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Dispatch #1: The Human and Cultural Cost of the Conflict in Artsakh

By Seamus Bozeman

The international community has been incredibly silent around the conflict in Artsakh and its effects on the ethnic Armenians and the heritage of the region. An enclave of Armenia, surrounded by Azerbaijan, Artsakh is a self-proclaimed free state and home to ethnic Armenians who over the past six weeks were caught in the crosshairs of war, forced to flee their cultural home, and abandon hard-fought livelihoods in a land long plagued by ethnic violence. Artsakh is an independent region attempting to become a nation-state. Territorial disputes in the Southern Caucasus Mountains are not uncommon, which has driven widely different views on who rightly owns Artsakh. But looking at the cultural and religious history, there is nothing to support the claims that either Azerbaijan or Turkey can, under international law, claim the Republic of Artsakh as their own based on the notion that “state boundaries…” can be defined according “ the distribution of national groups within the territory,” In this case that pertains to the ethnic makeup of Artsakh, which is around 80% Armenian, and under the law of self-determination constitutes it as their homeland. But in the recent conflict, thousands of Armenians have been illegally forced to flee the area due to the attacks on Artsakh. This mass exodus of the people of Artsakh will likely change the ethnic makeup of the region, delegitimizing the argument that self-determination of the land can be Armenia. Still, countless war crimes and the genocidal intent of Azerbaijan and Turkey cannot be ignored. The international community must continue to condemn, and sanction both countries for their ruthless, murderous march through the self-proclaimed free state of Artsakh and ancient lands of Armenia.

The region has been plagued by a troubled history and continues to feel the reverberations of its past. Originally named “Uretekhe-Urtekihini,” Artsakh was noted as an integral part of Armenia in the works of ancient authors as early as the 6th century B.C. In 387 A.D. Artsakh became a part of the Eastern Armenian empire, while also endorsing Christianity as the state religion in an area that to this day is majority Muslim. Quickly falling under Persian rule, then Arabian rule, and later to an assortment of other kingdoms, European, Middle Eastern, and Asian empires, until about 1813, when Artsakh was Annexed under the “Gulistan Treaty” that ended the Persian-Russian war.

A hundred years later while still under Russian control in 1915, the Armenian people were the subjects of the most devastating crime against humanity where over 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the declining Ottoman Empire and the strengthening Turkish military in one of the most tragic and heinous genocides.

During the long period of Soviet rule between 1920 to 1990, in the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenians faced targeted ethnic cleansing in the demographic process, and the destruction and “misappropriating” of Armenian monuments and “cultural values.”

While also facing a number of invasions by Azerbaijan and Turkey, most notably in 1920, and then much later in 1988, the conflict ended in 1994 with a ceasefire deal that has continually been broken with sporadic violence and military confrontations.

The most recent round of skirmishes began in mid-July of 2020, but widespread attacks and the six-week war started on September 27th with missile attacks, internationally banned cluster-munition bombings, and shellings throughout multiple regions of Artsakh. Many were ripped from their homes, forcing them to flee into Armenia and the capital of Artsakh, Stepanakert, which was also being bombarded by heavy artillery from Azerbaijan. The damage was extensive, with thousands reported injured and dead, but the toll is likely underestimated. People were forced into makeshift bunkers despite the risks posed by COVID-19, which has also ravaged the wartorn area. Challenges were posed to early reports of conflict in Artsakh, as conflicting accounts of who was attacking, and widespread misinformation due to little connection to the outside world, and no international observers, or human rights groups. Azerbaijan has one of the strictest and tightly controlled government-sponsored journalism, and they have been throughout the conflict to limit the access of international media outlets unless under direct coordination with the Azeri government, or bribes to follow a certain narrative. But as social media reports became more commonplace, it was easier to identify who was committing what, and it was more apparent that the offensive Turkey and Azerbaijan were carrying out amounted to war crimes and countless violations of international law, and more often than not, directly targeted civilian areas, including large residential complexes, and hospitals. Even though there were extensive war crimes, human atrocities, and ethnic cleansing, human rights groups continue to stay largely silent. Only releasing a few sporadic reports on cluster munitions and one on the inhumane conditions and torture of Armenian soldiers.

Artsakh has been continually under siege by the Azerbaijani military, despite the attempts at multiple ceasefires over the six week period which have continuously failed the moment they were instated, and the violations were perpetrated by Azerbaijan who was using Israeli cluster-munitions, Turkish and Azeri drones, 120 million in U.S. military funding and another substantial, but unknown amount from Turkey. Syrian Jihadist mercenaries were also brought in by Turkish forces from Libya and Syria, which will likely lead to future instability as mercenaries often take advantage of power vacuums. And depending on the future of Artsakh, there will probably be an opportunity for a rise in insurgent activity, while also endangering the fragile stability of the region.

On November 10th, a peace deal brokered by the president of Russia, prime minister of Armenia, and the president of Azerbaijan, drew the six-week conflict to a close to the dismay of many who felt the deal was premature, and illegally gave Azerbaijan much of Artsakh. Protests in the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, were widespread, and anger was expressed over the decision. Celine Abkar, an Armenian-American, who has gone to countless protests carrying a sign reading “Sanction Turkey until this is resolved,” talked to many news organizations on the situation in Artsakh, organized a Synchronized Global Prayer for Armenia, and donated to ArmeniaFund, shared her thoughts on the conflict in Artsakh via an email interview. She expressed her disappointment that Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashiyan, “hadn’t taken a few moments to first consult with the Armenian President and the Minister of Defense at the very least before signing any agreements.” She also said she wished that “we [Armenia] had better prepared overall by building better geopolitical alliances…, a stronger military, ... and utilizing peaceful diplomatic negotiations ahead of time,” before a continuation of this long and bloody war, and a peace deal that is not a solution, but just a pause.

The ceasefire is a document full of loopholes, imprecise, and open to interpretation to whomever it suits. The document called for a complete cease in all hostile actions, a return of a number of districts to Azerbaijan, some of which were not occupied by Azerbaijani military forces by November 10th, which is one of a number of concessions that Armenia was coerced into. The displaced Armenians who were forced to flee during the fighting will be able to return under the guise of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Prisoners of war and the deceased will also be exchanged, but as of early December, Azerbaijan has not returned a number of POWs, and continue to torture Armenian soldiers. All economic, and transportation roadways will remain open between both Artsakh and Armenia, defended by Russian peacekeeping forces.

Acrid smoke rises from homes throughout Artsakh as ethnic Armenians collect their last bushels of persimmons and pomegranates and set their homes alight. Forced to leave their homes, desperately packing all their belongings that will fit into any form of transportation, thousands of lives are torn apart. Long caravans of cars and trucks use the one remaining corridor that connects Armenia to Artsakh. Russian forces are protecting this single connecting roadway, and the surrounding region, for the next five years to keep a delicate ceasefire intact and preventing the icy relationship between the militaries of both Armenia and Azerbaijan from devolving into another war.

The tragic impacts of the current conflict are ongoing, as Celine Abkar has stated, a “generation of young men were killed, families destroyed, and children traumatized” as thousands searched in the rubble of the war for answers in order “to bring home their sons, fathers, brothers, and uncles.” The unimaginable physical, spiritual, mental, emotional, and financial toll that this war will continue to have on every Armenian in Artsakh, and around the world will be felt for generations to come.

The war crimes that Azerbaijan has committed are ongoing and violate multiple international laws, the genocide convention of 1948, and a number of other human rights protections. The violations and war crimes, perpetrated by Azerbaijan can be prosecuted in the international court, some of which include the indiscriminate murder of Armenian civilians, injuring and killing journalists, targeting hospitals and civilian areas with missiles and bombs, burning large swaths of forests and villages, destroying cultural sites, vandalizing churches, torturing captured Armenian soldiers, executing prisoners of war and countless other abuses. All of these actions by Turkey and Azerbaijan must be punished by influential western powers, especially countries who are in NATO, while also immediately ceasing all sales of weapons, drones and funds for military operations to both Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Hate crimes and ethnic abuse are not central to Artsakh, as there have been multiple instances of violence, vandalism, and targeted attacks on Armenian memorials to victims of genocide, and ethnic Armenians being targeted by Azjerbajanis and Turkish, with both governments calling for genocidal hatred and violence towards ethnic Armenians. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan continue to deny past acts of genocide against the people of Armenia and have stated that they support the ongoing ethnic cleansing to “continue the efforts of their grandfathers” in reference to the Genocide in 1915.

The ongoing regional conflict in Artsakh is not concentrated in the region but has a far-reaching geopolitical influence, from the Kremlin to the White House, Israel, and Iran. The Southern Caucasus has one of the most diverse international presences in the world, as each country has another major world power backing it. The two most influential are Russia and Turkey, with Russia backing Armenia, and Turkey supporting Azerbaijan. But smaller proxies throughout the middle east and the western world complicate the conflict further, as Celine has stated, a lot of the “world's superpowers have a stake in the outcome,” whether it be multilayered deals for weapons or treaties that have existed since the Second World War. To bring the crisis to an end, every country that has a stake must agree to the OSCE Minsk group to peacefully resolve the conflict. There also needs to be a guarantee of the safety for the people of Artsakh, and the security of the region, while making sure all territorial losses are returned along with the fully autonomous status of the Republic of Artsakh.

The government of Armenia has stated the conflict will not be over until key demands are met, which include a free and fair election for the people of Artsakh and the right to self-determination. Azerbaijan will never have “political or moral claims over Artsakh” and should be recognized by the world as a free and independent state, and not as a part of Azerbaijan.

The situation in Artsakh is devastating, but as a world we can make an effort to spread the word, pressure politicians, donate to reputable organizations, and protect the rights of the Armenian population in Artsakh. The link that is provided below has a long list of immediate actions, which includes educational resources, ways to help during COVID-19, repairing areas heavily damaged by the conflict, and much more.

Written by Writer Seamus Bozeman

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