The 25th anniversary of Sumgait Pogroms and Artsakh’s quest for independence

On April 8, 2013 LA City Hall hosted an event featuring Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte, lawyer and author of a book entitled, “Nowhere, A Story of Exile” based on her own diary entries as a young girl documenting the organized terror in Baku. The Consulate General of the Republic of Armenia in Los Angeles has published an article Anna wrote in which she reflects on the tragic events of her childhood and projects them on the current status of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

“Twenty five years ago the events that would later be named “The Sumgait Pogroms” took place in my home country, then Soviet Azerbaijan.  These pogroms targeted the Armenian population of the town of Sumgait on 27 February of 1988. Violent rioting mobs of ethnic Azeris stormed the streets and broke into homes of ethnic Armenians of that peaceful city.  They attacked and killed Armenians both on the streets and in their homes, while the police observed and let the events unfold and medical personnel refused to assist the victims.

This was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.  The events were triggered by a movement of liberation in the ancestral Armenian land of Nagorno-Karabakh.  In 1920s this historic Armenian region was handed over to Azerbaijan by Joseph Stalin to instill constant tension in the region.  In the beginning of 1988 Nagorno-Karabakh demanded to be reinstated back to Armenia, asserting self-determination by a referendum in accordance with the Soviet Constitution.

Instead of negotiating with the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, who made up close to 95% of its population, the government began an offensive, both militarily in Nagorno-Karabakh, and internally, against the peaceful citizens of Azerbaijan of Armenian decent.  The propaganda machine began its operation, fueling anger and hatred toward Armenians.

After months of riots, the violence hit home in January of 1990 in Baku, the capital city where I was born and lived; the city which prided itself on tolerance, multiculturalism, diversity and peace.  The mobs were informed by the government where Armenians resided and, with surgical precision, they attacked only the homes of Armenians.  Innocent people died, brutally.  My family and I were lucky to have fled the city a few months prior, after over a year of fear and hiding.

Twenty five years later Nagorno-Karabakh is still fighting for its independence.  The war with Azerbaijan ended in a ceasefire in 1994.  Although the Armenians of Karabakh have full control of their borders, their own democratically-elected government and a Constitution, along with their own military and a functioning economy, the reality of today is that Nagorno-Karabakh is not formally recognized as an independent state.  The two decades of democracy and transparency in Karabakh will certainly serve as a base to its free and independent future.  But clearly it isn’t enough.

There is a generation of Azeri children that are taught by government-regulated schools that Armenians are monsters.  Anti-Armenianism plagues the policies of that government.  Recently, an Azeri axe murderer who killed a sleeping Armenian soldier in Hungary during a NATO language course exercise was extradited back to Azerbaijan (for reportedly a hefty price) and was released as a hero in Baku, with a promotion and a new home.  This is the present-day Azerbaijan.

Now Azerbaijan is free of Armenians. The US State Department warns Armenian-Americans against traveling to Azerbaijan.  It states that they might not be able to enter the country of Azerbaijan because the government cannot guarantee the protection of Armenians from violence.  My five year-old son doesn’t understand why he can’t see Mama’s old house.  He wants to build a rocket ship so I can once again visit my home city.  My response to him is “Armen, my home is where you are safe; my home city is long gone.”

This past December I was honored to be invited to the celebration of the 21st anniversary of Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence on Capitol Hill.  Shortly before attending the celebration, I sat in on an event sponsored by the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC.  The event was intriguingly titled “Interfaith Respect and Dialogue in Azerbaijan,” featuring Ambassador Iskandarov who is a Chairman of the State Committee of the Republic of Azerbaijan for Religious Associations.

What was surreal about his presentation was not the blatantly false portrayal of Azerbaijan as a place of religious and cultural tolerance, but the government’s outrageous assertion that other Muslim countries should look to the “Azerbaijan Model” (as opposed to the secular models) as the more successful of the two.  This so-called “Azerbaijan Model” is the height of intellectual dishonesty.  It is a farce.  The Ambassador happily stated that all faiths and cultures, including Armenians, which he denied were driven out by the pogroms, are free to worship in Azerbaijan at the places of worship that in reality were either destroyed or taken over by the government, such as an Armenian Cathedral in the center of Baku (after it was set on fire).  In other words, the Azerbaijan Model professes openness and tolerance for all the cultures that no longer exist within its border.

The absurdity didn’t stop there.  When I asked the Ambassador regarding the recent intolerance and violence toward Armenians, and how can this reality coincide with his portrayal of his country, the Ambassador invited me to Baku and told me there are tens of thousands Armenians still living there – which I personally know to be untrue.  If any Armenians wanted to use the church, Iskandarov promised, they only need to identify themselves to the government and ask. That these citizens would be outing themselves to a government that just lionized a convicted ethnic axe murderer is notably left unspoken.

How does one expect a country that unbelievably prejudiced and violent toward Armenians, a country that so outrageously portrays itself as a beacon of tolerance and a model of multicultural success to me, an Armenian refugee, to once again gain control of the region that is 99% Armenian in population, regardless of its strong Armenian history?  If Azerbaijan soldiers are richly rewarded for brutally murdering an Armenian soldier in his sleep in a foreign country, what would they do to Armenian citizens once they gain control over their lands?

On the 25th anniversary of Sumgait pogroms, I honor the victims. Their deaths were senseless.  I honor the Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan and all they have been through in the last 25 years.  You are not forgotten; your pain and suffering will not be in vain. Your suffering is memorialized in Nagorno-Karabakh’s freedom, through its practice of democratic government, real cultural and religious tolerance and lasting peace. It’s time the world recognizes the Nagorno-Karabakh plight for independence.  It is the only way.”

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