Armenia Is Still Grieving
Losing a war has reopened old wounds in a battered nation.
“There is no summit as white as Ararat,” wrote the Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents, in his 1915 work “Blue-Eyed Homeland,” about the twin-peaked mountain that is the national symbol of all Armenia. On a clear day in Yerevan, Ararat dominates the landscape, towering over the pink stone buildings and broad avenues of the Armenian capital.
But Ararat is not close. It is impossibly far away—across the long-closed border with Turkey, in the land known to Armenians as Western Armenia. There are no Armenians left there, at least openly. The national symbol of Armenia, the touchstone for the identity of an entire people, is over a hostile neighbor’s border.
The constant reminder of what was lost is, however, just one of many losses that have imprinted themselves on Armenia. The most recent of these was last year from Sept. 27 to Nov. 10, in one of the most brutal wars of the 21st century. For 44 days, Armenian forces clashed with those of neighboring Azerbaijan, in the latest round of war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, originally a majority ethnic Armenian territory lying within the Soviet-defined borders of Azerbaijan. The war killed at least 6,000 people in six weeks of fighting, including at least 3,300 Armenian soldiers—the equivalent of the United States losing more 350,000 troops—in a month and a half.
It was not Armenians’ first loss.
The Armenian genocide of 1915 was not an accident. It was a carefully planned sequence of events, designed by the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turks revolutionary government to quell the threat of a population perceived as disloyal. Well over a million Armenian men, women, and children were rounded up in their villages and towns, forced into pathetic columns, and driven toward the Syrian desert to die. By the end of 1916, only an estimated 200,000 deportees remained alive.
Armenia would be the first nation of the 20th century born out of genocide. The ragged survivors who escaped would be forever defined by their trauma, the memories of having lost their homes and nearly their lives. The stories of the genocide would be passed down to their descendants, imprinting on each generation the tragedy that had occurred—and the fear of it happening again.
Although suppressed, the memories of the genocide never faded in Soviet Armenia: In 1965, on the 50th anniversary of the slaughter, 100,000 Armenians gathered in front of Yerevan’s opera house to demand that the Soviet government recognize the genocide. Armenian national consciousness reemerged in force in February 1988, as unprecedented mass demonstrations on the streets of Yerevan called for joining the ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh to Soviet Armenia. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators came out to support the unification of Karabakh with Armenia, in one of the greatest outpouring of national sentiment the Soviet Union had yet seen.
Their hopes were soon to be replaced with grief. Nationalist forces among the ethnic Azeri population of the neighboring Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic saw this moment as an opportunity to galvanize their own support: through bloody retributions against the Armenian minority of the republic. On Feb. 27, in the town of Sumgait, just north of the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, nationalist mobs gathered in the streets and began to roam from house to house, searching for the town’s Armenian residents. The Sumgait pogrom had begun.
Karine Chakhalyan, 54, was one of those residents. “I remember the pogrom [in Sumgait] like it was yesterday,” she told me on a sunny day in November outside her home in Kalbajar, a town known among Armenians as Karvachar, in the disputed territory. “My parents were killed in front of my eyes. We left with what we had on our backs.” Chakhalyan and as many as 20,000 other Armenians were forced to flee.
And 1988 was not done with Armenia. On Dec. 7, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake ripped through the town of Spitak, in northwestern Armenia. Nearby was the city of Leninakan (now known as Gyumri), Armenia’s second-largest. In an instant, it was decimated. As many as 50,000 people were killed, and several times that made homeless. Three decades years later, at least 10,000 are still homeless as a result, living in temporary shelters for more than a generation.
While the Soviet Union was heading for collapse, the smoldering situation in Nagorno-Karabakh was on the path to war.
As Soviet authority began to wane, political power in Armenia was quickly passing to the Karabakh Committee, the group of Armenian intellectuals who had led the rallies in February 1988 and later. By mid-1990, they would come to exercise effective power in the republic, superseding the increasingly irrelevant communist leadership—in effect, becoming the first Soviet republic to achieve de facto independence, a full 18 months before the Soviet Union’s collapse. Karabakh was not just a movement in Armenia: It was the symbol of everything lost in the past and an overwhelming sense to save another small part of the homeland that was left, in case it slipped away as well.
With the Soviet state, the only force that restrained this movement, rapidly slipping away, and in light of the growing Azerbaijani nationalism built around the exact same issue but from the other side (i.e., retaining Karabakh for Azerbaijan), war was inevitable. As Armenia and Azerbaijan emerged as independent nations, they immediately grappled in a full-scale war over the territory. From 1991 to 1994, the First Nagorno-Karabakh War would grow from clashes between poorly armed ethnic militias to fully outfitted state armies hurling combined-arms offensives at each other. By its end, up to 30,000 people had been killed and a million displaced—and Armenian forces controlled both Karabakh and seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijan, where they had expelled 450,000 ethnic Azeri residents.
The war would be the defining event of a new generation. “I remember every day the trucks coming to Yerevan, carrying the bodies of the dead soldiers,” Aleksey, an Armenian who later emigrated to Canada, told me. “We were checking the new lists [of dead] every day, usually by candlelight”—the latter a regular feature as Yerevan was gripped by blackouts owing to the Azerbaijani-Turkish blockade. “Every few days, I’d go stand with my mother in the lines for bread,” said Astghik, a 34-year-old lawyer. “My father and uncles were on the front.”
Like the First Republic of Armenia after the 1915 genocide, the new Republic of Armenia was forged by war. The grief did not stop with the fighting’s end in 1994: In his book Karabakh Diary, the Armenian journalist Tatul Hakobyan describes visiting families in provincial villages in 2005 as they continued desperate attempts to secure the freedom of family members held captive by Azerbaijan for over a decade.
But the war had an indescribable impact on the national psyche. For many, the victory was an indication that Armenians were not forever destined to be victims—a small triumph to somewhat ease the massive losses of three generations earlier. One Western commentator summarized the effect neatly in describing an interaction he witnessed: At a 2005 forum, one native of the Republic of Armenia lambasted a diaspora Armenian by remarking, “you [Western Armenians] always see yourselves as victims! But we know ourselves as conquerors!” With the rush of victory came, too, a callousness toward the suffering of Azeris, themselves displaced from homes in Karabakh and driven into exile.
For a generation, this victorious attitude held and hardened. But it would eventually be shattered.
On Sept. 27, 2020, a renewed Azerbaijan struck back. Baku had spent years arming itself with billions of dollars of advanced military hardware, and it had secured the strong military and political support of its ally Turkey. Opening with a weeklong artillery barrage on the ethnically Armenian towns and villages of Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s newest asset—its arsenal of modern combat drones—unloaded on the underequipped Armenian forces with devastating, unrelenting effect.
I visited Nagorno-Karabakh in early October. The capital, Stepanakert, was nearly deserted—the calm broken only by military vehicles heading to the front, the occasional elderly pedestrian, and the regular sound of air sirens warning of impending missile strikes. The Armenian population of Karabakh is one of the most militarized in the world: All men complete two years of mandatory military service in the trenches, and all keep their Kalashnikov rifles at home in case of a call-up.
In one of the city’s shelters, one retiree told me that she had four grandsons on the front; one had already been killed in the fighting. Her own husband died in the first war. Another lamented that this was already the third war that she had seen (referencing the initial conflict and a stretch of fighting in April 2016, often called the “Four-Day War”). In Karabakh, the tragedy of war is just a facet of life.
As the war dragged on, into mid-October, a pall of grief settled over Yerevan. Faces on the street became more somber and downcast. Everyone knew someone on the front lines. Most had already lost somebody.
Upon arriving back in Yerevan from Karabakh, I hailed a taxi from the city’s outskirts. The driver asked how the battle was going in Hadrut, a heavily contested town in Karabakh’s southeast. I told him the fighting is very hard, and he swore under his breath. He told me that his nephew was just killed there and that his son and brother were still fighting on that front. The driver broke down in tears. We finished the drive wordlessly, and he refused to take any money.
The war ended on Nov. 10, after 44 days. With it, the Armenians lost nearly three-quarters of the territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh that they had held at the start. The death toll, still being updated, stands currently at 4,005.
The immediate aftermath has provided no time for the displace residents, and Armenians as a whole, to come to grips with the new reality. The cease-fire deal not only enshrines Azerbaijan’s gains on the ground but also entails the handover of three Armenian-held districts of Azerbaijan.
The Kalbajar district northwest of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast was captured by ethnic Armenian forces in the first war in 1993. A formerly ethnic Azeri region that was depopulated by the Armenian forces who captured it in the ’90s war, by the 2020 war its 3,500 inhabitants were largely Armenian refugees expelled from Azerbaijan in the bloody reprisals of the Soviet Union’s final years. Now, they are being displaced again. In November 2020, the territory was handed back to Azerbaijan—its residents forced, once again, to find sanctum elsewhere.
Chakhalyan, the Sumgait survivor, is one of these residents. After a few years in shelters in Yerevan, she had resettled in Kalbajar. “We heard there were houses here, but they were almost ruined—we rebuilt this one ourselves,” she said. “My six sons fought in the army, in this war. One of them didn’t come home. And now we all must leave. What are we going to do now?”
Kalbajar itself is perhaps the most poignant symbol of the reversal of fortunes Armenians experienced between the first war and the second. In the first, the district was seized from a demoralized Azerbaijani army in less than a week, in a lightning operation led by Monte Melkonian, then Armenia’s most famous military commander. The illusion of Armenian invincibility that had grown since the first war’s end—reaching a point of hubris that the Armenian American political analyst Richard Giragosian acridly described as “bullshit exceptionalism”—has been thoroughly destroyed.
Leaving Kalbajar, the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert is only a marginally less grievous sight. The remaining road to the city from Armenia goes right past the city of Shusha, known as Shushi in Armenian—held by the Armenians from 1992 until Nov. 8. The Armenian-language sign at the entrance has been replaced by an Azerbaijani one, in the red, green, and blue of the Azerbaijani flag, and a foreboding checkpoint is staffed by masked Azeri soldiers. Russian peacekeepers shepherd the locals past them.
The Karabakh capital itself was once again full of life on November 24-25, barely two weeks after the war’s end, its streets bustling with people. But a brief conversation is all that’s necessary to shatter the illusion of normality.
At the central marketplace, I spoke to Vladimir, 64, a butcher from a village in Martuni province, to the east of the capital. He still has his home. His two brothers, from a neighboring village, do not—their homes were captured by Azerbaijani forces in late October. They milled about as Vladimir cleaved a chicken.
“How should I feel? Do you see what’s happened here?” he said. “Half of the families here have lost their homes—they are just trying to sell some potatoes to have any money at all. They have nothing else left.”
He shook his head. “They should have at least found a way to keep the Armenian villages,” he said, referring to the lost territories of the former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast that had originally been captured in the ’90s. “But the Azeris took so many of them. This means the conflict will continue.”
The new wave of displacement is one of the human tragedies of the war. According to official statistics from the region’s nominally independent Armenian-backed government, over 40,000 Karabakh Armenians are now permanently displaced, their homes having been captured by Azerbaijan or later handed over to Azerbaijan’s control.
Karine, a 42-year-old salon worker, remembers when an Azeri mob entered her family’s home 30 years prior in Baku. “The Azeris have come for us [Armenians] here, too,” she said. “How could this happen? How could we lose so many lands?”
The grief of this latest loss has torn Armenian society apart. Finger-pointing and accusations of treason have poisoned Armenian social media for months, particularly among the diaspora. Eight million strong, the diaspora is largely made up of descendants of those who survived the genocide, having grown up with stories passed down about how their grandparents and great-grandparents watched their friends and relatives executed by Ottoman soldiers as they fled through the Syrian desert. Now, from half a world away, they have watched helplessly as the calamity of yet another war befalls their people.
Now, little seems certain about the future of Armenia. For this small state, almost surrounded by enemies, its mere existence now feels threatened. Many see their only hope of survival in embarking on a radically successful program of national economic, scientific, and—especially—military development, akin to that of Israel, another small nation of genocide survivors that needed multiple victorious wars against its neighbors to survive. The greatest fear, as one Armenian friend told me, is that the Armenians would suffer the same fate as the Assyrians, their brethren who also suffered an Ottoman-era genocide: an ancient people scattered in foreign lands, with no state to call their own.
Yet despite the catastrophe of the past few months, Armenians look to the defiant words of William Saroyan, one of their greatest writers, in his 1936 work “The Armenian and the Armenian”:“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered. … See if they will not live again.”
Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist and security analyst based in Yerevan, Armenia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict and politics, conflict, and minorities in the North and South Caucasus region. Twitter: @NeilPHauer