgotten. It is in the psychological scars that were purposely inflicted with such hatred that it is nearly impossible to forget, and in most cases unimaginable to forgive. Armenians received festive celebratory cards when tens of thousands of Armenians were killed in the Spitak earthquake. Girls were raped in front of their parents, cigarettes were put out on their skins. Armenian parents were murdered in front of their half-Azerbaijani children.
For nearly three decades my community hears things like, “Well, it isn’t exactly genocide,” or, “Yes, that was tragic, but weren’t only 30 or 200 killed?” And “perhaps it is time to forget it and move on.” This is what haunts us too; the deliberate obliviousness of the people that should be mourning with us, standing beside us, acknowledging us, and advocating for us. When we ask why the world forgets our dead, we should also look in the mirror and ask ourselves the same question.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Sumgait massacres that shaped the lives of over 300,000 of us and the current Azerbaijani policy toward Armenians worldwide, especially toward Artsakh. Since I began advocating for its liberation and tying the mass murders in Azerbaijan to the past genocide and mass atrocities of my grandfather’s time, I’ve seen progress. There is more of an effort in diaspora organizations to remember Sumgait, Kirovabad, Baku and Maragha, along with the work toward Artsakh’s liberation. But it is not enough.
Many still can’t distinguish between what Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku atrocities are and how they occurred; especially what significance they have toward the liberation movement. These weren’t simply siloed events that one can easily compartmentalize, define or escape. Instead, the atrocities grew from one-off murders in the dark alleys, gradually building into mass demonstrations and pogroms like a tsunami, gathering force and momentum. They were often masked as something else, somewhere else, before finally bursting with the Baku pogroms when the last of Armenian minority were killed, ferried across the Caspian or drowned at sea. It was an inexorable two-year campaign of eliminating more than 300,000 Armenians; driving us all out of Azerbaijan. And one atrocity, allowed by the powers at be, forgotten by the world, lead to another atrocity. And the continued and deliberate ignorance of these tragic events by the world lead directly to the current situation in Artsakh when civilians are killed and mutilated in underreported war crimes, children are shot across the border on playgrounds, and young soldiers I often meet in my travels to the region lose their limbs and lives defending their families.
In these past six years of advocacy, I see more and more Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan spreading awareness. Perhaps it is because the shellshock has an expiration date. Julia Papiyan in Michigan comes to my mind; a daughter of a Baku survivor put so much of her effort into the building of a khatchkar in memory of the Armenians killed in Azerbaijan. Arevik Makasdjian, a Baku survivor who launched and runs “Kids of Karabakh” charity in San Francisco, inspires me with her tireless humanitarian efforts. Ilona Kocharyan, daughter of Baku refugees now living in a war-torn Ukraine, recently shot her first film about Artsakh called “The Roots,” moving me to tears. Saro Saryan, a Baku refugee, veteran of Artsakh’s liberation war, is running a refugee organization out of Shushi, and introducing Artsakh to the visitors from all over the world. And they are just a handful of amazing refugees I have met across the world in my work. But we cannot do it alone.
What I am still failing to see, and continue to advocate for, is for the Sargsyan Administration and other entities of the Armenian government, to properly commemorate the 30th, the 35th, and the 50th anniversary of the Sumgait, Kirovabad, Baku and Maragha atrocities. I also continue to ask diaspora organizations how they commemorate these events. I still advocate for these atrocities to be highlighted during the negotiations over Artsakh. This historic anti-armenianism is very much relevant in the way the Aliyev regime approaches the conflict, and it will not change. We cannot allow them to rewrite history. This joint effort amongst us to advocate for the voiceless, and securing of the borders, are the only way to secure Artsakh’s independence. And the best way to ensure these atrocities happen again is by deliberately brushing them under the proverbial rug. Haven’t we learned this already?