Starving Armenians and Very Tasty Cookies

When I was growing up in the Armenian community of Watertown, Massachusetts, in the sixties and seventies, attending a church founded by genocide survivors and their children, I found it confusing when I heard the parents of my non-Armenian schoolmates say to their children, “Eat your food. Think of the starving Armenians.” Who were these starving Armenians? I certainly wasn’t one of them. I had never been explicitly told about the genocide, although I knew that the Turks had done something terrible to my grandmother’s family, something we didn’t talk about because it was too upsetting for her.

I gradually learned about the systemic mass deportations and massacres of Armenians by Ottoman authorities that started in 1915 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people. This genocide caused the virtual destruction of Armenian community life across the empire. Images of the survivors, most of them orphaned children, who were on the verge of starvation in desert camps and orphanages inspired an international campaign spearheaded by Near East Relief and other charitable organizations to care for them. Photos of near skeletal Armenian children dressed in rags were circulated, giving rise to the expression that reverberated for decades, “starving Armenians.”

A group of people mills about in front of a lighted storefront in the hours before dawn. They are Armenians waiting in a breadline during a blockade.
Pre-dawn bread line in Stepanakert. Photo by Mary Astryan, August 2023.

Fast forward to 2023, and the specter of starving Armenians, this time 120,000 people trapped in an enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh, known to Armenians as Artsakh, has awakened trauma and triggered fear in Armenians around the world. In the past few weeks, the dire situation has started to receive mainstream media coverage as the alarm is sounded. Former International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo stated that Azerbaijan’s ongoing blockade of the Lachin Corridor, the only land route connecting Artsakh to the Republic of Armenia, which provides food, medicines, and other supplies to the local population, is tantamount to genocide. It is, at the very least, already a humanitarian catastrophe.

Azerbaijan is an oil and natural gas rich country ruled over by president and de facto dictator Ilham Aliyev, who has close alliances with Turkey and Israel, receiving weapons shipments and political support from both. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the complicated and long history of the struggle for control over Nagorno-Karabakh, but this 2020 interview with Berkeley history professor Stephan Astourian provides a short primer on the conflict.

Suffice it to say that in the post-Soviet 1990s, Armenia wrested control of the enclave from Azerbaijan, to whom it had been assigned by Stalin, and a 30-year frozen conflict ensued, ending in September 2020 with a military assault by Azerbaijan, during which three-quarters of the territory was taken. The remaining area, the city of Stepanakert and surrounding villages populated by ethnic Armenians, was put under the control of Russian peacekeepers, while a permanent settlement was pursued.

In December 2022, Azerbaijani agents posing as purported “environmental activists” blockaded the Lachin Corridor, under the pretense of protesting ore mining operations, but the effect of their actions was to strangle and starve the people of Artsakh, who are seen as an impediment to full Azerbaijani control over the area.

Genocidal incitement against Armenians is a regular feature of statements from Azerbaijani government officials and in its media. Destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh has proceeded under Azerbaijani rule, bolstered by the claim, disproven by international art historians, that Armenian churches and monasteries are actually “Albanian Christian” monuments. The Azerbaijanis have been removing Armenian inscriptions from medieval churches and razing cemeteries. It is not enough to attempt to destroy the Armenian presence in the area, but their history must also be wiped out.

In April 2021, when a “Military Trophies Park,” celebrating Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, was inaugurated in Azerbaijan’s capital city, the displays showed the helmets of fallen Armenian soldiers and life-sized dioramas featuring hook-nosed Armenians with distorted faces. When Aliyev said that the Armenians of Artsakh were welcome to stay as citizens of Azerbaijan under his rule, one Stepanakert resident said that locals feared “that they will slit our throats or drive us out of our homes.

It seems that Azerbaijan’s territorial ambitions are not restricted to Nagorno-Karabakh. Aliyev would like to grab land in Armenia’s Syunik province, desiring to create a “Zangezur Corridor” as a land bridge to Turkey, inspired by the Pan-Turkic motto “one nation, two states.” Aliyev has further asserted that Armenia is “Western Azerbaijan,” and has set his sights on Yerevan, the capital city of the Republic of Armenian. Armenia is in an increasingly precarious position, with Russian attention diverted from its nominal peacekeeping role in Artsakh by its disastrous war in Ukraine, Azerbaijan in close alliance with Turkey, and the European Union under Azerbaijan’s sway because of its vast energy resources.

With the European Union (EU) increasingly turning to Azerbaijan as an alternative source of natural gas in the face of sanctions against Russia, the Aliyev government is being portrayed as a friend and ally despite its terrible human rights record both at home and in Nagorno-Karabakh. In July 2022, the EU and Azerbaijan signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Partnership on Energy.” Whitewashing of Aliyev’s repressive dictatorship is facilitated by Azerbaijan’s lobbyists and trading partners, as evidenced by a short documentary aired on the BBC, “The Wonders of Azerbaijan,” which was sponsored by a foundation with ties to the ruling family and underwritten by British Petroleum.

This week I spoke over the telephone with Lusine Vanyan, a writer and lecturer at Artsakh State University who lives in Stepanakert and is completing a doctorate in phonology at Yerevan State University. In May 2023, Lusine wrote an essay about the devastating mental health effects of the blockade, and she told me that things are even worse three months later. Her mother was recently diagnosed with cancer, and there is no way for them to travel to Yerevan to consult with a medical specialist because the road is blockaded, there is no fuel, and transportation is close to impossible.

Not even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is currently able to facilitate transfer of patients and humanitarian goods. (Recently, when the ICRC was moving a patient from Stepanakert to Yerevan for treatment, the patient was arrested by Azerbaijani forces in violation of international humanitarian law.) Lucine told me that local clinics are running out of supplies for medical procedures, and basic medications are almost gone. On the Armenian side of the Lachin Corridor, trucks filled with food and medicines are waiting, but Azerbaijan will not allow them to pass.

Procuring food has become a full-time occupation in Artsakh. Supermarket shelves are bare, and the prospect of mass famine seems increasingly real. Bread is hard to find—people rise at 4 a.m. to go to a bakery and take a number. They wait in line for hours, and by the time their number comes up the bread may already be gone. Villagers are cultivating their land to have something to eat, but Azerbaijani forces frequently shell the border villages and snipers often shoot at farmers when they are harvesting their wheat. If villagers produce more than they need for their families, they will bring it to the city to sell.

Lusine said that people roam the city looking for someone peddling their vegetables on the street, and things sell out quickly. She said she saw some boys by the road picking blackberries. They reported they would give the berries to their mothers to barter for vegetables that they otherwise couldn’t afford. People are often hungry and are beginning to show the effects of long-term malnutrition; it has been reported that among pregnant women the miscarriage rate has tripled.

With the end of the growing season approaching and the hard days of winter looming, Azerbaijan’s intermittent throttling of natural gas supplies and rolling electricity blackouts are on everyone’s mind. Unemployment has skyrocketed as businesses fail because of shortages. University students from outside the city have no way of getting to their classes because there is no gas for cars or for communal transport. The idea seems to be to make people as miserable as possible so they will rush to flee when the road is eventually opened.

The blockade is a form of terrorism, meant to drive people from their homeland. Starvation is a weapon of genocide, but for the moment Artsakh’s residents are doing everything they can to hold on. “Aliyev wants to be master of the land,” a Stepanakert resident told me, “but we want to stay here where our great-grandparents are buried.”

Meanwhile, at a recent United Nations Security Council hearing on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s representative, Yashar Aliyev, disputed the genocide charges by holding up paper printouts of Instagram photos of people in Stepanakert celebrating weddings and birthdays. “They have very tasty cookies,” he said, while brandishing one such photo.

Featured image credit: Mary Astryan; modified by Tempest.

This essay was published on The Tempest Magazine in August 2023.

July 8, 2024