(Director’s Note: Occasionally, interns are willing to share personal experiences that may advance scientific understanding, appreciation of humanity and diversity, and/or the effects of world events on individual emotions and behavior. I am always grateful for these opportunities.)
On September 27th of 2020 the paradigm shift began, not only for me, but for most Armenians alike. We had always known that our motherland is not the wealthiest or the most advanced, but rather impoverished and has been for hundreds of years. Since then, there has been a shift in the way that I perceive the world as well as a shift in how I see my purpose as an Armenian-American.
On September 27th, the region that natives call Artsakh, otherwise known as Nagorno-Kharabagh, was attacked by Azerbaijani forces and has continuously been destroyed since. Nagorno-Karabakh is home to 95% ethnic Armenians who have been inhabiting those lands since before Christ. The land was however gifted to Azerbaijan by Joseph Stalin while it was under Soviet rule. However, the people of the area have opted to become an independent republic for the last century. In 1915, a genocide took place in which 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered, displaced, and forced into slavery. The women were raped or killed and the female children who were spared their lives most often ended up as child brides, forced to rid themselves of their Armenian-ness to be granted the opportunity to live. The greater portion of ethnic lands were ripped from Armenia and over half the population was murdered. Historically, most of Azerbaijan and Turkey were once Armenian territory too—making it quite ironic how Azerbaijan aims to “liberate” the areas that are occupied by Armenians.
For someone who doesn’t know about my ethnicity or culture, they may not understand why I chose to write about this rather than a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic we are living through. As Armenians, we have always carried the weight of intergenerational trauma. We have always carried the weight of belonging to a group of people who have long been victims of genocide and oppression even before 1915. We grew up on the stories that our grandparents told us and every year on April 24th we attended a march for justice in Los Angeles, in which we protested for recognition of the Armenian Genocide. An act that was promised by many US presidents for decades.
For those who don’t know the significance and the impact of the Armenian Genocide, I’d like to share this quote by a man named Adolf Hitler: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” He was quoted saying this before he set action and began what is now known as the Holocaust. While we grew up on those stories, we always believed that they were just stories. They were historical and held much truth, but they were a thing of the past never to be repeated because times had changed and we had grown as human beings. Or so we thought…
On September 27th, the region of Artsakh came under attack. Since then thousands of young Armenians aged 18 to 21 have died. While we’ve been pleading for help and recognition in America, we have not yet had that happen. We have been protesting across the world. We have been spreading awareness over social media and all else. The genocide did one good thing in that it created a hell of a diaspora.
However, the political ties and economic ambitions of the United States as well as our strongest ally, Russia, won’t allow for the rightful members of NATO or the MINSK group to step in. Not after Azerbaijan broke a ceasefire on four separate occasions this year, not after Turkey sent ISIS jihadists to fight some twisted holy war, not after they dropped a missile on Armenian land, not after bombing civilian establishments like hospitals and churches no where near the front lines, not after the Azeri soldier posted videos of beheading and skinning Armenian soldiers, not after the illegal cluster bombs were used, not after the fighter jets, drones, or white phosphor attacks, not after the torturing of prisoners of war, not after the refusal to return prisoners of war… The list goes on and on. While an agreement has now been signed and over half of the ethnic land has been surrendered by Armenia, many of the attacks continue. Over 150,000 people were forced out of the only homes they have known. To date, many Armenian mothers and fathers are searching for dead bodies and praying that it is their child, for it is better to be dead than to be alive and in the hands of the oppressor.
While we have been protesting endlessly, raising donations spreading awareness, and doing all that we can do, it seems to never be enough. The paradigm shift happened when I realized that the world will never be as kind as I want it to be. The paradigm shift began when I recognized that it was only Armenians who were protesting for Armenians. It was when I realized that my Instagram posts and followers suddenly declined when the content became about asking people to spread awareness about what’s going on. It occurred when my follower count declined after I spread new about our ethnic brothers and sisters dying on the front lines. The paradigm shift took place very slowly and all at once.
I always had hopes and expectations that despite how badly the world had turned its backs on us 100 years ago, that it would be different would it to ever occur again. Regardless of those expectations however, I had never expected that it would happen again to begin with. There was this realization at some point that the intergenerational trauma will continue to continue for our people. The cycle just won’t end. As the first Christian people in existence, there is a great threat to their very being when landlocked primarily by Muslim countries who have set out to wipe them out completely. The paradigm shift occurred because I fear that if my generation lives through this, it is likely that my children’s generation will experience it too.
While there is a great sense of distain in my voice right now geared towards the world in and of itself, there was a personal shift within me as well, aside from the overwhelming sense of guilt for anything and everything. For every meal that I eat, every article of clothing that I purchase, every time I lay my head on my pillow, every morning that I get to say hello to my brother, the same brother who told me that he wanted to voluntarily enlist. While I forbid him from doing so, I asked myself why is it fair for me not to lose my brother when mothers and sisters in Armenia are losing their fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands?
When war crimes are being committed against our people and civilian cities are being attacked, there is an overwhelming sense of guilt each time that I smile. And I can’t quite shake the feeling and the thoughts in my head that ask, “How could we have been so oblivious to not have assumed that this would happen again?” or “How could we as Armenians have lived in the diaspora all these years and not have thought that we should be giving back more to our country all along and not just now during a time of crisis?” For it’s that same oblivious thought processes that have contributed to so many dying. To illustrate what I mean my this, our military is completely incapable of defending themselves. There was no money to fund a war, house the people who lost their homes, or feed the soldiers for days on end. While our boys go to battle with outdated firearms from the 80’s, we are being attacked by missiles and drones. We are defenseless and we are helpless just as we were 100 years ago.
While I hope this shift in my perception of the world is not a permanent one, I fear that I have forever stopped looking at the world through rose-colored glasses and I’ve started to see darkness in everything. This occurrence has taught me more about power and privilege than any intercultural or human diversity class could ever teach me. There has been a shift in how I see my privilege and that of others. There’s been a shift because I now recognize that it is a privilege to sleep through the night without fear of dying. Last week, after a scary storm hit Los Angeles, my 6-year-old nephew woke up in the middle of the night. He was crying and pleading that he does not want to die, he is too young to die. Little did he know it was a storm. He thought the Armenians were under attack in America now too. And for those of us in America, it is a privilege to not know and to not need to know what that feels like. It is a privilege to know about what is going on in Armenia and Nigeria and Ethiopia and Congo and Namibia and all the other places that are suffering right now. It is a privilege to not wake up worried and it is a privilege to not go to bed terrified.
Theoretically we have all known learned about oppression, marginalization, separation, the effects of war and trauma, and so on. As individuals in this field, we have been forced a to look at our own privileges and our own biases and understand deep personal issues. And while it had always made sense, it had never quite made sense the way that it does now. On September 27th, a paradigm shift occurred where all of the Armenians of the diaspora suddenly woke up to a nightmare and have not yet fallen asleep. On September 27th, something changed in our hearts and minds, and I’m certain it’ll be a long time until we can really breathe again or trust that the world won’t break our hearts 10 ways to Sunday.
Monica Babaian, MA
WKPIC Doctoral Intern