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Nagorno-Karabakh: Is a peaceful resolution possible between Azerbaijan and Armenia?

Land dispute continues, and military attacks have claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

The most recent military conflict over the disputed land of Nagorno Karabakh, called Artsakh by ethnic Armenians, began Sept. 27. (Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE — Friday will be the 40th day of the most recent full-scale military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the landlocked region of the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous and forested land, historically called Artsakh by its majority ethnic Armenian residents, is a territory of 17,000 square miles — about the size of Delaware.

In the early hours of Sept. 27, Azerbaijan began an unprovoked military attack with shelling threatening civilians in cities and towns in Nagorno-Karabakh, bringing Armenia and Azerbaijan into a state of war. In the weeks since, more than 1,000 people, including at least 80 civilians, have been killed. Fighting has caused large-scale damage to civilian infrastructure in Nagorno-Karabakh and in urban boarding areas in Azerbaijan. Around 80,000 civilians, nearly half of the region’s population, have been displaced by the violence. According to authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh, 90% of those displaced are women and children.

The Office of Public Witness, the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations and Presbyterian World Mission held a webinar on Tuesday called “Nagorno-Karabakh: Context and Consequences.” This conversation provided background on the decades-long unrest and military conflict in the region and efforts toward a diplomatic solution. Listen to the full webinar here.

Catherine Gordon

“We planned this webinar because it is such an important issue to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and to our Armenian partners, brothers and sisters on the ground,” said Catherine Gordon, associate for international issues in the Office of Public Witness, who hosted the panel discussion.

The online event featured a panel of speakers, including Armenian American filmmaker and writer Emily Mkrtichian (Muh-ger-teech-yan), who provided a historical context of the issues and a personal perspective of the current war; Eliza Minasyan, executive director of the Jinishian Memorial Program (JMP), a ministry of Presbyterian World Mission in the region since 1966; Noushin Darya Framke, an Armenian/Iranian-American, a ruling elder at a PC(USA) church in New Jersey; Luciano Kovacs, area coordinator, Middle East and Europe, Presbyterian World Mission; and Sue Rheem, mission specialist for international advocacy with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

Emily Mkrtichian

“I woke up on the morning of Sept. 27 to reports of shelling in Stepanakert, the capital city,” said Mkrtichian. “I can’t really describe the shock; it was so unexpected and that was followed by basically attacks all along the line of contact — the border that has been established since 1994.” She described the types of weapons being used: sophisticated drones, lots of them provided by Turkey, a large ally of Azerbaijan; and large missiles that destroy full buildings, apartment buildings and civilian targets like hospitals, theaters, churches. “The biggest church in Shushi, which is the city right above the capital, has now been hit three times,” she said. “The civilian population has spent more than a month living in underground bunkers. There’s fairly constant shelling. The balance of power for us feels really scary.”

There have been several illegal weapons used in this war, including cluster and phosphorous munitions, according to panelists.

Failed humanity

“The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is another example of failed humanity,” said Kovacs, Presbyterian World Mission’s area coordinator for the Middle East and Europe. “Too many lives have been claimed by this war, too much suffering. Weapons have had the upper hand again over words and acts of peace, justice and reconciliation.

Luciano Kovacs

“We know that people in the Caucuses are hurting and have been wounded because of this conflict,” Kovacs prayed. “How long, God of justice, how long?”

Mkrtichian’s current documentary film project focuses on four women whose lives have been upended by the current war in the region. It is the first film from the Republic of Artsakh to receive funding from the Sundance Film Festival, she said. The women she chose for the film are among the strongest she’s ever met: a politician, an international gold medal judo champion, a manager of the only women’s resource center in the region, and a woman who risks her life to rid the country of landmines left over from previous wars. “Per capita, Nagorno-Karabakh has one of the worst landmine problems in the world,” Mkrtichian said.

The women in the film have become her close friends, so on the morning of Sept. 27, when the shelling started, Mkrtichian called one of her film subjects, a politician who has worked as a civil servant in Parliament for nearly a decade. “She told me she had been woken up by the first explosion.” She had gone to the Parliament building to see what was going on and determine the political response, and the Parliament building itself had been shelled. “So from day one, the largest symbolic building of independent politics in the country was already under attack,” Mkrtichian said.

“I think the hard thing, when you think about the civilian population here, is they’ve already been through war for several years in the early 1990s, so the trauma that remained from having to fear for their lives is now coming back in a very unbelievable way. I’ve filmed things that I never ever thought I would film. I’ve filmed people packing up their clothing for the last time in their apartments, not knowing when they will ever be back.”

Doctors are saying they’ve never seen injuries like this before, Mkrtichian said. “People with their entire bodies burned, the shelling and shrapnel just all over. Things that have been kind of unimaginable in the past and definitely weren’t seen in war just 25 years ago.”

Echoes of genocide

Knowing that Turkey has purchased these weapons and backed Azerbaijan in this way, “really stirs a fear of existence in us,” Mkrtichian said. “This conflict has echoes of a genocide that we all carry in our DNA. And, you add to that a war in the ‘90s, that we’ve spent the past 25 years coming back from, trying to rebuild and assert our identity — then to have it all happen again. All we keep saying is that ‘we just want it to stop.’ We want the damage to civilian populations to stop. We want the shelling of these cities to stop. We want a humanitarian ceasefire that will hold.

“My one dream right now is that I end this film with peace,” she said.

Eliza Minasyan

Minasyan, Jinishian Memorial Program’s executive director, shared about JMP’s humanitarian relief efforts, community-based development, spiritual uplift and peacebuilding work for more than half a century. JMP’s local teams reach more than 80,000 Armenians each year in Syria, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Istanbul and Armenia, including Artsakh. JMP works as an ecumenical organization alongside the Armenian Apostolic Church, Armenian Catholic Church and the Armenian Evangelical Church.

Minasyan is saddened by this “crime against humanity” and “humanitarian disaster,” she said. She said that behind the scenes, many of the atrocities against civilians are being led and carried out by two individuals, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoghan and Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, as well as jihadist terrorist groups of mercenaries who are paid to kill Armenians. “This is hard to believe it is happening now in days, but unfortunately this is true. This is what we need the world to understand, condemn and stop.”

The Jinishian Memorial Program helps people move from poverty and despair to self-sufficiency and hope, Minasyan said. Some JMP staff members’ sons are serving in the war and some men, employees of JMP, expect to be drafted. All remaining staff are involved in JMP’s relief assistance to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Armenia.

Addressing basic needs

Jinishian’s services vary from place to place, but generally address basic human needs in the areas of medical support, social assistance, community development, democracy building and spiritual uplift. JMPs work in Armenia began in the 1990s as relief assistance after its transition from the former Soviet Union following a devastating earthquake, and during recovery from the first war with Azerbaijan for Artsakh’s independence. Although its work in Armenia began as relief assistance, for the past 15 years JMP has primarily focused on community development, economic development and civil development, empowering the citizens of Armenia to take an active role in the development of their country. “We have a great army of brilliant youth, ready and willing to change the country for the better, and the first successful steps have already been made,” Minasyan said.

“Now is the hardest for me to realize that most of them — most of these youth — may perish in unfair battle, protecting us and the whole world from terrorism and dictatorship,” Minasyan said. JMP stopped its most successful development programs in September to be able to provide emergency relief services, including medical care items and medicine to soldiers and civilians wounded in full-scale attacks; food and warm clothing for more than 90,000 women and children displaced from the war zone; survival kits for people who need immediate shelter; and moral and psychological support for war-traumatized children.

“The need is endless now,” she said.

Minasyan has written a Presbyterian News Service article about the conflict: Defending Armenia: PC(USA) ministry issues ‘an urgent call of distress.’

Panelist Noushin Darya Framke speaks out for the voiceless in honor of her maternal grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Framke’s Presbyterian News Service article, “Bringing light to the Upper Dark Forest,” tells the story of the Republic of Artsakh and provides links to learn more.

Noushin Darya Framke

Framke shared a personal experience she had while driving home last year. She received a news alert about the U.S. Senate unanimously passing a resolution to recognize the Armenian genocide. “I just almost drove off the road,” she said. “I had to pull over and collect myself and cry because this resolution had been waiting for decades, actually, for the U.S. to recognize the Armenian genocide of 1915.”

Click here to read a statement on the conflict and the responsibility of the U.S. to contribute to the efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully, issued by The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Along with humanitarian organizations, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for a ceasefire to distribute humanitarian aid, which has largely been restricted by ongoing fighting. Three attempts at a humanitarian ceasefire have been unsuccessful thus far, according to Sue Rheem, mission specialist for international advocacy with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

Sue Rheem

Speakers suggested one thing PC(USA) congregations can do is to reach out to the Armenian community within their own cities to help in gathering food, clothing, supplies, and just to offer support and accompaniment at this traumatic, chaotic time.

To join in a “Call for Peace in Nagorno-Karabakh,” and encourage a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, you can write to your U.S. Representative in support of House Resolution 1165.

To support the mission and ministry of the Jinishian Memorial Program, gifts can be made online here.

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