Guardians of the Land: Understanding the Genocide Against Armenians in Artsakh

Nov 7 2023


After months of blockade that deprived the predominantly Armenian population of Artsakh of food, medicine, and fuel for eight months, Azerbaijan launched its most recent military incursion 49 days ago. In the last month, 120,000 Armenians have been forced to flee their homes and homelands to escape a second genocide.

The West Asian country of Armenia is the mountainous homeland to one of the longest continuous civilizations on Earth. Following the Miocene epoch around five million years ago, volcanic and tectonic activity birthed high massifs and expansive valleys. Today, the variable topography holds both deserts and myceliated broadleaf forests of oak, beech, and hornbeam. Persian leopards stalk the mountain steppes and arid shrublands of oleander, juniper and yew. Fruit trees—especially pomegranate, apricot, and grape—sugar the landscape. 


The landscape is also characterized by a rich Armenian tradition of stonework and architecture, particularly expressed through the construction of elaborate sites of worship, some persisting since the 13th century. Volcanic tuff and basalt, materials derived from the region’s active geological history, are formed into domed basilica and radially segmented cupolas. Pointed domes have been rendered as an ode to the sacred mountain, Ararat, and many mesopotamic botanicals are chiseled into the frescoes that adorn the inner sancta. Sacred carved effigies, called khachkars, are found dating as early as the 9th century. Though Armenia was the first country to formally adopt Christianity, in 301 A.D., the Zoroastrian and otherwise pagan devotion to the Earth is an enduring element of Armenian culture.  


There is another component to these ancient constructions, one that is easily overlooked: lichens. Though they cover between 7% and 8% of terrestrial surface area, lichens often go unregistered to the human eye—their quiet ubiquity and often gentle color palettes are the habitat as much as they are themselves in the habitat. Lichens are slow growing and long living and can reveal complex stories about the landscapes around us—about the air, the rain, the lime content of stone, and the longevity of enduring architecture. They are a symbiosis of fungus and algae, of sun and stone; a symbiosis of domed basalt, mountain exaltation, and biological companionship. They adorn these sacred sites dutifully, sometimes the few surviving witnesses to the destructive acts that have shaped the history of Armenia.


The Armenian Genocide, orchestrated by the Ottoman Turks (which later morphed into the present day nation state of Turkey), reached a horrific crescendo between 1915 and 1923. About 1.5 million Armenian people were murdered, and many thousands more exiled into Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Russia, and the U.S. Less than 400,000 Armenians survived and remained within Armenia, and the present population in Armenia hovers under three million, with a GDP about the size of Vermont’s. As an American descendent of refugees of this genocide, my relationship to Armenia is one of exile, fragmentation, and longing. But with more than half of the world’s Armenian population living in diaspora, this is a common Armenian experience.

[Lichens] adorn these sacred sites dutifully, sometimes the few surviving witnesses to the destructive acts that have shaped the history of Armenia.

Turkey has never been held to account for the genocide, and genocide denialism is the norm in Turkish society. To speak publicly against the violences committed against not only the Armenians but also the Assyrians, Yezidis, Pontiac Greeks, and, more recently, the Kurds, is to risk assassination or imprisonment in Turkey. The relatively few people in the west who are familiar with the Armenian genocide often regard it as a fixed historical date, some geographically and temporally distant tragedy, an event as visceral and urgent as a grainy photograph. Not only does this fail to account for the world-shifting properties that ripple out generationally, chattering continuously interstitially in our bodies—psychological traumas in family units, poverty, land and language loss, cultural assimilation—but the genocidal agenda of Turkey and its vassal state Azerbaijan is an ongoing project. 


[“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” -Adolf Hitler, 1939]


In the century since the height of violence, the cartographies of West Asia and the Caucasus have shifted considerably. Most notably with the emergence of the Soviet Union which enveloped large swaths of West and Central Asia, and then again with its dissolution. What Armenian homelands were already reduced by Turkish colonization became further asphyxiated when, in 1923, Joseph Stalin administered the Armenian region of Artsakh (named Nagorno-Karabakh by Stalin) to the fledgling nation state of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan immediately sought to diminish the indigenous Armenian majority through settlements, creating conflict. Armenians declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1988, forming instead the democratic Republic of Artsakh, a sister republic to Armenia proper. Since the late 1980s, the indigenous Armenian majority population has endeavored to protect their right to self-determination, often through armed struggle in the face of Azerbaijan’s repeated attempts at invasion.


Embittered by his failed colonial aspirations to create a pan-Turkic state, Azerbaijan’s kleptocratic president Ilham Aliyev has stoked genocidal, anti-Armenian sentiment in his discontented and heavily repressed populace for decades. This has led to numerous bloody pogroms of the minority Armenian populations within Azerbaijani borders, and ethnic Armenians, no matter their national citizenship, are barred from entering Azerbaijan. Any of the legitimate grievances the Azerbaijani population experiences is scapegoated onto Armenians, as Aliyev fattens his assets and oligarchical power with oil and mining industries. As is true with most genocidal projects, material resources, land, and power are behind the ambition, but the foot soldiers are mobilized psychologically through the construction of a maligned other.


[“Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, right? You should be able to understand us.” -Mayor of Baku, Azerbaijan, to German delegation, 2005]


In the fall of 2020, this long-stewing animosity boiled over, and Azerbaijan launched a devastating offensive on the Armenians of Artsakh. With 70% of their weapons supplied from Israel, and with the full backing of Turkey, Azerbaijan laid siege to Artsakh with high-tech drones, internationally banned cluster munitions, and white phosphorus, all against Armenia’s largely Soviet-era weaponry. They bombed civilian centers indiscriminately, including a hospital maternity ward. They took both civilian and military hostages and mutilated their bodies, sometimes forcing them to say “Artsakh is Azerbaijan!” and other brutal and degrading acts. They burned 1,815 hectares of forest—to which Armenians are deeply connected—and desecrated burial grounds and holy sites


For 44 days Armenians resisted vigorously, but ultimately about 4,000 Armenians and 3,000 Azerbaijanis were killed before Azerbaijan forced a ceasefire and the military surrender of the Republic of Artsakh. Collectively, Azerbaijan and their military allies of Turkey and Israel outnumber Armenians almost 100:1. And without vast natural resources or capital, western nations were unwilling to contort themselves into supporting a miniscule ethnic minority group in perennially destabilized West Asia. Most people did not notice, and those who noticed mostly did not act.

I think of colonized and violently displaced people the world over, how not only do we miss the land (even when we have been born into exile), but the land misses us in return.

Following Azerbaijan’s “successful” colonization of Artsakh, Aliyev built a victory park in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, replete with the helmets of dead Armenian resistance fighters, and life-sized caricatures of Armenian soldiers for Azerbaijani children to play with. Turkish President Recep Erdoğan attended a military parade where he proclaimed, “May the soul of Enver Pasha be blessed.”  Enver Pasha is a primary architect of the Armenian Genocide. 


[“We will continue to fulfill the mission our grandfathers have carried out for centuries in the Caucasus” – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 2022]


For two years Artsakh existed in limbo. While tens of thousands fled the war, another 120,000 or so Armenians remained, unwilling to leave their homes, their ancestral lands. Azerbaijan made the hollow offer of assimilation into their society, but Armenians rightfully recognize that assimilation is a death sentence. In December of 2022, Azerbaijan grew impatient with the stubbornness of Artsakhis, perhaps having underestimated the depth of their indigenous relationship to place, something colonizers the world over fail to grasp. They initiated a blockade on Artsakh, cutting the enclave off from the rest of the world, depriving the population of food, medicine, and fuel for eight months. Once the population was sufficiently weakened and desperate, Azerbaijan launched its most recent military incursion on September 19, 2023. 


The majority of the population of Artsakh—some 100,000 people—fled in a matter of days into Armenia proper and are now living in makeshift refugee shelters. Officially, the Republic of Artsakh will cease to exist on January 1st, 2024. As I write this, Azerbaijani settlers are ransacking Armenian homes, drinking their wine, and burning their family photographs, digging up graves, and sandblasting ancient Armenian inscriptions in the stonework. Aliyev posed with a pomegranate tree in the de-populated city of Martakert, a particularly painful symbol given that an Armenian resident and civilian, Aram Tepnants, had been shot by an Azeribaijani sniper while tending to his pomegranate trees. On October 31st, 2023 The Lemkin Institute for Genocide prevention just released a “Red Flag Alert,” stating a high risk for genocide in Armenia. Emboldened by the world’s limp reaction, Azerbaijan continues to threaten more violence. He calls the entirety of Armenia “Western Azerbaijan.”


I think of the now landscape of Artsakh, totally devoid of Armenian inhabitants for the first time in perhaps 5,000 years. What do the companion species feel? What do lichens make of this great emptying? Will they keep witnessing just the same? I like to think of each lichen on these holy sites—trees and stone alike—as nazar, the blue eye-like amulets that protect you from չար աչք (char akht or “evil eyes”). I think of them quietly witnessing, warding, documenting these changes in their tissues. I think of colonized and violently displaced people the world over, how not only do we miss the land (even when we have been born into exile), but the land misses us in return. We are our mountains.