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'The people who are dying were born in 2002, 2003, why are they at war?'

Irish-Armenians are calling for the international community to intervene as deadly fighting continues in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Vahe Sasunts
Vahe Sasunts

IRISH-ARMENIANS ARE calling for the international community to intervene as deadly fighting continues in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Close to 200 people have been killed and many others injured since fighting erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan last weekend.

The landlocked region Nagorno-Karabakh, which is also known as Nagorny Karabakh or Artsakh, has been at the centre of a decades-long dispute between the two ex-Soviet republics.

Soviet authorities merged the predominantly ethnic Armenian territory with Azerbaijan in 1921. After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenian separatists reclaimed the region in a move supported by Armenian authorities.

An ensuing war left 30,000 people dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Despite a ceasefire mediated in 1994 by Russia, the United States and France – the so-called Minsk Group, peace negotiations have stalled and fighting erupts frequently.

The clashes during the week are the worst in the region since 2016, when over 100 people were killed.

Both Armenia, a majority-Christian country, and Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country, have accused each other of initiating the recent hostilities, but the fighting appears to be driven by an attempt by Azerbaijani forces to recapture the region.

‘What hurts me the most is to see my mam crying’

Vahe Sasunts, a 23-year-old Irish-Armenian who lives in Kildare, said he and his family are worried for relatives in Armenia.

Vahe’s parents, Tigran and Janna, left Armenia in the mid-1990s and his mother is originally from Nagorno-Karabakh.

Location_Nagorno-Karabakh2 Map of Nagorno-Karabakh. Source: Wikimedia

His family have been unable to contact some of their relatives since last Sunday. Vahe said a number of his cousins and uncles are in the army reserves and could be called upon to fight.

“Since Sunday our family is just constantly checking the news, we feel like we’re in a CNN headquarters or something, just constantly glued to news to try to get any bit of information.

“Every day they’re releasing statements of who has passed away, we’re always just hoping that it’s not family members. Even if it’s not, you’re seeing names and you’re seeing dates of birth and it still hurts.

You’re seeing the dates of birth of people who are passing away and you’re seeing 2000, 2001, 2002, and you’re thinking, ‘Christ, I’ve a sister who was born in 2003′.

“What is someone who is basically sitting the Leaving Cert this year, what is someone of that age, that mindset, doing in trenches, in such dire circumstances?”

Vahe’s family have been able to contact some relatives, but not all of them and he is worried for their safety. They have visited Armenia several times in the past, and relatives have also come to Ireland. 

WhatsApp Image 2020-09-30 at 15.34.50 (1) Vahe's family pictured with his grandfather and aunt who visited Ireland from Armenia for Christmas 2018.

“I haven’t heard from them since Sunday. My uncles and cousins are a part of the reserves. It’s such a small population [in Armenia], they don’t look at your age, they don’t look at if you’re 17 or 60. You could be called upon [to fight].”

Vahe said it’s “terrifying” to watch the situation unfold, noting that it must be difficult for Azeris too, adding “they’re sending children to fight as well”.

Vahe, the eldest of five siblings born and raised in Ireland, said “everything I live and breathe is Irish” but it is “deeply painful” to watch what is happening in Armenia.

What hurts me the most is to see my mam crying and worried. You’re glued to the TV, to Facebook, to Instagram – any medium you can get information from. Some of the footage that I see is just horrendous, you don’t wish it on either side.

He said members of the Irish-Armenian community, which numbers a few hundred families, are discussing the issue among themselves and trying to find ways to help.

One man who has been living in Ireland for six years said his two brothers are currently fighting on the Armenian side, and his nephew was badly wounded during the week and is in a coma.

Turkey and Russia

Since the fighting started last Sunday, Turkey has declared its unconditional support to its ally Azerbaijan and provided military assistance.

Russia plays a complicated role in the conflict. Moscow provides Armenia with security guarantees, through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, but these do not extend to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.

Russia also supplies weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and is one of the co-chairs of the Minsk Group tasked with mediating the conflict. Russia this week was among those to call for a ceasefire.

Vahe pointed out that “Russian ideals don’t align with what happened two years ago” in Armenia. In the spring of 2018, mass street protests brought current Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to power. He has since cracked down on corruption and introduced popular judicial reforms.

“From 2018 onwards, it felt like Armenia was carving a path to prosperity, real democracy, real freedom of speech and freedom for people.

“It was really inspiring and to see, and to see what’s happening now across the border feels like 50 steps backwards, like we’ve gone back in time. We shouldn’t be at war in the 21st century,” Vahe told us.

armenia-azerbaijan A local resident holds his granddaughter in Hadrut province of Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday. Source: Karo Sahakyan/ArmGov PAN Photo via AP/PA Images

The US and several European countries have also called for an end to the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The UN Security Council on Tuesday called on both sides to “immediately stop fighting” and “return to meaningful negotiations without delay”.

The council members said they “strongly condemn the use of force and regret the loss of life and the toll on the civilian population”.

In a joint appeal on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron urged the two sides to return to negotiations aimed at resolving the longstanding dispute.

Armenia’s foreign ministry said yesterday that Yerevan “stands ready to engage” with France, Russia, and the United States “to re-establish a ceasefire regime”.

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev ruled out peace talks with Armenia earlier in the week.

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Oil and arms 

Vahe said the United Nations, NATO and others need to do more than call for a ceasefire. He wants them to help facilitate peace talks and consider peacekeeping missions in the region, similar to those in countries such as Lebanon.

“It feels like the international community isn’t doing their part.”

He said simply asking both sides to abide by a ceasefire won’t work and sends a signal that the “international community isn’t planning on doing any peacekeeping missions or getting involved any time soon”.

Vahe said part of the reluctance to get involved may be down to the fact countries don’t want to anger Turkey because of its vast military resources and strategic position in the region, or Azerbaijan because of its vast oil reserves.

armenia-azerbaijan Debris outside a house after Azerbaijani forces attacked the town of Martuni in Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday. Source: Areg Balayan/PAN Photo via AP/PA Images

“I don’t like this whole point the finger at each other and say ‘they started it, they started it’. It’s as clear as day that one side has the funds, has the mercenaries, has the artillery,” Vahe said.

He noted that “the biggest worry” for many Armenians is Turkey and Azerbaijan’s “huge” military budget.

“Turkey openly expresses their desire for pan-Turkism and see Armenia as being in the way of having their brother Azerbaijan connected with them.”

Genocide

The Armenian Genocide resulted in the killing of some 1.5 million ethnic Armenians in Turkey and adjoining regions by the Ottoman government between 1914 and 1923.

More than 30 countries have recognised the killings as genocide, though Ankara fiercely disputes the term.

Speaking of Turkey, Vahe said: “100 years ago they tried to do an ethnic cleansing and failed. And that led to our people being dispersed across the globe.

“We have relations across the globe, like Irish people have relations across the globe.”

He said this fact has started to “bite [Turkey] back” because Armenians “have a voice on the centre stage” with celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Cher, both of Armenian descent, raising issues faced by the country.

“People who have a huge following and are openly saying, you know, this is the reason why I’m here, this is the reason I’m abroad, it’s because of a genocide that happened that 100 years ago that to this day hasn’t been recognised,” Vahe said.

He believes most Armenian and Azeri people don’t want the fighting to continue, stating:  “I personally don’t think people want war, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interests to want war, but what governments want is a different thing.”

Contains reporting from © AFP 2020  

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Órla Ryan

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