Terrorists, Daredevils or Rebellion Leaders?

I haven’t written about politics in years. I have totally lost interest since I’ve become convinced that despite occasional protests and noise, by and large Armenian society has no inclination to change the political system that is oppressing it. But a bunch of “daredevils” think they have the answer. A group called “Sasna Dzrer” has taken control of a police headquarters and is holding four or so people hostage. They want the authorities to step down. They also want their war buddy and Founding Parliament opposition group leader Jirayr Sefilian, who had been charged with arms possession, freed from jail. In the process a police officer was killed and several others were wounded. This is supposed to be viewed as an act of bravery or desperation. I view it as an ill-conceived plot of idiocy.

These men do not represent me. They do not represent my sons who were born on Armenian soil. I didn’t move to Armenia to be represented by delinquents considering themselves martyrs or rebellion leaders or “the boys.” When you kill someone, wound others, and take hostages, in an attempt to free a buddy who has a known history of threatening to incite armed conflict to destabilize a governing regime and, as a result, the whole of society, then you’re a terrorist. Let’s not call these men anything else. I really don’t care that they’re Karabakh war veterans. Their actions are inexcusable and, dare I say, illegal.

Is this what the daredevils want?
Is this what the daredevils want? (Photo courtesy of Hetq Online)

Many Armenian citizens have had a hard time dealing with a post-soviet reality. I’ve sympathized with those who are unemployed and are frustrated that jobs are not created for them. Over the years I’ve written about hard working people whose undertakings and entrepreneurship have been thwarted by demands for kickbacks and bribe payments time and time again. Corruption is rampant and flourishing. The indifference on the part of the government towards social injustices, brutal intolerance of dissent, and polarities within society are all unacceptable. But this “rebellion” or “act of bravery” or whatever you want to call it is the wrong approach. Armenian citizens are themselves at fault for their own hardships. They are slaves to their own apathy and their credo that “the country is not a country.” They are imprisoned by what could be construed by the community as shamefulness (amot e) and as a result they favor inaction rather than discourse.

Society cannot be either silent or raging. Society is powered by the generation of freely expressed ideas and innovation of productivity. The evolution of society demands engagement from community members. Society doesn’t progress at the hands of a few taking up arms for a cause that has no favorable outcome. These 20 or so “daredevils” will either go to jail or they will be killed in a police raid. They won’t walk away carrying their jailed buddy on their shoulders. Do they expect that their “martyrdom” will spark a “revolution?” Is that what they really want? Well then, what does society want out of a revolution? What do the sympathizers of the “daredevils” want? Are they thinking about that while they antagonize the police near the police station that the “daredevils” hold under siege?

I’ve been trying to figure out what society wants since I moved to Armenia nearly 12 years ago. But I no longer have any expectations of understanding when citizens themselves cannot come together and collectively make a decision. I’ve concluded that the discourse isn’t there simply because people are too busy arguing and badmouthing one another. And “Amot e” is sitting on their shoulders and frustrating them even more as they fear being ostracized by their peers or the government.

Yes, mindsets have to change. Too bad society doesn’t really want them to.

Official Statement by Armenian Defense Ministry, April 4

The following is a translation of an official statement made by the Armenian Ministry of Defense on April 4. The translation was done by journalist Maria Titizian. 

The Defense Ministry (MOD) of the Republic of Armenia attaches great importance to the reaction of the international community and their calls to the sides of the conflict. The MOD of Armenia stresses that the Republic of Armenia is the guarantor of the security of the people of NKR. At the same time, as a side that is not involved in the military operations, the MOD of Armenia appreciates that the calls to end the hostilities have been directed to Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh – the two sides involved in the conflict.

Being in agreement with the calls to the sides to end the hostilities, the MOD of Armenia wants to call the attention to the international community of the fact that aside from political statements to restore the ceasefire regime, it is necessary to bring to an agreement and realize concrete means; develop the technical conditions of a ceasefire, implement the removal/separation of the forces and restore the mechanisms for the ceasefire regime.

At the same time, the RA MOD wishes to bring to the attention of the international community that the military operations unleashed by the Azerbaijan side is in violation of the 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the charter of the United Nations, the 1976 OSCE Helsinki Final Act and a number of other international legal documents.

During the military operations realized by the Azerbaijani side against the defense forces of Nagorno Karabakh and civilians, there have been numerous acts similar to the tactics used by international terrorist organizations, which according to international humanitarian law, are considered to be military crimes. Those include torture of non-combatants and prisoners of war, including even beheadings, mutilation of corpses, etc. Those acts have been photographed and displayed with the objective of terrorizing people.

The RA MOD announces that the Azerbaijani authorities and all those responsible for the violations of international law and war crimes will be brought to justice, including by the international community.

Is Nagorno-Karabakh Caught in a New War?

Eric Grigorian photo for Hetq Online
Eric Grigorian photo for Hetq Online

A new armed struggle to maintain the integrity of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic began in the early hours of April 2. Azerbaijan has admitted that it launched an all out attack long the line of contact with Nagorno-Karabakh, although Baku has subsequently denied that.

Many of us following the events during the last few days have been frustrated by the lack of information from the front lines. Often the same news was reported for eight hours or more on Facebook and Twitter feeds by users based in the region, most notably the supposed ceasefire initiated by Azerbaijan that proved to be disinformation. Official statements from the Nagorno-Karabakh government reveal the number of soldiers dead as well as the amount of destroyed military equipment. Until late April 3 few professional photographs taken along the line of contact were circulating in the press. Amateur as well as some professional video footage taken from a distance was also posted on various news sites.

As of this writing on April 4, this is what we know:

  • Contrary to earlier reports Azerbaijan has demonstrated that it has no intentions to initiate a ceasefire. The Nagorno-Karabakh defense ministry reported that massive shelling along the line of contact is continuing. In northern Karabakh Azeri forces are reportedly retreating and vital strategic positions have been recaptured by the Nagorno-Karabakh military.
  • Azerbaijan is continuing its offensive with “mortar and grenade attacks” all along the frontlines with the southeastern and northeastern points taking the brunt of the assault. Other equipment used in the assault include 152 mm cannons, Grad missiles and tanks.
  • The town of Martakert in the northern part of Nagorno-Karabakh, which resides virtually on the line of contact with Azerbaijan, was severely shelled throughout the day on April 2.
  • Nagorno-Karabakh forces have reportedly destroyed a total of 4 drones, two helicopters, 21 tanks (estimated) and multiple armed vehicles. Nagorno-Karabakh has reportedly lost one tank and three military trucks.
  • On April 3 Karabagh officially claimed six wounded, including two children, and four dead civilians, including one child. Hetq Online reported that in Martakert Azeri soldiers killed an elderly couple in their own home and cut off their ears. It is not clear whether that couple was factored in the official number of deaths. Official numbers on April 2 were 18 soldiers killed and 35 wounded, according to Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan. As of this writing there are no new reports of casualties.
  • Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has promised Turkey’s full support of Azerbaijan in the conflict “to the end.”
  • US Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Robert Dold (R-IL) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) have condemned Azerbaijan’s aggression in official statements. The Organization of American States (OAS) has also condemned Azerbaijan.
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is purportedly working on a new plan to cease the hostilities. The Co-chairs of OSCE Minsk Group is due to meet today—we can expect a statement from them by the evening or on Tuesday.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of updates.

Let’s be clear: this is a new conflict. This fighting is not a violation of the 1994 ceasefire brokered by Russia; it demands a new legally binding agreement to end the hostilities. And although there have been skirmishes along the line of contact over the last 20 years, with even micro-battles being waged on occasion, there has been relative peace between the Nagorno-Karakakh Republic and Azerbaijan. This is essentially a new war—if we can indeed call it that only three days in. The Azeri offensive should not be seen as a “frozen conflict” suddenly thawed overnight.

I have not seen an official declaration of war from either side. The Nagorno-Karabakh forces have been on the defense by holding the line and reclaiming posts that had been taken by the Azerbaijani army “blitzkrieg,” as it’s been described by the Armenian press, of April 2.

For two days I refrained from writing about these clashes. Although I don’t think I’m alone in having expected a new conflict to erupt, the sudden events of the weekend have certainly been surreal given the relatively peaceful situation of the last 20 years.

Home Renovation in Yerevan

The paper-thin linoleum floors had finally given out in my rental apartment. The material was so flimsy that it could be torn effortlessly with bare hands. In some places the floor began to buckle or literally come loose at the seams — I had to keep the vinyl together using clear tape. And although the foyer and kitchen adjoined, the flooring in each didn’t match at all–completely different colors and patterns.  I discussed the possibility of changing the floors with my landlord in the spring of 2014 with no success — he refused to consider replacing the linoleum on the grounds that 2.5 meter wide flooring was no longer available on the market (not true), and that the kids would end up destroying the replaced floor anyway. At the time I had the mindset that since the home wasn’t technically mine I would not pay to have the floor redone. That was until a few weeks ago, when a corner of the floor came up after opening both the twin front doors. That was the last straw. It was time to go floor shopping.


IMG_20151115_091533 IMG_20151115_104045 IMG_20151115_104143

But before I could go anywhere upon recommendation I asked a flooring guy over  to suggest options and give an estimate. His name is Edgar, and he recommended either ceramic tile or linoleum replacement. I chose the latter since the tile installation was not cost-effective plus the floors are actually uneven — there’s about a quarter inch step-up into the kitchen. I wasn’t about to pay umpteen dollars to even it all out.

The challenge was finding the linoleum. I wanted a light color, similar to the faux parquet beige pattern that was in the kitchen (see photo). I decided to have the flooring installed last weekend, on Saturday. Edgar insisted that we could find something at the “Knuni” home improvement market right down the street from where I live, but we only found one store that didn’t have the required length of flooring we needed, which was 9 meters. Our trek on foot led us down to Nar-Dos Street, which proved fruitless. We only found stores specializing in wood or ceramic flooring.

One shop keeper recommended that we visit some stores on Tigran Mets Street, on the block between Nar-Dos and Kristapor Streets. Some of these stores are known for selling  low-grade Iranian and Turkish home goods, like plastic storage containers, rainbow-tinted feather dusters and flimsy aluminum cookware. But, as it turned out, there are shops that sell reams of flooring of all different shades and patterns. After visiting three stores I settled on a vinyl flooring with a cappuccino colored oak wood pattern.  It was perfect — the required width of 2.5 meters, gorgeous pattern and over three-times thicker than the other flooring, which was put down as a fast and cheap short-term solution to begin with (at today’s rate, that junky flooring costs about 3,000 dram, or $6.20 a meter). The flooring I chose was manufactured by a Slovenian company called Juteks and claimed to be doggie proof, meaning that I should’t have to worry about my pet Chihuahua having occasional (okay, daily) accidents. That set me back about 57,000 dram, or $118. I remember having to wait about five minutes for the shop owner to run about attempting to make change for 60,000 dram — he didn’t have three 1,000 dram notes to give back in the till (if one even existed). He ended up taking out the cash from his own wallet.  Strange that literally nothing has changed in the last 15 years since I first stepped foot in Armenia with reliably and consistently having small change returned in a cash transaction. Somehow, it’s worse than ever.

Next came the purchase of wall boards — the decorative band made from wood or vinyl that hugs the base of the walls where they meet the floor. We found a vinyl one that supposedly matched the color of the floor perfectly, but it was sitting in a warehouse nearby. But instead of picking the boards up in the store I actually bought them from, we were sent to a different store. It took 45 minutes for the boards to arrive, only to see that not only were they the wrong color, they were not produced by the same manufacturer and I had to get my money back, which meant a trek to the shop we were just in. That fiasco led us on another search inside the labrinth-like “Knuni” market, which is essentially rows and rows of merchants selling all sorts of hardware, from power tools to door locks to wrench sets. It turned out that most resellers all depended on the same distributor and would only offer us the very same wall boards that we rejected. Miraculously, we somehow found another seller that had his own inventory and he had exactly what I was looking for. Another visit to a warehouse kept us waiting an additional 20 minutes. Both of us were completely fed up at that point, and I promised I would buy anything the guy found in there, so long as it wasn’t blue. But Edgar refused to install the flooring that afternoon claiming that he wouldn’t have been able to finish by sundown had he started work at 12:30 pm when we returned home. I didn’t understand why that was so important to him, but the job was deferred to Sunday.

IMG_20151118_085603 IMG_20151118_085622 IMG_20151118_085643 IMG_20151118_085742

I should emphasize that Edgar is great at what he does. He doesn’t have an excellent eye for detail and his logic for doing things, like stapling seams together instead of using an adhesive, was a bit odd. Luckily, a friend lent me some nail polish that perfectly matches the floor shade so I’ve been successful in concealing the staples. Now I have to be extra careful about where I step since my dog is bizarrely perfectly camouflaged. I didn’t realize she would blend right into the floor until she took her first few trepidatious steps on the virgin surface. She took a pee a couple minutes later.


Reflections on April 24


Now that some time has passed since the commemoration events held in Istanbul, I can finally freely post some photos and also part of the journal I was keeping at the time.

Firstly, I should say that the events planned by Project 2015 were phenomenal. They were brilliantly organized and executed. The organizers were gracious and caring to all the attendees, and they were well prepared for the days’ events. I unfortunately was not in Istanbul to attend the legendary memorial concert on April 22 featuring Onnik and Ara Dinkjian among other fine musicians, but from what I understand it was a moving performance (and apparently is on YouTube).

It was my first trip to Istanbul, and it was without a doubt one of the greatest adventures of my life. As you’ll see in photos I will post soon, Istanbul is a colorful, dynamic city where nothing seems to be impossible. Although I primarily spent all my time there in the Beyoglu district  and also the Golden Horn, I felt a peculiar, indescribable bond with the city, as if I had been away for several decades. For many years I vowed to never set foot in Turkey, not until the government recognized the Armenian Genocide. But some time ago I started getting over that. I realized that regardless of anything, Turkey–Western Armenia–is the home of my ancestors, and whether the Turks acknowledge the genocide or not, my roots are still there. That land is awaiting me.

I did not feel that there was anything relevant for me personally in being in Yerevan for the 24th. Nothing compelled me to march up Tsisternakaberd once again, droopy tulips in hand. The centennial was an event, it was a milestone, and for countless others like me, something had to be done differently this time around. I had heard one argument that by choosing to commemorate the centennial in Istanbul people were looking back in time instead of forward. I disagree. There was no other place on earth more symbolic for holding Armenian Genocide commemoration events than Istanbul.

Below are my notes recorded at the end of that day.

April 24, 2015

The day was an emotional one. It wasn’t depressing for me, however. Perhaps that’s because I was caught up in the shock of being here.

Yesterday as I debarked the airplane at Ataturk Airport a strange thought came to my head — was I home now? This musing was ironic since I had arrived from Yerevan, my home for 10 years. It’s where my children were born. But my roots are in Anatolia, not the South Caucasus. So was I home? Does it matter that I have no family ties to Constantinople? How does my identity as an American factor into this?

This question was reinforced by other feelings, emotions that I wanted to subdue yet they were there, cacophonous in the soul but somehow latent. It started late in the evening and continued this morning. I contemplated that I was looking for a connection with my past in the wrong place all these years. It’s as if I was deceiving myself. My ancestral home is indeed Anatolia. It’s not Yerevan, it’s not anywhere in the Armenian republic. I still feel the need to go home. Yegheki is waiting. Sousoury is waiting. Urfa is waiting. These places are all expecting me, I sense it, I can even taste it. I’m almost there. I’m looking for the right time to go, with the supportive companionship I will undoubtedly need to have. I can’t take that trip home alone, not the first time there.

It was a full day of visiting historic locations from mid-morning to late afternoon, from the site where Gomidas Vartabed once resided in Istanbul (the original building having been raised decades ago), to the jailhouse where the arrested intellectuals were detained (which is now called the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art) to the Haydarpasa train station via ferry from where these same intellectuals were sent by railcar to their doom.

At 6:30 pm I set out for the site that is sanctioned for the protest adjacent to Taksim Square on Istiklal Street, but I decided to bypass it and walk up Tarlabasi Street instead, then left onto Zambak. At the Zambak-Istiklal intersection I met a barricade of police. Men and women in full riot gear were on the sidelines, preparing for the worst. There was a rumbling chant in the distance coming from far down Istiklal Street. What appeared to be hundreds of people (close to 5000 protesters assembled that evening) were already gathered for the protest but there was no way of getting to them; the policeman told me the area was “closed.” I walked all the way around the block via a side street I luckily managed to discover only to be told on Taksim Square that the area was blocked off—the same secure police barrier was there as well. I told a policeman that I wanted to join my friends, that I was an Armenian. He told me to go back to the other side, where I had just been. I rushed back, weaving in and out of the chain of random pedestrians strolling about, clueless of the protest that was about to formally start. When I finally returned the chants were now louder because marchers entered the protest area walking right past me. For a moment I stood in fear thinking that Kemalists had managed to enter the area sanctioned for the protest. Then I saw the placards that people were holding and I was relieved. The signs told us not to forget Sevag Balikci, the soldier serving in the Turkish military who was murdered on April 24, 2011. They demanded that the genocide be admitted. I saw familiar faces, close friends nearby. There was a call and response method to the chanting. The power it transmitted was overpowering, exhilarating. It was unlike any protest I have ever participated in—the emotions, the intensity of the moment, the energy transmitted from person to person as if a rolling wave in a calm sea. The chanting continued for several minutes before the mass sit-in protest officially began. Thousands sat on the brick pavement, listening to speeches being read in Turkish, Armenian and English. Amongst us were Turks, Armenians from Istanbul and across the Diaspora, French, Darfuri. Occasionally recordings of spiritual music performed with modern arrangements were played on the loudspeakers. The mood was solemn; I discerned one woman in particular holding back tears.

I wanted to weep but I couldn’t. The chants of the oppositional anti-Armenian protests in the distance kept breaking the mood to mourn. I yearned to weep for my great-grandfather Nishan Guetchudian, who never watched his daughter Clara grow up. There are no photos of him, no traces. It’s as if he never existed. I wanted to imagine my grandfather Hagop surviving on the streets of Aleppo, compelled to eat weeds, picking through gravel and dirt in search of nails or anything made of metal to sell to a blacksmith so he could buy a loaf of bread—or perhaps two loaves, one being a distraction for the dozens of other starving children hovering around him, begging for a morsel. I wanted to imagine how infant Lusine Mahakian, comforted by her mother and her siblings managed to flee Urfa for Syria, sheltered from time to time by acquaintances. But I can’t. How can anyone possibly fathom having to survive an inferno of devastation, slaughter, rot, famine and filth? How do you begin to imagine it all? It’s not possible. You can stare all you want at the photographs of decapitated heads piled up in pyramids of evil, bewildered women roaming while clutching their babes, the gallows where dozens of devastated men sway, emaciated, decomposing children laid tightly beside one another in rows that never seem to end. It’s simply not possible for us to in any way to visualize that hell as if we were there in the moment. And we are better for that. Our martyrs would not want us to imagine it. One hundred years later they beckon us not to forget them, while imploring us to move on.

Haydarpasa protest
Haydarpasa protest
In front of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, previously known as the gate to hell a century back
Taksim Square Protest, additional photos below

IMG_20150424_190344 IMG_20150424_190339 IMG_20150424_190016