The names Artsakh and Nagorno-Karabakh (as it’s referred to in many news headlines) don’t trip lightly off the tongues of most Canadians. And most would be hard-pressed to locate it on a map of the world. But when a lethal brew of long-simmering ethnic hostilities between Azerbaijanis and Armenians (with Turkey stirring the pot) boiled over into a full-scale war on September 27, it created a ripple of interest, if not a storm in the Canadian media.
It taught Canadians an important lesson on the inter-connectedness of the world. It pointed out that Canada has a role and responsibility in a war tearing apart some “obscure” part of the planet such as this mountainous region in the southern Caucasus bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Indeed, it laid bare some links between Canada and war in distant parts of the world.
Two ceasefire agreements between the two sides have not produced any lasting result or allayed fears that it would proliferate into a more deadly international conflict.
It’s important to bear in mind that Turkey supports Azerbaijan, and Russia has a defense agreement with Armenia, which is just across the border from the disputed territory.
The crisis, if not defused, has the potential to intensify as severely as the Syrian conflagration that began in 2011, and in which over 250,000 lost their lives, while another 11 million were displaced.
Canada’s domestic arms industry has been found to be complicit in deadly clashes such as the one in Artsakh— where the majority indigenous Armenian population has lived for millennia— and which Azerbaijan claims as its own.
An independent report titled “Killer Optics” by the peace research institute Project Ploughshares revealed that Canada was exporting military technology to Turkey, which has openly pledged its support of Azerbaijan in the conflict.
“Canada's export of WESCAM sensors to Turkey poses a substantial risk of facilitating human suffering, including violations of human rights and international humanitarian law," the report commented.
Minister of Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne took the judicious step of suspending the sale of Canadian drones to Turkey, Canada’s NATO ally. He also ordered an investigation into reports that Turkey has transferred these weapons to Azerbaijan where they are being used against its Armenian population.
“We welcome this decision as a step in the right direction,” Armenia’s ambassador to Canada Anahit Harutyunyan told Convivium in a telephone interview on October 7. “We raised our concerns with our colleagues in Global Affairs Canada. We are much in favour of the suspension because of the attacks on peaceful civilians.”
Amnesty International confirmed last week that Azerbaijan was using Israeli-made cluster bombs against civilians.
Canada and the international community have an additional reason to prevent the conflict from escalating into a prolonged international war: Artsakh or Nagorno-Karabakh is perilously close to the corridor for pipelines carrying oil and gas to world markets.
Apart from the political ramifications, the war has already exacted a heavy toll on human lives, with over 70,000 people-- more than half the population of Artsakh being displaced— and the number of casualties steadily rising each day.
From multicultural Canada’s point of view, there is also the impact on Canadians of Armenian descent with close personal ties to Artsakh and to Armenia.
The attack on civilians and the destruction of homes and non-military buildings is of profound concern to the Canadian-Armenian community (64,000 according to the 2016 census and 80,000 according to independent estimates.) Most are descendants of genocide survivors from countries such as Syria and Turkey.
For them, this conflict is reviving wounded memories of their collective past, and the ferocious Christian cleansing from Ottoman lands in 1915 that some countries, including Canada, later recognized as a genocide.
One of these Canadian-Armenians is Anna Grigoryan (not her real name since she requested anonymity for security reasons), who was born in Aleppo, Syria and now lives with her parents in Toronto.
For her, this latest assault on her people is an ongoing nightmare. “It’s an existential fight for our survival,” the 35-year-old early childhood educator said in an interview with Convivium.
“I can’t sleep. I was up at 3:00 am today checking all my social media platforms for news of what’s going on there,” she said, her voice dropping a with emotional exhaustion. “I worry constantly about family and friends in Artsakh and Armenia.
“Ten years ago, I went to Armenia on a program called “Birthright Armenia” and stayed with a host family in Shushi, a historic city in Artsakh,” she said. “Their home where I stayed has been bombed and they have fled over the border to Armenia.”
Another tragic incident that deeply saddens her is the bombing on October 8 that severely damaged the Ghazanchetsots (Holy Saviour) Cathedral, an iconic and beloved place of worship for the Armenian Apostolic Church in Shushi, the cultural capital of the region.
“It is another sign that they are determined to wipe out traces of our ancient Christian history and heritage,” Grigoryan said, referring to the historical fact that Armenians were among the world’s first people to adopt Christianity.
Her concern about another wave of Christian cleansing is shared by the worldwide Middle Eastern Christian diaspora, who view the developments in Artsakh with apprehension. They fear that it will lead to a possible repetition of the atrocities that their own people endured in the genocide of 1915, when millions of Armenians as well as Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and Greeks lost their lives.
“We (Middle Eastern Christians) stand in solidarity with Armenians, because Armenia welcomed and sheltered many of our people when we were driven out of our homelands by ISIS and other extremists” Nuri Kino, a Syriac Christian journalist with roots in Turkey told Convivium in an interview from his home in Sweden.
With relatives in Armenia, Kino has been closely monitoring the situation in Artsakh.
“We see this as yet another attack on indigenous Christians, yet another attempt to empty another land of its Christian population,” he added. “We also heard that Turkey is recruiting Syrian mercenaries to fight against ‘infidels.’ It was natural for us to help the Armenians. And the need out there is enormous— people left without food, medicine or housing.”
Three prominent UK parliamentarians agree that fears of genocide are not groundless. Lord David Alton, the internationally renowned human rights activist, has described the carnage as a continuation of the genocide. He has reported that his colleagues Baroness Caroline Cox and Baroness Kishwer Falkner have raised the issue in parliament.
In the meantime, the war continues, swelling the numbers of those killed, seriously wounded and displaced each day.
A Demand for Action (ADFA) the Sweden-based not-for-profit that organization Kino founded and leads— and which has been helping refugees in Beirut for years— has now directed its efforts to the emergency in Armenia. An initial fundraising drive raised enough money to buy 30 tons of groceries and hygiene products for 1000 of the neediest displaced families.
This was when Kino serendipitously connected with Haik Kazarian, a Canadian-Armenian from Montreal, on social media.
Kazarian is in Davtashen, outside Yeravan, Armenia’s capital on a similar mission— as a volunteer to raise funds from family and friends in Canada, and to help people fleeing war and terror, with nothing except the clothes on their backs.
“I was born here (in Armenia) and was lucky enough to have an uncle and aunt in Canada who managed to bring us to Canada when I was six,” Karazian told Convivium.
Kazarian and Luiza Consta Sargsyan, a Swedish-Armenian actress, have agreed to oversee the distribution of food and other essentials for ADFA. Other fundraising and relief efforts by individuals and organizations are underway as well. “Food is a finite resource and the need is enormous,” Kazarian said.
Secular Western democracies may be reluctant to acknowledge this conflict as the beginnings of yet another Christian genocide.
But in view of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the Caucasus— it is incumbent on corporate shareholders and others wielding the strings of power behind the curtains of the world stage— to set aside their dreams of profits from oil pipelines and arms sales and prevent the expulsion of another Christian community from their ancient homelands.
Political leaders of the Western world also have a collective responsibility to walk the diplomatic minefield, take decisive action to stop the hostilities, and to enable the people of Artsakh to decide their fate (to stay with Azerbaijan or to separate) in a peaceful, democratic manner.
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Media attention may have shifted away from Afghanistan, but suffering families and religious minorities remain in the country. On-the-ground relief efforts are in dire need of support, writes Susan Korah.