A Never-Ending End: Experiences of war from near and afar
Recounting my experience of fleeing my hometown in Syria (from near), and following the continuing Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict (from afar).
Content warning: mentions of torture and rape.
It was 29th September 2020 when the characters of that sentence formed some of the 240 Twitter ‘bullets’ available at my fingertips. I was engaged in cyber warfare on a global scale, while watching a war being waged on my Armenian homeland unfold from afar.
With a world distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the US Presidential Elections, Azerbaijan — backed by NATO member Turkey — launched a full-scale war on the Armenian nation. The Armenians of Artsakh (the region of Nagorno-Karabakh) were fighting against attempted ethnic cleansing as they were subjected to indiscriminate shelling and bombing of their homes, schools, hospitals, churches, cultural centres and more, while their soldiers fiercely faced death on the frontlines defending their homeland.
A lot has changed since then. But before zooming into my experience of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and perspective as an Armenian living in the diaspora, I should mention that this was not my first encounter with war. War and I had met before.
It took me little to no time to remember what it feels like being in an area where the probability of a rocket falling in your vicinity is greater than zero, with a photo of two Armenian children seeking shelter from Azerbaijani bombs taking me back to 2014.
Armenian children in bomb shelters while Azerbaijan was bombing Artsakh’s capital city, 27/09/2020 – Source: Zartonk Media
On 21 March 2014, the morning of Mother’s Day as it is celebrated in Syria — my alarm was set to go off at 6:30am, waking me up to be ready for school on time. I was in Year 8 back then, attending the Armenian high school in my hometown, Kessab — located far North West of Syria, bordering Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea.
But that morning, the alarm went off earlier than it should — by around 20 minutes as it turned out. I was woken up by the explosions of randomly dropping rockets. Terrorists had launched an attack to invade. My 13-year-old self had no idea what to do other than to pray and hope for the best.
I was still in bed when my prayer was interrupted by my mum who softly ordered me and my sister to get up, pack up and be ready to leave. So that’s what we did, and my little wallet was the first thing I packed up, of course.
As the rockets kept falling, I recall dad advising us to remain seated and shelter in the main corridor of the house as that’s where the strongest ceiling was, he said.
Within the last couple of minutes before leaving, there was one last thing my sister and I had to do that morning. I spotted the red flowers we had collected from school for Mother’s Day. We weren’t sure if it was still appropriate to give them to mum. After some hesitation and with a quick anxious hug, the flowers were resting in my mum’s hands.
It was around 8am when we left. The town was emptied within two days and remained under the control of terrorists for three months.
Fast forward to December 2016 when I arrived with my family in Australia, and thought that was the end of it. No more war as I was far from danger, right? Little did I know that just under four years later, war from afar would feel closer than ever before. It was the 2020 Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) War — the 44-Day War.
In experiencing the closeness of war, it was no longer the physical metres or kilometres that were the determining factor, but how quickly someone would read tweets, watch videos on social media and attend demonstrations and protests.
Like Armenian communities around the world, for many in my Australian Armenian community, this wasn’t just a time of severe emotional turmoil — many of us felt the need to explain to people around us what was happening and why the war had to be stopped. The community came together through protests, demonstrations and humanitarian fundraisers as the unhealed wounds of what our ancestors faced during the Armenian Genocide (1915-1923) were open once again.
Historically speaking, Artsakh has been part of historic Armenian kingdoms. In the early 1920s, the Soviet Union annexed Artsakh and established the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). With the Baku and Sumgayit massacres of Armenians taking place in Azerbaijan, the NKAO Armenians felt the increasing threat and did not want to be part of an independent Azerbaijan. In 1991, following a self-determination vote, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence like other ex-USSR countries did, establishing a democratic republic, but remained internationally unrecognised. Since then, Azerbaijan’s goal to ethnically cleanse the Armenians of Artsakh has not seen an end.
The motives of the 44-Day War go far back when the pan-Turkic vision of the Ottoman Empire led to the annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians, and over a million Assyrians and Greeks. While over thirty countries have officially recognised it (including the US, Canada, Germany and France) and others (including Australia) are yet to formally do so, Turkey and Azerbaijan are the only countries that continue to completely deny the Armenian Genocide — considering themselves as “one nation, two states”, while still pursuing expansionist policies fuelled by petrodollars and hatred toward anything Armenian.
“Genocide denied, genocide repeated”: image of Armenians being driven out of their ancestral lands during the Armenian Genocide (1915) and after the 44-Day War in Artsakh (2020). Image by @aramessesthegr8.
On 13 September 2022, Armenia mounted its sharpest post-war escalation, as Azerbaijan attacked towns and villages within sovereign, internationally recognised territories of the Republic of Armenia. Azerbaijani soldiers not only invaded Armenian territory, they committed some of the most disgusting war crimes which have been continuing since the 2020 War — the use of cluster munitions and phosphorus bombs, torturing of POWs and opening a xenophobic war park dehumanising Armenians. After the recent attacks, a gruesome video surfaced of Azerbaijani soldiers raping, multilating and torturing a female Armenian soldier leading to her undignified death, while another clip showed the execution of seven prisoners of war. This must end.
As an Australian citizen, it is extremely frustrating to witness the double standards of my Government and its failure to outright condemn the crimes by Azerbaijan as other countries such as the US have. If we as a nation value international peace, democracy and human rights, then why not name and condemn the aggressor?
Australia played a key role in aiding survivors of the Armenian Genocide while ANZACs witnessed and reported on the atrocities being committed. The humanitarian relief effort is greatly appreciated, especially by descendants of the survivors who now call Australia home. Yet today, it is disappointing to see the Australian government ignore the plight of Armenians and label the current happenings as “armed clashes”, suggesting the lack of an aggressor.
March For Armenians calling on the Australian Government to end its silence – Sydney CBD, 24/10/2020. Photo by Berj Varjabedian.
In comparing my experience of war in Syria to that of the 2020 Artsakh War, I can say that the latter took a much sharper mental and emotional toll on me. Although I may have not recognised it at the time, I experienced all sorts of negative emotions, from anger and frustration, to disbelief and guilt. It was an experience that bitterly taught me about the importance of mental health.
Today, with some progress through ‘peace talks’ between the Armenian and Azerbaijani Governments since the supposed ‘end’ of the 44-Day war, the consistent genocidal rhetoric of Azerbaijani and Turkish officials — especially by Azerbaijan’s autocratic dictator Aliyev, it is hard to see this fragile peace last. This is especially true for the Armenians of Artsakh. If they are left alone and should Artsakh come under Azerbaijani control, one can only predict another massacre of the Armenians and repetition of dark pages from history.
Plato’s words still ring true today, especially in a world where ethnic hatred is still evident and autocratic regimes are trying to impose their power through military means. Despite my never-ending experiences with war, I do recognise that others have gone and are going through worse situations, and the question that echoes in my head asks:
What would those who “have seen the end of war” tell us?