Perspectives On Artsakh From A Black Armenian Angeleno

Carene Mekertichyan at the Pan Pacific Park March for Victory in Los Angeles on Sept. 10. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

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By Carene Rose Mekertichyan

My father and his family immigrated to the United States in 1991, in the chaos of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the last major war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

If my father had been drafted before our family's immmigration paperwork was finalized, I would not be here. By the same token, if Armenia had been in a state of prosperous peace at the time, my family may never have emigrated.

Family friend Sarik, Carene's dad, Uncle Mher, and Grandtatik Nvart (great-grandmother) pictured in Armenia in the 1980s. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

My mom had moved to Los Angeles a few years prior from Chicago for a job opportunity. She met my dad when they were working at what is now the Intercontinental Hotel in Century City. As the old Armenian proverb says, "Chakatagrits ches karogh khusapel," or "You cannot escape destiny." So here I am, after the stars aligned, allowing my passage into this world.

I am a proud Angeleno. I grew up in Silverlake, back when it was vibrant and diverse. Before I started kindergarten, I could speak basic Armenian because I spent my days at my Tatik and Papik's (grandparents) apartment while my parents were working. Once I started school, however, I lost the words I had known and my understanding of the Armenian language is still remedial at best.

Carene's dad pictured at the Marriott in Century City, when he first started working there in 1992. He met Carene's mother here, who is pictured here working in the PBX department. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

Here in L.A., I'm surrounded by the largest diasporic Armenian population and yet I've struggled to feel connected to this community in which I felt I wasn't seen or wanted. I remember walking through the Glendale Galleria holding hands with my parents and seeing the stares from other Armenians as they turned to whisper with each other.

'BUT I'M BOTH!'

This was not the case with the Black community. I remember my first day at Ivanhoe Elementary School, when my soon-to-be friend Aliya came over to me and said, "We are the Black girls. We have to stick together." This unconditional acceptance has remained true throughout my life.

Carene with her friend, Aliya, at Ivanhoe Elementary in 2002. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

When we would visit my mom's side of the family on the South Side of Chicago, my light skin resulted in some hurtful taunts. There were girls on the playground who said they didn't want to play with a "vanilla ice cream girl." My cousin Ayanna set them straight as I left the park crying. I was called everything from "yellow" to "Lite-Brite." Family members would playfully joke about my last name, calling me "McKetchup" because they couldn't handle the pronunciation.

All those otherizing experiences aside, I navigated Black spaces with an ease I still don't feel anywhere else.

Both my parents ensured I understood the history and the suffering of my ancestors. I remember my mother sitting me down one day when I must have been five years old or so and explaining the history of slavery in the United States and our continued struggle for justice. While I don't remember what sparked that conversation, I remember it knocked me right out of my California bubble. The idea of someone hating me because of my skin and features was foreign to me.

Carene with her cousins, Imani and Ayanna, in Chicago. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

I first became aware of my Blackness around the same age. My Armenian cousin said, "Even if you have just one little drop of Black, the people, like at your school, will only see you as Black."

"But I'm both!" I remembered saying, upset because I had no understanding of the "one-drop rule." Although he didn't fully understand the implications of what he had said, it still hurt.

It has always been a strange paradox to acknowledge the fact that the United States, a nation built by Black slaves on stolen indigenous land, has given my Armenian family freedoms and opportunities they never could imagine under the Soviet Union. I accept this truth while also understanding this country is steeped in systemic white supremacy.

Even with my light-skinned privilege, I myself have been subjected to racial slurs, followed in stores, unjustifiably pulled over by the police and endured countless microaggressions. The dismissal of these disparities by some Armenians, who boast that our community is "self-made," is inherently racist and feeds into the flawed "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality glorified by so many immigrant communities.


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I believe it is hard for many Armenians to understand that they, too, benefit from white supremacy, despite our indigeneity, genocide and the uniqueness of ethnic SWANA identity.

LEGACY OF THE GENOCIDE

I don't know when I first learned about the Armenian Genocide, as it was always a topic of coversation among my family. I just knew the "Turks killed a lot of Armenians." I remember studying World War I in high school and feeling my heart skip a beat when I saw Armenia mentioned in my textbook.

I quickly deflated, reading the "massacre of Armenians by Ottoman forces." Our ethnicity, our Genocide, was just one sentence in my history textbook. As the years went on, I learned more about my own family's survival and the atrocities that occurred, so I pushed for Genocide recognition by means of constituent letters, protests and organizing the first Armenian Genocide vigil in Dartmouth College's history.

Carene's great-grandfather Garegin, his wife Nvart (center) and his cousin Zaro, who also survived the Genocide, with (left to right) aunts Armik and Knarik and Tatik Anahit (Grandmother Anahit).

Now, before I explain the current conflict, it is critical that I provide the full historical context that so much of today's journalism sorely lacks. The Ancient Kingdom of Armenia (Urartu) has existed since about 900 BCE. Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity and the full scope of Ancient Armenia's territory can be found on numerous maps. Over time, Armenia was conquered and ruled by the Ottoman Turks, Persians and Russians, losing territory in the process.

For Armenians, we don't have to go very far back into our family trees for evidence of our historical displacement and genocide. My great-grandparents come from Van, Nakhichevan and Ghars, all Armenian regions that are now part of Turkey and Azerbaijan. While the Armenian Genocide is perhaps Turkey's most well-known atrocity, in which it is estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed under the cover of WWI, it is important to understand the full scope of terror caused by the Ottoman Empire at the time.

These atrocities include: The Hakkari massacres (1843), The Massacre of Aleppo (1850), The Batak massacre (1876), The Hamidian massacres (1894), The Diyarbakır massacres (1895), The Adana massacre (1909), The Greek Genocide (1913), The Assyrian Genocide (1914) and the famine of Mount Lebanon (1915). I believe that it is this genocidal legacy that Turkish President Erdogan emulates in his own quest for a fascist pan-Turkic state.

Carene's Grandtatik Nvart (great-grandmother Nvart) on the shores of the Black Sea in Batumi. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

I am the direct descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors. We were lucky enough to have my grandtatik Nvart with us until 2017 and she helped keep our family history alive. Her husband Garegin, my Tatik's father, was born in Van and survived the genocide. Garegin didn't say much about that time, but there are some details our family has remembered and carried with us.

When Garegin was 8 or 9, he was chased into a river along with his little brother by Turkish soldiers and survived by holding onto the tail of an ox to get across safely. The last he saw of his little brother, he was carried away by a Turkish officer on horseback. At some point, Garegin made his way to the Echmiadzin Church. At the church wall, he found what remained of his family. There is uncertainty as to who was left, but he did see his mother, father and at least one sister. Apparently, upon first seeing his mother, he went to get her food and when he returned she had died. His father and sister died soon after, all stricken with cholera. Before or after this encounter, Garegin was placed in an American orphanage in Jerusalem.

My papik's mother Ashken Mayasyan, who also survived the genocide, never knew her true age. One story from the genocide that she recounted with my papik and his brothers shared during the genocide has stuck with me over the years. Her mother Tamar was nicknamed "Sirun Tamar" because she was known for her beauty. When Turkish soldiers came looking for her, she smeared her face with dirt, tattered her clothes and told them "They took her already and went that way."

Carene's grandpapik (great-grandfather), Garegin Aslanyan. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

At some point, Ashken lost her father, mother and two other siblings, but those details have never been discussed in my family. Ashken, her sister Arus and brother Gurgen ended up in an American orphanage in Gyumri.

They were lucky to have each other. At that time many surviving Armenian girls were converted to Islam and forced into sex slavery and marriages. Some were tattooed on their faces and hands as a mark of their ownership. It is this understanding of my family history and our shared intergenerational trauma that tethers my spirit to my ancestors and our Armenian community.

THE CONFLICT

Following the Russian Revolution in 1918, Armenia (along with many other countries at the time) established the first Republic of Armenia, which existed briefly before being incorporated into what would become the USSR in 1920. It was then that Azerbaijan formed a republic for the first time for their ethnic group descended primarily from Albanian and Turkic ancestry (undoubtably Armenian ancestry as well).

Between 1918 and 1920, the Azeris perpetrated massacres of Armenians in Baku and Shushi. These were the first of many pogroms to push ethnic Armenians out of the region. When what would be the USSR was formed in 1921, Joseph Stalin, at the time a high-ranking government official, gave Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) to Azerbaijan, despite its predominantly Armenian population, to appease Turkey and incentivize its allyship.

Carene's Aunt Armik and Tatik Anahit (grandmother Anahit) pictured in the 1950s. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

In 1988, the people of Artsakh voted to reunite with the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. As a result, the pogrom of Sumgait occurred in which hundreds of Armenians were murdered. There were gang rapes of Armenian women in the streets. Azeri allies hid their Armenian neighbors as they waited to leave the town safely. This pogrom was well-documented by the Soviet government officials who escorted surviving Armenians to safety. There was another pogrom in Kirovabad that year and a well known pogrom in Baku in 1990 and Maragha in 1992.

These tensions escalated into the Artsakh Liberation War, or Nagorno-Karabakh War, which resul

ted in an estimated 30,000 deaths on both sides. Armenia won the war and a ceasefire was declared. Artsakh has remained an autonomous republic under de facto Armenian control within Azerbaijan since 1994. There have been numerous violent clashes since.

Azerbaijan destroyed Armenian churches, gravestones and khachkars in what has been called the worst cultural genocide in history. In 2004, Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani Army officer, murdered Armenian officer Gurgen Margayarian with an axe while Margayarian was sleeping. Both men had been sent to a NATO training program by their respective governments. In 2005, the Mayor of Baku, Hajibala Abutalibov, said the following to a municipal delegation from Bavaria, Germany: "Our goal is the complete elimination of Armenians. You, Nazis, already eliminated the Jews in the 1930s and '40s, right? You should be able to understand us."

In 2016 there was the brutal Four-Days War between Azerbaijan and Armenia in which there were cases of Armenian civilians executed and mutilated, like the remaining residents of Talish. A number of Armenian soldiers were also beheaded.

Carene's Uncle Rafik, Grandtatik Ashken (great-grandmother Ashken), a friend and Papik Ruben Mekertichyan (grandfather). (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

In July of this year, Azerbaijan bombed the Tavush region of Armenia, shelling a PPE factory, schools, and threatening to bomb Armenia's nuclear power plant. This was a clear violation of the U.N. pandemic ceasefire which Armenia had signed but Azerbaijan had not. Since the attack on Tavush, the Azeri and Turkish governments have been stirring up anti-Armenian sentiments and there has been a spike in hate crimes across our diaspora. Thousands of Azeris protested in Baku, demanding war with Armenia.

A few days before the fighting began on Sept. 27, a number of Armenians were engaging in a ridiculous and hurtful debate online about Armenian identity. Some argued that marrying and having children with non-Armenians will lead to the loss of our culture and identity.

Having to argue the validity of my existence was frustrating, but I found that most people engaging in the discussion were overwhelmingly supportive of multiracial Armenians. We carry our ancestors in our souls; no amount of cultural gatekeeping and adherence to "blood quantum" can ever take that away from us. Whenever Armenia is under attack, we stand united, no matter what our differences are. It is my sincere wish that this unity remains once we make it through this crisis.

Carene, age 4, dancing tash-toosh at her family friend's Armenian-Mexican wedding. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

We see this genocidal war on Artsakh as an existential threat to the Armenian diaspora. Armenians have been indigenous to Artsakh for thousands of years and had no incentive to start a war over the small bit of land we already have. Why would Armenia, a nation of 3 million, start a war with Azerbaijan, a nation of 10 million, backed by Turkey, a nation of 85 million? President Erdogan of Turkey has cited Adolf Hitler's Germany as an effective government and stated he planned to "fulfill the mission our grandfathers have carried out for centuries," alluding to the Armenian Genocide.

Azerbaijan and Turkey had been holding military exercises on Armenia's border as a means of intimidation since August; the conflict that was sparked on Sept. 27 should've come as no surprise to anyone paying attention. The Turkish government has paid and misled mercenaries from Syria who are being pushed to the front lines and are losing their lives. There are reports of refugees and jihadist rebels being conscripted into a fight that is not theirs, many of whom have requested to return home.

WHY WE ARE PROTESTING

The way Western media has been reporting this crisis is dangerous because there is no neutrality here. The focus of Azerbaijan and Turkey's strikes has been civilian territory with the goal of exterminating as many Armenians as possible. They have targeted Armenia proper by shelling Vardenis and Artsvanik. They have shelled our iconic Ghazanchetsots Cathedral twice, killing civilians and injuring reporters. This conflict is bigger than Azerbaijan, with foreign superpowers involved on all sides. In addition to military support from Turkey, Israel supplies about 60% of Azerbaijan's weapons. The Azeri military is currently using Israeli kamikaze drones to strike Armenia. Russia brokered a ceasefire for the purpose of recovering bodies that was immediately violated.

As those of us in the Armenian diaspora continue to collect donations and protest, we are also engaged in an information war on social media. Azerbaijan's troll farm was recently exposed and the Azeri government continues to ban social media and foreign journalists from the region while questioning and arresting citizens who are calling for peace. The government of Azerbaijan has a well documented history of money laundering and lobbying of journalists. A number of celebrities who have come out in support of Armenia have also been bullied into silence by Azeri bots.

Armenians are shutting down your freeways and marching in your streets because we want your attention. We want as much coverage and visibility as possible. We know what happens when governments choose neutrality over people and we refuse to allow this attempt at ethnic cleansing to go unnoticed.

Family dinner with Carene's Granny Rose on a visit from Chicago. (Courtesy Carene Mekertichyan)

Now, it doesn't come as a surprise to me that people have no interest in engaging with what is happening in Armenia. The conflict seems distant, confusing, and it's so much easier to focus on the election and pandemic instead.

When the movement for Black lives was reignited in June following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, I was amazed at the sheer number of "allies" who emerged among friends and communities that had stayed silent for so long.

I attended my first Black Lives Matter protest in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown and, in the years since, we have lost and continue to lose countless Black lives to law enforcement and lynching. It hurt to see this sudden mobilization of allies because I understood that you all had the ability to fight alongside us this entire time, yet you chose the comfort of your privilege instead.

Whether it's a selfie at a protest, an empty Black square or the continued meme-ification of Breonna Taylor, these actions are meaningless without substantive direct action to back them up. Performative activism is useless and oftentimes harmful. It is safe to say that this spike in activism we saw at the start of the summer has died down and people are returning to their natural state of apathy and privileged ignorance.

I am here to tell you that it is possible and necessary to care about more than one issue at a time. Your taxpayer dollars are funding Azerbaijan and President Trump has business interests in both Turkey and Azerbaijan, so this is your fight as well.

Just as I called on the Armenian community to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, I am now pleading with everyone who takes the time to read this to fight for your Armenian friends while we are still here. At least 100,000 of your fellow Angelenos marched in the streets this past weekend demanding you listen to us. Like all Armenians, I had been a mess since the attack; alternating between frantic action and catatonic anxiety. It filled my spirit to see Black, Assyrian, Filipino and Mexican allies standing with us in solidarity. It is my sincere hope that you, my fellow Angelenos, join us in condemning this continued attempt to erase Armenians from this earth.

The Armenian diaspora is so vast, rich and diverse, in spite of the loss of much of our indigenous land and our continued struggle for survival. Like Garegin and Ashken, we persevere and thrive in the face of adversity. I always say that, as a Black Armenian woman, I am the proud legacy of two failed genocides. The failure of these genocides is dependent on our commitment to speaking truth and ensuring history doesn't repeat itself. Our existence is resistance and we aren't going anywhere.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Carene Mekertichyan is an actress, writer, singer, educator and proud Angelena. As a Black Armenian woman, she is drawn to storytelling that centers marginalized narratives and firmly believes that true art exists to create empathy and social change. Her identity and upbringing in Los Angeles informs both her art and intersectional activism. She serves as the Artistic Associate for Social Justice at Independent Shakespeare Co. and is also a teaching artist currently working with the Unusual Suspects and Creative Acts. She has most recently performed with Independent Shakespeare Co, Rogue Artists Ensemble, Palos Verdes Performing Arts, Hero Theatre and at the Getty Villa. Her plays have been produced by Company of Angels, MeetCute LA, Sacred Fools' "We the People Theater Action," and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She received her training from Dartmouth College and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).