What Happened in Nagorno-Karabakh was Ethnic Cleansing, not a Voluntary Exodus of Armenians

Tens of thousands of cars lined up along the Lachin corridor, leaving Artsakh for Armenia proper on Sep. 25, following Azerbaijan’s invasion of the ethnic Armenian enclave. ‌ Photo Courtesy of David Ghahramanyan (Reuters)

While most of the world’s eyes remain fixed on Israel’s assault on Gaza, another humanitarian crisis in the Southern Caucasus has gone unnoticed, despite the fact that the U.S. arms trade and its regional allies have been deeply implicated in it. Over 100,500 Armenian refugees continue to languish in Armenia’s southern Syunik province, having been displaced from their homeland, Artsakh, in September 2023. On Oct. 11, 2024 at Parrish Porch, I and a group of Swarthmore students of Armenian descent co-organized a vigil for the displaced. While it was heartwarming to see it attended by various Swarthmore faculty members, students, and staff, who showed up in solidarity with the Armenian cause, and participated in fundraising efforts for the displaced, I am still shocked at the overall lack of awareness on this issue. Many of the attendees had only learned of the plight of Artsakhci Armenians at the vigil, and I guarantee that the majority of those reading this article are just learning now. 

For those who missed the news, on Sept. 19, 2023, Azerbaijan launched a large-scale military attack on the Armenian self-administration in Nagorno-Karabakh (known indigenously as the Republic of Artsakh). The invasion came after a nine-month long Azerbaijani state-sponsored blockade of the autonomous republic, done under the cynical guise of an “eco-protest.” The blockade caused a humanitarian crisis, prompting numerous human rights organizations and genocide watchdogs to issue alerts that the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh was under grave threat of ethnic cleansing and/or genocide. The blockade caused a scarcity and subsequent rationing of food, medical supplies, gas, electricity, and other essential utilities to its population of roughly 120,000. It cut off the only functioning road, Lachin, that connected Artsakh to the rest of the world, effectively creating an open-air prison. The lack of medical supplies postponed hundreds of essential medical operations and caused the death of multiple civilians due to both starvation and lack of medical care (including a patient who was denied transport to Armenia proper for medical care, two children, and a mother with her unborn child). It caused a depletion of the region’s water reservoirs, the closure of schools, as well as over 11,000 workers laid off in the private sector. 

Within just 48 hours of the invasion, launched on an already traumatized and starving populace, over 200 people were killed, including both soldiers and civilians, with thousands more displaced. The exact human cost of the invasion was difficult to estimate since the ensuing bombing campaign caused massive electricity and internet blackouts, as well as severe disruptions to transportation across the region. The Red Cross also reported hundreds of missing persons in the ensuing displacement crisis. The invasion also caused the explosion of a fuel depot in the besieged region’s capital city of Stepanakert, which caused another 170 deaths and hundreds more injured, in addition to dozens missing. Hospitals in Stepanakert at the time, depleted of supplies and staff thanks to the suffocating blockade and military invasion, were unable to handle the sheer number and severity of injuries as a result of the explosion. 

Various pieces of photographic and video evidence, documented by journalists on the ground, as well as eyewitness accounts indicate Azerbaijan’s complicity in the direct targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. Most concerning were reports from the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention detailing stories of war crimes, massacres, and the attempted separation of older boys and men from women and children. The Lemkin Institute also documented pro-Azerbaijani military telegram channels posting bounties with images of reportedly missing Armenian civilians. One such post in response to such a post read “Find them… cut them into pieces and give them to the dogs for dinner.” Independent monitors have not had access to rural areas of Artsakh, so the reports of massacres, particularly in certain northern villages, were difficult to verify. After consolidating its control over the territory, Azerbaijan horrifically renamed one of the streets in Stepanakert “Enver Pasha Street.” Enver Pasha was one of the primary architects of the Armenian genocide in 1915, displaying once again the consequences of history unrecognized and denied. Families testified to leaving their homes just minutes before they were shelled by the Azerbaijani military. From Sept. 24 to Oct. 2nd, more than 100,500 civilians fled to the borders of Armenia proper under these threats of violence.

The use of illegal force by the Azerbaijani military compelled the regional government’s surrender and dismantled Artsakh’s democratic institutions. Artsakh’s autonomous government officially dissolved in January 2024, as Armenians across the world lament the loss of a piece of land they have continuously inhabited for thousands of years.

One of the mainstream press’s most pernicious narratives in covering this issue was the tendency to omit and distort the legitimate threats of violence under which Armenians had fled. Reports often decontextualized Azerbaijan’s invasion, failing to mention Azerbaijan’s blockade. Outlets also failed to give context to Armenian indigeneity and continuous inhabitance in Nagorno-Karabakh, despite its unrecognized status. To make matters worse, the United Nations’ (UN) special mission to Nagorno-Karabakh on Oct. 2, noted the “sudden” exodus of Armenians, but claimed they “saw no damage” to public infrastructure, and asserted that “no incidences of violence occurred against Armenian civilians.” These assertions are preposterous, given that various human rights organizations, journalists, open sources, and testimonies have documented the exact opposite. The conclusions of this UN special mission was repeated verbatim across mainstream media, without a sliver of scrutiny. 

What the catastrophe that befell the Armenians of Artsakh reflects, among other things, is a double standard in not just media reporting, but also the power structures that uphold the liberal world order. The UN’s special mission’s conclusion is not the first time that the UN has failed to intervene in a meaningful way in favor of an oppressed population.

In light of the horrific news coming out of Gaza, it is quite poignant that one of America’s closest allies in the region, Israel, is also Azerbaijan’s largest supplier of military aid, accounting for the source of almost 70% of Azerbaijan’s armaments. Azerbaijan in turn, is the source of around 40% of Israel’s oil imports. Both the governments of Turkey and Israel have supplied rockets, as well as high-tech drone weaponry and other forms of assistance in intelligence for Azerbaijan to carry out its military operations. Since both countries are allies of the United States, the US government is in a particular position to pressure these countries to stop their military exports to Azerbaijan, which it has so far failed to do. The United States has also been complicit in supplying arms to Azerbaijan in carrying out its military offensive, until finally the Senate voted to halt them this November, following pressure from Armenian-American organizations.

It is worth noting that Azerbaijan, along with one of its primary military and political supporters, Turkey, have both continued to explicitly deny the Armenian Genocide of 1915, during which as many as 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by The Young Turks regime under the Ottoman Empire during World War I. A group of 123 Turkish scholars and intellectuals also issued a joint statement on Sept. 22 warning the clear warning signs of genocide/ethnic cleansing that faced the Armenian population of Artsakh, despite the Turkish government’s official promotion of Armenian genocide denial and support for Azerbaijan’s military assault.

As such, multiple human rights organizations and genocide watchdogs such as Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention and Genocide Watch repeatedly assessed even before the invasion, that the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh during the blockade and military offensive were at serious risk of genocide and/or ethnic cleansing. 

The evidence presented by these groups is damning. Azerbaijan’s autocratic president, Ilham Aliyev, has ruled Azerbaijan for more than twenty years. His rule has been marred by assaults on the freedom of press, detention of political opponents and anti-war activists, oppression of minorities, and obstruction of the constitution to extend his terms in office. He even appointed his wife to serve as vice president in 2017.

But most notably, the Azerbaijani government has had a long history of promoting blatant Armenophobic practices, including open declarations of genocidal intent towards Armenians. Following the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan unveiled these Armenophobic practices to a new height, when a military trophy park was opened in Baku, showcasing the helmets of dead Armenian soldiers collected from the war, with wax mannequins of them meant to dehumanize them — a key prerequisite to genocide. The Azerbaijani government has also made outright genocidal statements against Armenians numerous times in the past and has sponsored the indoctrination of anti-Armenian sentiment in school curriculums. Dehumanization of Armenians is also highly present in media, TV shows, and even postage stamps in 2020, which accompanied an illustration showing a disinfection specialist standing over a map of Azerbaijan, fumigating the area of Nagorno-Karabakh, seemingly depicting Armenians as a parasite in need of eradication. The stamp was issued by Azermarka, which works under the country’s Ministry of Transport, Communication and High Technologies. The Azerbaijani government also has a long history of sponsoring the demolition and erasure of Armenian historical monuments, artifacts, and other cultural heritage under its control. As it stands, hundreds of Armenian heritage sites are at risk of destruction in Nagorno-Karabakh, some dating as far back as the fourth century, like the Amaras Monastery, established by St. Gregory the Illuminator, where the newly invented Armenian Alphabet was first taught to students.

The organizations cited these kinds of practices, along with noncompliance with the International Court of Justice’s orders to end the nine-month blockade of the region as evidence for their claims. Some of the groups even insisted that Azerbaijan’s invasion and crimes already constitute a form of genocide, given the nature of the blockade and the clear intention to systemically destroy in whole or in part, the Armenian population of Artsakh.

Russia, who acts as the primary power broker in the South Caucasus, deployed “peacekeepers” to patrol the Nagorno-Karabakh region after the second Artsakh War in 2020, during which Armenians lost control of most of the former autonomous republic to Azerbaijan. Russia’s role was to implement the ceasefire signed in November 2020, which halted the war. But despite its role in mediating the crisis, and having peacekeeping contingents on the ground, it has sat back and allowed both Azerbaijan’s blockade and subsequent military onslaught unhindered, making them also complicit.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also exacerbated the crisis facing the Armenians. As a result of the invasion, the European Union (EU) halted imports of Russian gas and imposed sanctions on Russia in coordination with the United States. In response to the new shortage in gas, the EU, in a display of moral hypocrisy, decided to undertake a mission to “diversify” the EU’s gas sources and signed multiple agreements with the oil-rich regime in Azerbaijan. In essence, the EU’s “moral” alternative for gas imports to one autocratic state, is another, equally autocratic state, with clear genocidal intentions against Armenians.

The most baffling part is that Russia, over the course of its invasion of Ukraine has attempted to evade U.S. and EU sanctions by selling gas to Azerbaijan, who in turn directly substitutes it at a higher price by reselling that gas through the Southern Gas Corridor to the EU and its allies. This means that not only has Azerbaijan profited from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the EU has also continued, ironically, buying gas from Russia, at even higher prices through Azerbaijan’s southern corridor. All of this as most EU countries are experiencing historic levels of inflation and gas/power prices that have doubled or tripled since the invasion.

Thus, this crisis also reflects moral hypocrisy on the part of Western countries, quick to condemn the actions of autocrats in many parts of the world, while ignoring the actions of others, if not actively empowering them through the lucrative gas and arms trade. Armenians, like many other groups across the world facing persecution and genocide, become collateral damage. And like everyone else, they seek peace, justice, and recognition of the past crimes committed against them, as well as the right to return to their homelands.

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