On October 10 a temporary ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, brokered by Russia, was announced, nearly two weeks after Azerbaijan started shelling Armenians in the Artsakh Republic, more commonly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, located in the South Caucasus.
During the military campaign, Azerbaijan has targeted not only whole towns, including Stepanakert, but also Armenian cultural and religious heritage. On October 8, Azerbaijan devastated the cultural house and the Holy Savior Cathedral, known locally as Ghazanchetsots, in the town of Shushi. Ghazanchetsots is one of the largest Armenian churches in the world.
The church was bombed twice, heavily injuring three journalists who were documenting the damage from the first bombing.
Raffi Bedrosyan, author of the book “Trauma and Resilience: Armenians in Turkey ‒ Hidden, Not Hidden and No Longer Hidden,” said:
“In the 1990’s war, when Azeris were still in control of Shushi, they used this church as an arms depot, storing the Grad missiles that they rained upon Stepanakert, which is directly below Shushi.”
After Armenians liberated Shushi from Azeri occupation in 1992, Bedrosyan visited the region, participating in water supply and road reconstruction projects.
“When I entered this church,” he added, “it was still full of human waste and damage left behind by the Azeris. It was reconstructed beautifully in a few years and witnessed hundreds of weddings of Armenian young girls and boys.”
Azerbaijan has been targeting Artsakh with the direct support received from Turkey. “We support Azerbaijan until victory,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on October 6. “I tell my Azerbaijani brothers: May your ghazwa be blessed.”
“Ghazwa” in Islam means a battle or raid against non-Muslims for the expansion of Muslim territory and/or conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. Erdoğan thus openly claimed that attacks against the Armenian territory constitute jihad. Moreover, it is not only Turkey and Azerbaijan attacking Armenians. Turkey has also deployed at least 1,000 Syrian jihadists to Azerbaijan to fight against Artsakh.
Azerbaijan’s ongoing attack against Artsakh appears part of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman expansionist aspirations. In recent years, the Turkish government has escalated its rhetoric of neo-Ottomanism and conquest. In an August 26 speech, for example, Erdoğan, said:
“In our civilization, conquest is not occupation or looting. It is establishing the dominance of the justice that Allah commanded in the [conquered] region…We invite our interlocutors to put themselves in order and stay away from mistakes that will open the way for them to be destroyed.”
Meanwhile, Armenian president Armen Sarkissian asked Russia, the US and NATO to restrain Ankara, describing Turkey as “the bully of the region.”
“If we don’t act now internationally, stopping Turkey . . . with the perspective of making this region a new Syria . . . then everyone will be hit,” he told the Financial Times in an interview.
Azeri-Turkish aggression against Armenians has cost many lives. According to Armenian sources, the total death toll in the Artsakh military has reached over 500 as of October 12. Azerbaijani authorities have not released details on their military casualties. The war has also taken its toll on civilians; the two sides have reported more than fifty civilians killed. On October 9, Armenian medical doctor VaheMeliksetyan, a lecturer at the Department of Clinical Pharmacology, lost his life on the battlefield while providing professional assistance to a wounded soldier.
“According to our preliminary estimates, some 50% of Karabakh’s population and 90% of women and children — some 70,000 to 75,000 people — have been displaced,” the region’s rights ombudsman Artak Beglaryan told the AFP news agency.
The organization Save the Children International also reported on October 9 that “Hostels, schools and kindergartens in some Armenian cities and villages are overcrowded after opening their doors to shelter people fleeing the violence, mainly women and children… Many children arriving are separated from their parents, as they were sent to stay with extended family or friends on the Armenian side of the border,” Save the Children said.
Turkish and Azeri attacks against Armenians for the purpose of conquering the region are unjustified. Artsakh, whose population is 95 percent Armenian, is peaceful and has been an integral part of historic Armenia for millennia. It has never been part of an independent Azerbaijan. Artsakh fell under the rule of various conquerors throughout the centuries, but mostly preserved its semi-independent status as an Armenian entity.
Today the region is often referred to as “disputed” because Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin granted it to Soviet Azerbaijan as an autonomous region in the early 1920s. During Soviet rule, the majority of the population of Artsakh peacefully and repeatedly requested reunification with Armenia. The Azerbaijani government, however, responded by violence not only in Artsakh, but throughout the whole Azerbaijan. It committed pogroms and mass killings against Armenians in the Azerbaijani cities of Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad, Shamkhor, and Mingechaur, among others.
On September 2, 1991, Artsakh finally announced its independence through the same legal basis as did Azerbaijan, Armenia and all other former Soviet republics. This announcement was based on the principles of international law and the Constitution of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan, however, once again resorted to violence. The Artsakh-Azerbaijan war (1991-1994) brought complete or partial destruction on Armenian villages and towns in Artsakh.
Another violent attack against the region occurred in April 2016 and is known as the Four-Day War. During this conflict, Azerbaijan launched a full-blown military attack on Artsakh and reportedly committed war crimes. In the village of Talysh, for instance, an elderly Armenian couple was found shot in their home on April 3, 2016 and their corpses were mutilated.
The European Armenian Federation for Justice and Democracy (EAFJD) noted:
“During April, 2016 the Azerbaijani armed forces committed a number of war crimes against the population of Artsakh including torture, execution and mutilation of bodies and beheadings. The ISIS style war crimes were committed by the regiments of the Azerbaijani armed forces that established control over the soldiers and civilians including children, elderly people. Their murders were executions merely for being Armenian which is the result of the Armenophobic policy implemented and promoted by president Aliyev’s administration over the decade in Azerbaijan.”
Four years later, the people and cultural heritage of Artsakh are again under fire.
Yet those attacks are nothing new. Turks and Azeris have systematically engaged in destructive violence against Armenian cultural heritage. A lengthy report entitled “A Regime Conceals Its Erasure of Indigenous Armenian Culture” was published in the art journal Hyperallergic in 2019 and documented “Azerbaijan’s recent destruction of 89 medieval churches, 5,840 intricate cross-stones, and 22,000 tombstones.”
“Oil-rich Azerbaijan’s annihilation of Nakhichevan’s Armenian past makes it worse than ISIS, yet UNESCO and most Westerners have looked away,” the scholar Argam Ayvazyan said. ISIS-demolished sites like Palmyra can be renovated, Ayvazyan argued, but “all that remain of Nakhichevan’s Armenian churches and cross-stones that survived earthquakes, caliphs, Tamerlane, and Stalin are my photographs.”
Destruction of Armenian cultural heritage is a long-held Turkish tradition that culminated during the 1913-23 Christian genocide targeting Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. Professor Peter Balakian notes:
“The Armenian case discloses a range of cultural destruction. Statistics convey not only the mass killing and forced deportations, but also the government and its local collaborators’ destruction or silencing specifically of 1) cultural property; 2) cultural producers (e.g., intellectuals and artists); 3) belief and value systems; and 4) historical lands and corresponding identifications with them.
“Statistics compiled by the Armenian Patriarch Ormanian in Constantinople in 1912–1913 (at the request of the Ottoman government) indicated that there were 2,538 Armenian churches on Ottoman territory. During the genocide all but a handful were plundered, appropriated, burnt, demolished, or entirely razed. The same census also documented at least 1,996 Armenian schools and 451 monasteries, almost all of which were later destroyed. The CUP’s [the Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress] destruction of churches and schools furthered the eradication of the living presence of Armenian history throughout Turkey.”
The Artsakh-Azerbaijan dispute should thus be seen in the historical context of wider policies of Azerbaijan and Turkey regarding Armenians. Throughout history, these two nations have failed to recognize the Armenian right to self-determination and often resorted to murderous violence.
The ongoing problem in the South Caucasus is much larger than land. It is mostly caused by obsessive Turkish-Azeri hatred against Armenians, and a delusional belief that historically Armenian lands are not Armenian, and that these lands should instead belong to Muslim Azeris or Turks.
An effective way to stop the violence and destruction is for the world to officially recognize the Artsakh Republic, for whose protection the indigenous Armenians have made so much sacrifice throughout history.