The 27th September 2020 was the beginning of the end …
Nearly 50% of the population of Artsakh, on that fateful day, had only known life in an unrecognised state, bordering Azerbaijan, an enemy with transparent intentions of ethnic cleansing and Genocide. Unfortunately for the people of Artsakh the global orthodoxy was not on their side.
After nearly 30 years of relative peace, it was tempting to think that it would last for another 30 years. In my 15 or so visits over nearly 10 years I always felt safe despite travelling to border areas, and far away villages and despite being a citizen of a pro-Azerbaijan country.
At each successive visit I stayed for longer periods – it was all much more personal for me with my “local family” connections. The more I went, the more I felt I understood the true life of the people of Artsakh – warts and all. And there are many warts. But the greatest compliment to me, personally, was to be warmly accepted by so many people. In many cases we may have only exchanged a few words, but a big smile and hearty wave, or hug, on meeting, was as genuine as it comes. The home-made vodka during a sun lit outside celebration dinner for dozens of people quickly facilitated better communications between strangers!
So many fond memories of the people of Artsakh!
Not because they are part of a global Armenian club, but because of the land they lived on for centuries, and the circumstances in which they struggled and prospered.
Many people asked if I have Armenian heritage, after all why visit Artsakh if you’re not. The irony was that very few Armenians, outside of the ex-Soviet Union, ever went. The diasporan Armenians, who now more actively recognise and mourn the loss of this place of historical significance, failed to demonstrate their personal commitment when it mattered. Every time someone crossed the border from Armenia to Artsakh, they made a personal statement that they recognised the legitimacy of the Republic – something far more active and compelling than waving a flag in a far flung land.
The Armenian Diaspora seemed to be fixated with the recognition of the Armenian Genocide as an end in itself. The more extreme views would be for reparations and the return of land; a pointless pipe dream. When I spoke to neutral audiences I felt that the important message was always that the Genocide is not a matter of history in 1915 but the start of a process which continues to this day.
The morning of the 27th September 2020 was the re-ignition of that century old “objective”
In the midst of a pandemic , from the UK, one could only feel helpless and hopeless. Interrupted and fractured conversations, snippets of videos, and endless speculation on Azeri progress. Each day the people of Artsakh were overcome with fear and uncertainty.
I’d asked people from all walks of life in Artsakh, about how they saw the future – they were uncompromising – not one bit of land would be given away. Whilst I fully understood the reason for taking that position, I always quietly feared that this would unravel at some point. There is no negotiation without compromise. I suspect that the politicians were always planning for a future that would never have been acceptable to the people.
So much of the “Armenian rhetoric” drove an unrealistic expectation of how successful their Army would be against a well-armed Azeri/Turkish force. This exacerbated the sense of grief when the shooting stopped. The confusion over the loss of Shushi and the belief that the emerging news could only have resulted from a “fake account” signified the pinnacle from which so many people’s hopes and dreams fell.
The Liberation of Shushi on May 9th 1992 was a significant turning point in the 1st war. The fall, 28 years later, sealed the fate of the Republic.
I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to be under threat from daily bombing, or for those whose homes were invaded and who were forced to flee their village. Or for those whose lands were handed over as part of a tri-lateral agreement, and who then set light to their homes to avoid the enemy occupying them. Or for those who saw their houses, churches and burial sites being desecrated by the Azeris; the great loss of life, the men that never returned and those who are still being held hostage by Azerbaijan…and so it continues.
During the war I appealed to the political Leaders of Derby City Council to pass a motion to recognise the independence of the Artsakh Republic; this was passed in November 2020. Derby is still the only City in the United Kingdom to have taken such a stance.
Since 2010 I have written many articles, published photos, spoken to different audiences as well as the Council motion. Some may ask what it all achieved – I often ask myself that question, but I am reminded of a quote that inspired me in 2010:
“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
…and so I did.
The border is now controlled by Russian peacekeepers under the watchful eye of the Azeri authorities. There is free passage for Armenian passport holders, the rest of us need visas. Having tried, unsuccessfully, to get a visa in July 2021 and being persona non grata in Azerbaijan, I am resigned to the fact that I will never be able to visit again and be part of a life that I enjoyed and committed myself to for nearly 10 years.
I fear that this is the end, but will remain optimistic…