BEIRUT: When 30-year-old Aline Keshishian left Lebanon in search of safety and peace after the horrific Aug. 4 Beirut Port blast, she did not expect to find her ancestral homeland, Armenia, to be engaged in a war with Azerbaijan over Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh.
“After the blast, I lost hope, hope for a future in Lebanon. So I decided to move to Armenia,” the graphic designer told The Daily Star
“Being Lebanese-Armenian, I’ve felt lucky all my life to have two motherlands: Armenia and Lebanon,” she said. But now her second home has been drawn into conflict. “[I am] heartbroken that this is happening again.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan have entered their fourth week of heavy fighting and bloodshed over the mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh – Artsakh for Armenians – which is recognized as part of Azerbaijan internationally, but is almost entirely inhabited by ethnic Armenians under the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh and has never been under direct Azeri rule.
The current war, which began in full force on Sept. 27, marks the heaviest clashes since the early 1990s, with early skirmishes taking place in July, following a bigger clash in 2016 dubbed the “Four Day War.”
Keshishian said she had been sitting in her kitchen when the war broke out, her eyes glued to the news.
The apartment she had rented in Yerevan overlooked the “Yerablur” military cemetery, where national heroes who fought in the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war were buried and new heroes continue to be laid to rest.
“Some of my friends went to volunteer, straight to the front lines,” Keshishian said.
Back in Lebanon, Armenians already grappling with an economic crisis and the aftermath of the devastating explosion now find themselves consumed by the war in their ancestral homeland.
Sanahine Nalbandian, a 19-year-old dentistry student, had to deal with exams amid anxiety caused by the war over Nagorno-Karabakh
“Physically we’re here [Lebanon], but mentally we’re in Artsakh,” Nalbandian told The Daily Star. “None of it deeply matters when innocent people are dying on the front lines. My mind is always occupied with Artsakh.”
According to the government of Armenia more than 700 Armenian military personnel and around 40 civilians have died so far. Azerbaijan does not disclose military casualties but has said that around 60 civilians have been killed.
While Armenia’s population is around 3 million, an estimated 8 million Armenians live in different corners of the world, a result of the 1915 Armenian Genocide during which 1.5 million Armenians were systematically killed by the Ottomans, with hundreds of thousands forcefully displaced from their homes in what is modern-day Turkey.
The Armenian diaspora in Lebanon, estimated to be around 150,000, forms a dynamic part of the country’s social fabric. But with Lebanon in the midst of a series of unprecedented economic, social and health crises and reeling from the horrific blast at the Beirut Port, people were already feeling worn out.
“Most of us are feeling what people are now calling ‘diaspora paralysis.’ We all want to help, but don’t know how we can have a meaningful impact,” said Hagop Tashjian, a medical student.
Many Armenians who are following the war from afar share the same sentiment and inclination to help.
“I can’t just sit here and watch my nation face another genocide,” said Yeghia Tashjian, an academic researcher.
Many are unsure about which crisis to prioritize as Lebanon plunges into more chaos and uncertainty each day.
“Those worries have been put on hold now,” Levon Avedanian, a 42-year-old university professor said.
“It’s very difficult being in the diaspora while all this is going on and we’re asking ourselves what can we do?” Yeghia Tashjian said.
The economic collapse in Lebanon, with banks restricting money transfers and cash withdrawals in foreign currency, has made it difficult for Lebanese to send or donate money abroad.
“The Lebanese economic collapse and the failure of the banking system have made it really hard to contribute in helping the affected people. So that adds to the frustration,” said George Sarkissian, a social media specialist.
Despite the challenges Lebanese-Armenians are facing in financially contributing to Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, various local fundraisers, mostly in the Armenian populated Burj Hammoud area, have been set up. “Artsakh Aid” is one such initiative that gathers humanitarian aid for those affected by the war.
Signs reading “Stop Aliyev” and “Stop Azeri Aggression” can also be spotted in Burj Hammoud, along with posters that read “We will win,” a hashtag that was trending on social media.
Armenia and Artsakh are up against oil-rich Azerbaijan with a population of around 10 million, armed with advanced military equipment supplied by long-standing ally Turkey as well as Israel, in addition to Turkey-backed Syrian mercenaries fighting alongside Azeri troops.
However, one of Armenia’s strengths is its diaspora.
“I definitely believe that the biggest resource of the Armenian nation is its people. At a moment’s notice, Armenians from all around the world will self-mobilize. No order needed, all organic,” Hagop Tashjian said.
Yeghia Tashjian also shares this sentiment: “The whole Armenian nation is fighting as one, putting aside all their differences.”
Armenians from around the world have expressed readiness to join the fight and volunteer on the front lines, some already fighting and others already martyred.
Hagop Tashjian said he was worried for his cousins and relatives currently fighting at the border.
“I hope all of them return to their homes safely,” he said.
Turkey’s involvement in the war this time, a presence which was absent during previous battles, has sparked existential fear among Armenians, in addition to the deeply anti-Armenian rhetoric that has dominated Baku for decades.
“If Artsakh falls, then all of Armenia will fall. It is an existential issue for us,” Yeghia Tashjian said.
Azerbaijan’s aim is to “liberate” what it perceives as lands occupied since the early 1990s, citing territorial integrity. For Armenians, who regard Artsakh as indisputably their ancestral land, dating back to centuries of Armenian existence, it is an issue of the right to self-determination.
Nagorno-Karabakh was handed over to Azerbaijan by Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin in the early 1920s, much to the dismay of the people inhabiting the region. At the end of the 1980s Armenians started protesting, demanding reunification with Armenia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence in accordance to international law and Soviet laws applicable at the time, and formed the de facto Republic of Artsakh.
“It is very evident whose land it is; there is cultural evidence. When you visit Artsakh, you instantly feel its Armenian essence,” Avedanian said.
“Armenians are fighting because it is their historical homeland they are defending, but the Azeris are fighting for a political purpose.”