‘Another genocide’: Armenians in East Texas decry overseas conflict

Nov 3 2023

Laura Agajanian Grimes’ great-grandparents came to America to escape the Armenian genocide in the early 1900s. Catherine James’ great grandfather nearly froze to death after Ottoman Empire soldiers buried him in snow during one of their massacres against Armenians.

Those two East Texas women still pass down the stories of what their Armenian ancestors endured. And more than 100 years after the last Armenian genocide ended, they say they’ve watched another one unfold: the months-long blockade and subsequent military invasion of Artsakh, also called Nagorno-Karabakh, a small region within the borders of Azerbaijan.

The tiny swath of land historically was part of Armenia, and more than 100,000 native Armenians have called it home for centuries. But in September, most of them hurriedly fled their ancestral homes following an Azerbaijani military offensive that led to the dissolution of independent government there.

Agajanian Grimes, who lives in Mineola, and James, who lives in Tyler, are half a world away. But both say they’re pained by what’s happening in the region.

“To intentionally starve people by cutting off their means of getting food and water and needed supplies, children getting starved to death — it’s inhumane,” James said. “I would liken it to another genocide.”

The September military offensive in the Artsakh region, better known by its Azerbaijani name of Nagorno-Karabakh, was the latest chapter in a book-long history of conflict with religious ties.

Armenia once was among the largest empires in the world, but through centuries of war, it’s been reduced to a state 1/23rd the size of Texas. In 301 A.D., it became the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Its neighbor, Azerbaijan, is predominantly Muslim.

Beginning in the 1300s, the Turkish Muslim-run Ottoman Empire was among the powers that sought to destroy Armenia. The Ottoman Empire was responsible for the Armenian genocide, carrying out several massacres and starvation campaigns between the late 1800s and early 1920s, according to the Armenian National Institute. Up to 1.5 million Armenians died.

The Soviet Union ruled the region following the Ottoman Empire’s fall, but conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has flared up several times since the Soviet Union collapsed. Much of it has been centered around control of Artsakh, or Nagorno-Karabakh, which both Armenians and Azerbaijanis claim as their own.

Armenians typically call the region Artsakh, while Azerbaijanis typically call the region Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Armenians now like to call it Artsakh,” Agajanian James said. “Armenians are the indigenous people there. They have been living there since the B.C. era, before Azerbaijan was even a country.”

Artsakh was somewhat independent of Azerbaijan for years. However, Azerbaijan imposed “ethno-religious discrimination, economic mistreatment and intentional demographic abuse, in an attempt to eliminate its Armenian Christian majority and replace it with Azerbaijani Muslim settlers,” according to the office of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

“The people there also declared their own independence, similar to the United States,” Agajanian Grimes said. “But unlike the United States, they didn’t have the power, strength or an ally to help them maintain that independence.”

The latest conflict began in late 2022, when Azerbaijani forces blockaded Artsakh, cutting off food, electricity, water and other supplies.

“They were slowly sucking the life out of people in that region,” Agajanian Grimes said. “They wouldn’t let people come in or go out. The people there were slowly starving to death. Women were having miscarriages because they were severely malnourished. People were standing in line for hours for bread. A couple people did starve to death. It was just a catastrophe.”

Then came this September’s military offensive. Armenians fled Artsakh and rushed to Armenia proper, which now is overwhelmed with refugees, according to reporting from NPR and other news outlets.

While Azerbaijan didn’t force Armenians living in Artsakh to flee, “the general understanding is, if you stay, you’re probably not going to make it,” Agajanian Grimes said.

As a result of the attack, the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh will dissolve in January, according to reporting by Reuters.

Hundreds of Armenians have been injured or killed either during the military offensive or while trying to escape the region, according to reports from ABC News and the Associated Press.

“This is not the first rodeo that Armenia has dealt with these types of wars,” James said.

Agajanian Grimes and James are members of what’s commonly referred to as the "Armenian diaspora," the name given to the masses of people who exited the region as a result of the Armenian genocide of the early 1900s. The term also applies to their descendants living abroad.

Agajanian Grimes’ family has lived in California since her great-grandparents arrived there from Armenia. They learned English and started a sanitation company.

During her childhood, Agajanian Grimes’ parents didn’t teach her about the most gruesome details of the genocide. She learned more about the atrocities during high school and college.

“Our people are very strong to have survived this, to have persevered,” she said. “It made me very proud of that history and of the people who came before me to settle in this great country and to make a life for themselves and to be successful so that I can be part of both heritages.”

Agajanian Grimes moved to Mineola with her husband about a year ago. While perhaps only a few people with Armenian heritage are scattered across East Texas, Dallas is home to a sizable number, she said.

James and her husband moved from California to Tyler about two years ago. She visited Armenia and Artsakh in 2018 and toured some of the region’s most historical places — many of which, she said, have been destroyed by enemy attacks.

Politico reported Oct. 25 that a peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan could be reached in the near future. However, many refugees from the Artsakh region — who left behind their homes, businesses and more — likely won’t be able to return, according to reporting by the Voice of America news outlet.

The September attack is another step in Azerbaijan’s plan to assert dominance in the region and claim territory that once belonged to the Ottoman Empire, James said. Meanwhile, Armenians only want the years-long conflict with Azerbaijan to end.

“These people have done nothing. They’re innocent people,” James said of Armenians. “And here come these powerhouse bullies, coming in just to be bullies.”

For Agajanian Grimes, watching the destruction of native Armenian lands is emotionally challenging.

“There’s a piece of your heart that’s over there, and it’s breaking for them, and you know your hands are tied, what all you can do for them being here in America,” Agajanian Grimes said. James said she shares the same sentiment.

Armenians, Agajanian Grimes said, are hoping and praying that they can live in peace in their homeland.

“Armenians really just have to lean into trusting God,” she said. “God has power over this situation more than anything does.”

Jordan Green is a Report for America corps member covering underserved communities for the News-Journal. Reach him at [email protected]. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support this kind of journalism.


Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS