Dr. Tom Catena in 2017 was awarded the Aurora Prize, established to honor the memory of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Over 100 years later, Catena is warning that the world might be witnessing another genocide against Armenians – this time taking place in the small enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
According to a report by a founding prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, Armenia’s neighbor, Azerbaijan, on June 15 completely sealed off the Lachin Corridor, the sole route into and out of the landlocked territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. “Since then, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Russian peacekeeping forces have been banned from delivering humanitarian relief,” Moreno wrote.
Known for his work in Sudan, where he is medical director of Mother of Mercy Hospital in the Nuba Mountains, Dr. Catena is calling on parties in a regional dispute to open a humanitarian corridor to avoid potential mass starvation.
A native New Yorker, Catena spoke with Aleteia from his home in Sudan.
Could you explain what’s going on in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh?
Dr. Tom Catena: The history is complicated. This area has been ethnic Armenian for 2,000 years. It was always that way until the time of the Soviet Union, when they kind of created this Republic of Azerbaijan.
In ancient times Armenia was a big empire. Later, it was part of the Ottoman Empire. It’s had its day as an empire and then as part of other empires since then. It was kind of independent, then it was kind of a Soviet Republic during the time of the Soviet Union.
And then its neighbor Azerbaijan was created as a country in the 1920s as the Republic of Azerbaijan. And this territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, my understanding is that [Soviet dictator Joseph] Stalin gave Azerbaijan jurisdiction over that area. So is was ethnic Armenian, but the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan had jurisdiction over it, as Azeri people moved into that area.
Now fast forward to 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. They had a referendum in Nagorno-Karabakh, and they said, “No. We don’t want to be part of Azerbeijan. We want to be part of Armenia.’ The Azeris said, “No, we can’t do that.”
So fighting breaks out. Armenia supports the Armenian population in Artsakh [the Armenian name for Nagorno-Karabakh]. They fight for those areas and they win, so they capture some Azeri territory, and they get back Nagorno-Karabakh.
What year was that?
Dr. Catena: That was around 1993. Armenia won. They get the territory, and since that time it’s been almost like a semi-autonomous state. It’s affiliated with Armenia but it’s not really part of Armenia. They have their own president, their own parliament, but very close ties to Armenia. It’s almost kind of like an Armenian state. So that’s always been a bone of contention with Azerbaijan; they’re very bitter about this thing.
So now you come up to 2020, and fighting breaks out again. There’s always been cross-border [hostilities] – snipers taking shots at each other. So in 2020, war breaks out again, and now Azerbaijan has the backing of Turkey, and they defeat Armenia. They’re fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, and they’re more or less victorious. They sign a ceasefire. Russia gets involved, and Armenia cedes the territory that they had gained in the previous war in the 1990s.
Now it’s kind of at a standstill. They still have most of the territory, but this other stuff they had gained in the 1990s fight goes back to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is still kind of agitating, saying this part needs to be part of Azerbaijan. There’s always been a lot of tension back and forth. Russia got involved, but now Russia’s obviously occupied with Ukraine.
So the last thing that happened was in December 2022. There was a blockade of this place called the Lachin Corridor. I’ve been to Artsakh with my wife back in 2019. There’s this one paved road that goes from Armenia into Artsakh. Azerbaijan blockaded that road in 2022.
Dr. Catena: They had excuses: They said it was blockaded because there were iPhones and minerals being smuggled out of Nagorno-Karabakh. They had to do it for that reason. I mean, it was all a ruse. I think they saw their chance that Russia is now going to protect them. There were Russian peacekeepers there. I think some stuff was allowed through, you know, some Red Cross stuff, but now it’s a total blockade: food, sick people getting in and out – it can’t happen. And apparently there are a fair amount of people that are at risk for starvation because there’s nothing going on. It’s a small isolated area. On the eastern border is Azerbaijan, on the western border is Armenia proper, and it has been blockaded at the Lachin Corridor.
What’s the situation like now?
Dr. Catena: The situation has gotten pretty critical, and there are 120,000 people that live there, and there are calls going out that people are going to die from starvation if something’s not done. So the question now is to at least open a humanitarian corridor, allow food and medicine in and wounded and sick people out to greater Armenia for care. And Azerbaijan has been refusing.
An International Criminal Court prosecutor named Luis Moreno Ocampo wrote an article arguing that what Ilham Aliyev, the dictator of Azerbaijan, is doing counts as genocide against these people in Artsakh. Now that word genocide gets tossed around a bit much, but Moreno gets into the definition of genocide and what it means and says that by denying food and medicine and all this stuff you’re putting people in the position for mass death.
What can other nations, particularly the US, do at this point to help the plight of these people?
Dr. Catena: I think you simply have to push these guys to open a humanitarian corridor. It can’t be that difficult to, say, stop the blockade, open a humanitarian corridor, allow food and medicine in, and we go back to start negotiating. Try to find a durable peace and stop this back and forth. It’s only 120,000 people, so it’s not a massive number, but they’re people, and it’s potential starvation. It’s a very isolated area. You can’t go to Azerbaijan to get things. To the south actually is another province that used to be part of Armenia; it’s been taken by Azerbaijan. They can’t travel there. Even to the north is Azerbaijan. The only way out is traveling west into Armenia. And that’s cut off.
So I think the UN Security Council has the ability to kind of force it. It can’t take that much to do it. I mean, what’s the problem? I don’t see a big deal.
Why is someone from upstate New York who’s been working in Sudan for half his life taking such an interest in Armenia?
Dr. Catena: It really started with th Aurora Prize, which I received in 2017. It’s a prize that was started by three Armenians. One of the main criteria for the prize was somebody who kind of risks their life to help other people. They were doing it to honor their ancestors who were helped by strangers during the Armenian genocide. They said they’re alive today because “these people helped my grandfather, great grandfather, whatever, who survived during this time. So I want to start a prize to honor humanitarians.” The first year it was supposed to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide, which went from around 1915 to 1923. So a hundred years on, they wanted to give the prize for these eight years, and after that they would see how things would go.
So anyway, I went there to receive the prize in 2017, and then went back for their subsequent ceremonies. And then in 2018 they wanted me to be the chairman of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, which is a secular humanitarian project. The main involvement is sponsoring the Aurora Humanitarian Prize, helping their projects out – that’s kind of the main involvement.
I spent a total of six months outside of Nuba, Sudan, between 2018-2019: part of the time was in Armenia, part of the time was in Europe, part of the time was in the US, going around meeting people and talking about this humanitarian initiative.
Have you come to a new appreciation of Armenian history and culture?
Dr. Catena: Armenia is a very unique country. It’s the first Christian Republic, even before Constantine. Armenia became a Christian nation, I think, in 301 AD. So it’s the oldest Christian nation, and it’s got Turks to the left, Turks to the right. Azeris are Turkic-speaking people, and this tiny country is in between. Iran is to the South, and Georgia is to the north. So they’re kind of in the way of what they call a pan-Turkic region. Turkey really wants to eliminate these people, and they’re the little guy who’s trying to survive next to two big bullies that have big armies and other weapons.
Azerbaijan is a pretty wealthy country. They’ve got oil reserves, and now with Russia being sanctioned, I’m sure people are lining up to Azerbaijan hoping to tap into their oil reserves. So Azerbaijan obviously would have a lot more pull with, say, Western nations and everybody else because they have something to offer. Armenia is kind of just there. They don’t have a lot of resources.
When you were in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, did you get a look at how the Church is and how it’s operating?
Dr. Catena: I did, yeah. It’s got ancient monasteries there – I mean absolutely beautiful monasteries. It’s got a town called Shushi, which has a very old monastery. And now, actually, Shushi is in the hands of the Azeris.
They have something called khachkars, Armenian crosses that are very unique to Armenian Christianity. And they’re all over the place in Armenia. And what the Azeris did is they would come into this territory – and these khachkars had been there for hundreds and hundreds of years – and they would just destroy the place, destroy the monasteries, destroy the khachkars and just lay waste to the place – a kind of cultural genocide.
Azerbaijan is an Islamic country. They’re not looked upon as Islamic fundamentalists, but it’s an Islamic country like Turkey.
Also, the Church suffered a lot under communism; they went through 70 years under communist rule, where the Church was outlawed. It’s slowly coming back. People are coming back to the faith, but it’s slow.
It’s an apostolic Church. St. Bartholomew, who was martyred in Armenia [and whose feast is on August 24], founded that Church. So it’s a very old history of Christianity there. It’s its own Church – one small country has its own Church. And they can trace that back 2,000 years. And it’s got a unique culture and a unique liturgy – really beautiful liturgies.