Editor: Aakrith Harikumar
As Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenians are forced to flee after Azerbaijan’s final offensive in the once-disputed region at the heart of a decades-old conflict, Armenian and Azerbaijani students at SAIS are left to grapple with historical trauma and today’s painful reality.
A research piece that I had been writing on Azerbaijan’s foreign policy, for an American foreign affairs publication, was in the last stage of the editing process when the news of Azerbaijan’s large-scale offensive on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic reached Washington on the morning of September 19, 2023. What Azerbaijan labeled as an “anti-terror” military operation was the country’s final effort to establish total control over the disputed territory which is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan, but had been a de-facto independent entity governed by ethnic Armenians since the end of the first war in 1994. Naturally, I had to follow the news coming from the region hour-by-hour as we moved to finalize a piece that I had put so much time and effort into.
Azerbaijan’s plan and its long-time leader Ilham Aliyev’s “life mission” of winning a war, worked successfully. Within a day, the authorities of the unrecognized republic, fearing mass casualties and ethnic cleansing, agreed to unconditional surrender. Nagorno-Karabakh leaders disbanded the local armed units that had once acted as the deterrent to the resolution of the conflict. The decree of the president of the unrecognized republic ended the three-decades-long struggle for independence by dismantling the local state institutions.
The pace of the shocking and naturally irreversible developments could neither hide the seriousness of the moment, nor the incredible human suffering and humanitarian catastrophe that unfolded as Armenians of the disputed territory started leaving en masse. Within days, fearing ethnic cleansing and brutal treatment from Azerbaijani troops, virtually all of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh — as Armenians call it — left behind their homes and ancestral lands for one final refuge: Armenia. According to Armenian authorities who are registering refugees in the southern region of Syunik, the entry point for Karabakh Armenians, more than 100,000 Armenians have now been displaced by the conflict, leaving the disputed region empty.
This last, tragic episode of one of the world’s most complicated, yet neglected conflicts appears to be the final violent stage for a region that has seen four major waves of wars — in the 1990s when the conflict restarted after seven decades of Soviet rule, and then again in 2016, 2020, and 2023. The latest fateful use of force by Azerbaijan came after the 2020 ceasefire, brokered by Russia. The deal allowed Russia to send 2,000 “peacekeeping” troops to the region to enforce and preserve the ceasefire. But Russian peacekeepers took no action as Azerbaijan moved to take whatever remained under local Armenian control after the 44-day war in 2020, in which Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh had lost a huge chunk of the territory formerly under their control.
Last December, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor, the only route connecting the ethnically Armenian enclave to Armenia proper, a route vital for transportation, movement of people, and critical supplies. Vengeful of a more Western-oriented government in Armenia, nominally a Russian ally, the Russian government had not taken action to resolve the blockade which was supposed to be guaranteed as per the 2020 ceasefire deal.
The closure of the Lachin corridor had already caused a great humanitarian crisis in the region by depriving the population of food, medicine, and other critical supplies, prompting the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s sustained pressure on Azerbaijan to open the corridor and leading the former prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno-Ocampo to conclude in a legal opinion in August that the blockade imposed by the Azerbaijani government amounted to “genocide” as defined by international law.
Outside the political, geopolitical, and legal analysis of the dramatic, yet discernable fall of Nagorno-Karabakh – seen as a national catastrophe by Armenians, and a just reestablishment of sovereignty by Azerbaijanis – lies the human dimension of the conflict. In addition to the tens of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis that have perished and the hundreds of thousands that have been displaced in the wars of the last three decades, this conflict has a peculiar emotional dimension where the trauma, the pain, and the passions of both sides affect their lives abroad.
The role of emotions and nationalism in this conflict is a topic for a separate discussion. But Karabakh or Artsakh, as I have known the region, will also be personal for me — just like every Armenian and Azerbaijani. It is not so only because my roots go back to this mountainous land that I have never visited, or that my cousin, an 18-year-old conscript during the 2020 war, along with many others I personally know, almost died fighting for it.
It is personal because it is part of our national identities. Post-1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan emerged out of the Soviet collapse with a new understanding of who they are as nations. The key to this understanding and self-perception for both sides was Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan’s defeat in the first war, the violent pogroms, and several wars have bound Armenians and Azerbaijanis in this shared history full of hypocrisies, trauma, and intense nationalism. Wth the complete reversal of fortunes and the infliction of new suffering for this war-torn region, the toxic cycle of trauma, resentment, and a profound sense of insecurity is perpetuated. And perhaps this time, it is worse than before.
This trauma is felt within the walls of our school too, where side-by-side, Armenian and Azerbaijani students are delving into a study of International Relations to make sense of our world, as well as making small steps towards confronting our complicated past, dangerously volatile present, and uncertain future in which all of us seek to find dignity, peace, and a common understanding. The heat and passion are natural in this case, and so are the pain and this piercing, draining feeling of helplessness that is seen in our eyes.
As painful as discussing the truth, traumatic history, and the grave disasters of today may be, we have no choice but to confront them and choose a path different from the one chosen by the leaders of yesterday. It is not only a moral obligation, but a strategic choice to build trust, empathy, and a common ground. It will be challenging to live through this history in real-time, thousands of miles away from a land to which we are bonded by blood and by history. However, it all starts with honest discussion, lively debate, and a joint effort to imagine a different future.