Farewell letter to a city named Shushi
Most days it still feels like a bad dream. I am so sorry that we lost you. Months have passed since you were given away, taken over. A foreign flag now hangs on your ancient fortress walls. The people who loved you, nurtured, built you and took care of your century old Armenian churches were either injured, killed in the line of fire or were forced out of their family homes. These once warm dwellings are now gutted and cold, barren dry walls embedded with faint memories, laughs, cries and cracks.
Today, in 2021, as I hear stories of your Armenian population’s deaths and brutal displacement from Shushi and other parts of Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh in Armenian), these images and sounds are dusting off clouds of old wounds. I am reminded of how my grandfather Khatcher Menakian, was once forced out of his home during the Armenian genocide in 1915 from his town of Kayseri (in current-day Anatolia) – only to never return and never see his lost family members: sister Zifli, brother Avak, mother Dirouhie and father, Alexan.
Here I am, as a result of his forced displacement and exile, floating in the diaspora, trying hard to ground myself on this land that was also once stolen from Indigenous Mohawk tribes by colonizing forces and is now called Montréal and no longer Kanien’keha:ka.
The same narrative repeats itself and trauma runs deep. It crosses time and arbitrary borders, as so many people’s traumas are intertwined in this abstract (yet so concrete) notion of land. I say arbitrary, because in the case of Artsakh, during the 1920s, Joseph Stalin gifted this land (largely inhabited then by Armenians) to Azerbaijan, as he was arbitrarily dividing up territory, forming the Soviet Union.
When I allow myself to think about the displacement, dispossession and violence from Kayseri/Gesaria to Karabakh to Kanien’keha:ka, I start to feel a heaviness that I cannot deny. However, I don’t want it to weigh me down too much. Through movement, I seek to shift the heaviness and pain that lands in my body, in the cells that have inherited intergenerational trauma by virtue of being a descendent of a genocide survivor. It may have landed in my body, but I try to evacuate it. I am tired of carrying it. Can I ever fully break free? Can we ever entirely heal?
I reluctantly bid you farewell, Shushi jan. You are now among the mythical lands our ancestors were from, like Van or Kharpert. I have been in various corners of the world, however, something about this citadel city sets you apart. Nestled in your lap surrounded by your majestic mountains, I felt a deep connection to your untamed natural beauty, to your enchanting waterfalls, to your ancient history of cultures and religions intersecting on your soil, to your century old Armenian churches jolting out of your wild landscape. I try hard not to romanticize you, but it’s impossible. Shushi, you were sacred in so many ways. And like every other Armenian, I will never see you again.
All I see now is sacrilege.
Fortunately, memories of you are imprinted in my mind and they are untouchable. Like that July night in Saro’s garden where we feasted under the trees, danced shoulder to shoulder and sang with all our hearts with my fellow brothers and sisters from all over Artsakh, Armenia and the diaspora. Late that night, as we walked back to our homestay in Shushi, I felt like I was swimming in a sea of stars. I had never felt so close to the sky. At that time, electricity and running water were scarce, but the abundance of stars in your skies was all we really needed.
Caught Off Guard?
When I was in Shushi for the first time in 2005, I recall being told on several occasions that Azerbaijan could launch an attack at any given moment. I recall the statement making me briefly uncomfortable, but was then replaced by a sense of invincibility – a feeling that often accompanies the act of traveling to remote and removed areas of the world. I also was much younger at the time. Even though we all implicitly knew the day would come, the war showed just how vulnerable Armenia and Artsakh are geopolitically. To a breaking point.
As the war raged on for over 40 days, I had a hard time grasping as to why Artsakh and Armenia were so ill-prepared, especially if it was no secret that a large-scale attack would eventually target this conflict zone, precariously held together by a ceasefire from 1994. The writing was on the wall for an impending attack, the writing is also on the wall as to why Armenia and Artsakh were not in a better position to defend themselves… However, these reasons are outside the scope of my article.
News broke on September 27, 2020 that Azerbaijan strategically launched a military attack on Artsakh, amid a global pandemic and looming US elections, sending shock waves not only in the region, but throughout the diaspora as well. With the world’s limited attention greatly invested elsewhere, Azerbaijan’s ruthless aggression largely targeted the civilian population and infrastructure such as hospitals and schools. The list of Azerbaijani war crimes grew, as the population on the ground in Artsakh witnessed the absolute horror of cutting-edge military technology dropping from the sky and shooting up from the ground.
The vast majority of Armenians around the world felt a version of that first hit in late September land in their bodies, in some shape or form. It was impossible to not have a visceral reaction when seeing the news. And that reaction was only exacerbated when it quickly became evident that this military aggression by Azerbaijan was backed by Turkey and aided by paid jihadists, as the war dragged on for more than 40 interminable days. Artsakh and Armenia were up against forces completely out of their reach, a classic case of a battle of unequal strengths.
The photos of 18, 19, 20-year-old men dying that appeared on my news feed on a daily basis, was unbearable. At first, I couldn’t even look at these young faces. However, I eventually felt compelled to read about their lives and somehow mourn their loss. But how do you even adequately mourn the loss on such a large scale, especially when you are physically so removed from the region? In the end, 5000 lives lost. Families forever shattered, lives permanently altered, imbued with profound trauma. “Haghtelou enk” (“We will win” the war’s motto), repeated like a broken record, ad nauseum. Yes, keeping morale high during a war, especially for soldiers who were in the direct line of fire is important. However, I kept thinking, especially, as the death toll continued to mount, what were we actually trying to win in such an uneven war? How exactly is one to win when so outnumbered and out powered?
The damage caused by this war is so profound. I often ask myself how a country that suffered such extreme loss even begins to recover? Then I remind myself that, as Armenians, this is what we do, we dust ourselves off and start anew.
However, we cannot overlook the immeasurable collective trauma experienced in Armenia and Artsakh following this war. This ensuing humanitarian crisis, with the added complication of a deadly virus, is even more disconcerting.
Mothers, wives, burying their sons and husbands, soldiers suffering from acute PTSD and amputee soldiers learning how to regain their basic ability to function, victims of torture trying to adjust to life again. The majority of POWs still held in captivity undergoing unimaginable horrors. As I write this, parents of captives are demanding the Armenian Defence Ministry for answers. Of course, countless families displaced, stuck in limbo, lost their homes and are living with the pain of killed or disappeared loved ones.
A Diaspora Mobilized by War
To this day, I still struggle to comprehend and process the colossal human and cultural loss brought on by this war. This is due to the fact that not only I am physically removed from it all, living in the diaspora, but because the hurt and loss associated to this war are so deep, that it has re-triggered inherited trauma in me and many other descendants of the Armenian Genocide. I never thought we would witness, once again, what our grandparents experienced. The same reality repeating itself, by the same perpetrator, committed to the same genocidal intent and acts with the ultimate aim to annihilate and erase any trace of Armenians and Armenia. Old trauma overlapping the new trauma. A small nation and its people struggling for its very right to exist.
Months later, I can see how feelings of agitation and unease in me and those around me still linger when the war is addressed in conversation. Feelings oscillating between rage, deep sorrow, re-awakening of trauma, despair, inter-dispersed with some windows of hope, from time to time.
It needs to be said that during the war, it was encouraging to witness a reawakening and a revival of the Armenian diaspora. A refreshing sense of solidarity emerged, blurring lines of all political allegiances and affiliations. We all had one mission: support Armenia and Artsakh in any way possible. There was no lack of creativity and everyone was involved in some shape or form, regardless of age, social class or walk of life. How unfortunate that it takes a war to wake a semi-dormant diaspora and fling it into action.
Over the years, I have given a lot of thought to the relationship diasporan Armenians sustain with the homeland. However, when war hits, it is necessary to view this relationship through an entirely different lens. I liken belonging to a diaspora to a long-distance love affair. And like any long-distance relationship, there are moments of pure idealized love and there are also moments of deep pain, resentment and anger. I found myself gravitating between these two extremes during and after the war.
Yes, it was exhausting and completely draining to be glued to our phones, screens and getting constant updates 24/7. At some point mid-war, many of us had to take breaks from the news, but even so, it was hard to completely detach. Nonetheless, watching the range of reactions of the diaspora to the war unfold was intriguing. Hidden talents and patriotic sentiments all came to surface in unexpected ways. There were some individuals who were immediately proactive in organizing fundraising efforts, gathering humanitarian aid, while others were overwhelmed and paralyzed by the news and images of the aggression. Some helped in any way that they could but still felt helpless, while others, whose life circumstances permitted (or not) got on a plane and headed to Armenia and/or Artsakh. If you could take a collective pulse as the war was raging, it was beating one beat: Artsakh.
Being emotionally engaged to a war from a distance ensures physical safety no doubt, but does become a real psychological roller coaster. The war took a heavy toll on some of my family members and friends, both mentally and physically. I felt that all we could really do was give each other space to express and feel what we needed to surrounding the aggression, devastation, and injustice. I found some solace in the sense of solidarity that existed throughout the diaspora during the war. I felt a different connection, a stronger bond with my brothers and sisters in the diaspora, especially when it became clear as day, that all we have is each other, as the world, for the most part, just watched. We found comfort in each other’s presence whether virtually or outdoors, physically distant. One day, I met up with a lawyer friend for a walk, who had just given birth and was working around the clock on a legal brief on Artsakh, as she was sleep-deprived and breastfeeding. As soon as she saw me, she said she needed a hug. I happily obliged despite not having hugged anyone outside my own bubble for months, because I needed one too. We were both hurting. During war, to be deprived of hugs seemed too harsh in an already cruel world.
At times, around the midway point of the war, I had to work hard in keeping my faith in humanity, as general apathy towards the situation in Artsakh was hard to ignore. I knew losing faith was not the answer, as it was not a constructive approach. I sought to see more ways to build solidarity with other individuals or communities sensitive to the Armenian plight. Plus, we cannot deny that there were some governments, NGOs, journalists, individuals taking steps and bringing attention to the dire situation.
Viewing War Through Digital Technology and Social Media
Throughout the war, most members of the diaspora (unless you’re a repat living in Armenia or Artsakh) had the privileged position of viewing the war from the safety and comfort of their homes (and freely voicing opinions, constructive or not, even though they are not on the ground in Armenia or Artsakh). Like many, I was glued to my phone and my screen for live updates through various digital platforms, with a heavy reliance on social media for news and daily dispatches provided by sisters and brothers either directly from the frontlines or from Yerevan. I must confess that I followed most of this war through stories being posted on Instagram by soldiers on the ground, by filmmakers, and journalists. I was certainly not alone in doing so.
The advantage of viewing a war through a screen is that when it becomes too exhausting and draining, you can disconnect to a certain degree. People living in Armenia and Artsakh did not have the luxury to do so.
What were these fragments of images and text in real time providing us in the diaspora with? How does it differ from the war in the 1990s, which we did not experience as "directly" but rather through grainy VHS days or weeks later? For instance, this time around, I was in regular touch with a filmmaker who was on the front lines. The immediacy, the speed at which information was circulating during this war stands out. For one, we could directly interact with soldiers and film crews on the frontlines in real time, whether by sending them words of encouragement or asking for updates. This made the war become more tangible and much easier to connect and invest in emotionally. Secondly, diasporans were able to offer moral support from a distance, in parallel to financial support. Both were highly appreciated on the ground. Also, many of us became what I call “couch activists” (not in a derogatory way) as we were sharing, re-posting, tweeting a panoply of information hanging on to the hope that somehow, someone in a high position would intervene, stop the bloodshed and see the injustices and crimes being committed.
Us, couch activists, dealt with a lot of anti-Armenian rhetoric which was circulating at a disturbing rate during the war. When systemic hate and xenophobia are instilled in children living in Azerbaijan and Turkey at a very young age, it is not surprising to see this hate come to the surface. In fact, it exposed the propaganda circulating with messages by Azerbaijani trolls inciting disturbing acts of violence, including rape against Armenian women. As if such posts were not traumatizing enough, unfolding in parallel to the war, was a wave of violent hate crimes being committed against Armenians all around the world, as we saw cases of such crimes in California, in parts of Europe as well. The images of the Grey Wolves hounding Armenians in the streets of Lyon has haunted me.
Another haunting image that has stayed with me was the purge of the Armenian population from Artsakh, as the military aggression intensified and after the war was declared over. I watched the solemn images of the refugees’ lives compressed in suitcases, tied on the roof of their cars, as their vehicles formed an endless caravan snaking through the mountainous roads of Artsakh. It wasn’t too difficult to compare these images of car caravans to the caravans of displaced Armenians on foot, on horseback and carts during the Armenian genocide.
Old Wounds Revisited
Prior to the war, I felt that I had come a long way in processing the intergenerational trauma that came from my grandparents surviving the Armenian genocide. I have long refused the mentality of victimhood. Since becoming a mother not too long ago, I had been thinking about how I do not want to transmit the legacy of trauma and victimhood to my young children as they grow up. I had decided that I did not have to wait for Turkey to accept that it had committed genocide, issue an apology. I was set on coming to terms with the genocide, on my own terms.
All my process and progress need to be reassessed now, post-war.
Armenians losing the war only became intensely real, when my 5-year-old son asked, “Why did we lose the war?” After all, he knew that the Armenian soldiers are strong and brave. I simply said, yes, we lost the war, very factually and left it at that. On the spot, I had no follow-up to my answer, because all I could think about through my anger and pain was of the immense injustice. And how, a hundred years later, I would have to explain to my 5-year-old and to his brother, once they are a little older, that their great grandfather was orphaned at the age of 5 due to the Armenian Genocide. It was far from being a full circle moment, this was a painful realization.
The trauma this war left, first needs to be addressed on individual and collective levels. Things are a bit more complicated when there is a violent aggressor on your back for over 100 years now, still trying to exterminate you, still constantly denying its act of assault, when we are still trying to fight for our very right to even exist.
I often think about how my genocide surviving grandfather processed his trauma? What tools were available to him? How did he overcome it? How did he manage to rebuild his life from literally nothing, and stay serene and unresentful until his death late in his life? That is the image I have of my grandfather, a self-made, balanced, and composed man. He wasn’t a victim. He was a survivor, despite the unfathomable loss and trauma he suffered at a very young age.
He was part of a different generation. Today, I worry a lot about how unresolved trauma and war will affect our future generations in Artsakh, Armenia and throughout the diaspora. The repercussions are troublesome if steps are not taken towards addressing this trauma and seeking ways to heal.
Furthermore, the war may be over, but the constant threat of aggression remains.
Although it may be too soon for some, there is immense value in seeking to emotionally heal, without negating the intense trauma that occurred and is still well and alive.
I am a firm believer in healing trauma. Trauma is a part of life; it is inevitable as we navigate this human experience. However, as Michele Rosenthal put it, “trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing is about creating change you do choose.”
As a diaspora, as a nation, we need to seek ways to collectively and individually heal. I cannot say I have all the answers as to how, but it starts at an individual level and it requires commitment.
The way I choose to transmit the Armenian Genocide and the latest layer of trauma triggered by this recent war, as we collectively and personally begin to heal, is first, by rejecting victimhood. Second, by being well-informed. Third, by focusing on the quest towards justice and ways of assisting Armenia and Artsakh through constructive means, instead of perpetuating hate, which is destructive. Fourth, by not closing ourselves to others and staying shelled up in our pain; rather educating others, sharing with others not only our struggles, defeats and losses, but also sharing our rich heritage and culture. Fifth, becoming engaged as global citizens of the world, beyond our Armenianness. Lastly, ensure that we stand in solidarity with other oppressed communities and communities in crisis.
I do not have interest in perpetuating hate, but I do deeply believe in justice, even if justice seems unattainable at times, given the drive, the financial, the military and oil power Azerbaijan and Turkey channel in their efforts to erase Armenians from the map. Nonetheless, for the sake of Artsakh and Armenia, and in order to be able to properly assist the homeland, we must find the strength as individuals, as a nation, to help each other move forward.
It remains crucial that the diaspora remains connected to Artsakh and Armenia even following the aftermath of war. I may be wrong; however, I do observe a sense of deflation and detachment of the diaspora following the end of the war. Why did people lose interest? Was it the actual way in which the loss occurred? Was it the political situation? The degree of loss? Not being on the ground in Armenia or Artsakh? Being drained from the heavy news amid a global pandemic? Either way, ideally, we need to look for ways to meaningfully engage with Armenia and Artsakh. We can't let go now, especially given the humanitarian crisis on the ground.
There are countless opinions and theories, some practical and other ideological, surrounding the complex relationship between the diaspora and the homeland. Some think it is power-based, institution-based, finance-based, hierarchy-based. While institutions and finances are impossible to dissociate from diaspora and homeland connections, I also think that it boils down to forging and nurturing human connections between the diaspora and the homeland. I consider this to be the starting point, whether that is connection through email, phone or video call, whether that is a visit. Let’s connect as humans first, free of labels reducing us to narrow categories of “diasporan” or “hayastantsi” (Eastern Armenian living in Armenia) and drop stereotypes that come with these labels. Once this is accomplished and a basic and open human connection is established, then projects can be discussed and launched, with the act of listening at the forefront, rather than an imposition of beliefs and methods.
However, first, there is much work to be done in mending the internal struggles Armenia faces today. People have to own up and take responsibility for their actions. A government that pushed their youth, an entire generation to war must ensure that the families of those killed soldiers and civilians are taken care of, as they find themselves in unspeakable pain.
During the war, I asked contacts to see if they had news from my host mom in Shushi. I was finally able to locate her through an intricate web of networks Armenians do a good job of establishing. As soon as we connected over Viber, it felt like we picked up where we had left off. I was relieved to hear that her immediate family was safe; however, her nephew was injured during the war, and lost a leg. They are currently living in Stepanakert, after being given temporary refuge in Yerevan immediately after the war. Hearing her describe how they had to leave their house was difficult. The uncertainty that my host mom and her children and their families face is immense. Speaking to displaced families makes the war and the aftermath so much more real for me and not just this distant conflict happening miles away. Most importantly, it is a way to connect to the population of Artsakh, for them to know that although they were forced to abandon their homes, they are not entirely abandoned, namely from the diaspora.
Armenians are resilient by nature. Through consistent and meaningful exchanges, the diaspora and the homeland must work together in “promoting community resilience,” following the aftermath of the war, to borrow Jack Saul’s terminology who writes on building community resilience following trauma.
The diaspora cannot disengage now. Rather, we must invest in rebuilding and channeling diasporic potential in healing in and outside Armenia/Artsakh and rebuilding what was lost. After all, this is not 1915. We have a huge pool of educated, driven and competent forces. How to leverage elements from this pool is essential. Every drop from the diaspora matters, so that eventually we can generate waves.