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LA Armenians Angered By Crisis In Artsakh Struggle To Help Relatives Suffering From Blockade

A very large group of protesters walks through a city street carrying Armenian and American flags. It is daytime.
The 2018 Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day march in Hollywood's Little Armenia.
(Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images)
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From her home in La Cañada, Maggie Arutyunyan checks in regularly to see how her cousin’s family is doing in Stepanakert, a city in the center of the embattled Nagorno-Karabakh region, considered the area’s de facto capital.

Frustrated Armenian Americans In LA Try to Help Fellow Armenians In Tense Nagorno-Karabakh

When they spoke on a recent morning, “the internet was so bad because of electricity issues that we had to keep calling each other back and forth about 15 times,” she said.

When they were able to connect, the news was bad — as it has been for months.

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“Her children don't have any diapers. She said that they eat fruit maybe once a month,” Arutyunyan said. “She waited in line for a few hours last week just to get four … apples.”

Since December, the region — known to Armenians as Artsakh — has struggled with a blockade by Azerbaijan of the only road that connects it with neighboring Armenia.

Nagorno-Karabakh, which is 95% Armenian, has close ties to Armenia, and holds a special place in the hearts of Southern California’s Armenian community.

A century-old conflict

The blockade is the latest flashpoint in a conflict that dates back more than a century. While Nagorno-Karabakh officially belongs to Azerbaijan, it has its own government, although it’s not recognized by any U.N. member nation. Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought two wars over the territory, the latest in 2020.

The area of the blockade is called the Lachin Corridor. Azerbaijan, which has set up a checkpoint near the Armenian border, has claimed it’s for security reasons, saying Armenia was using the road to send weapons into the region. Armenia has denied the charge, saying the blockade violates the truce that ended the 2020 war.

For the roughly 120,000 residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, the blockade has meant shortages of food and other critical supplies. Basic utilities have also been disrupted, including for Aratyunyan’s relatives.

“A few weeks ago when it was cold they didn't have gas [for heating], so they were living under a lot of woolen blankets, as were the children,” she said.

In the 2020 war, Armenians in Los Angeles sent humanitarian aid, and some went to fight on the front lines. Now, the blockade means they can’t even send a care package.

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Russian peacekeepers and the Red Cross have been allowed to bring goods into the region, “but that is extremely, extremely rationed,” said Arutyunyan, adding that her cousin’s family has survived mostly on canned or dry goods, like pasta.

Many local Armenians groups and individuals have been channeling their frustration into action — writing to Congress and seeking sanctions, like the suspension of military aid to Azerbaijan, which sells oil to the U.S.

Putting rage into action

Advocacy groups like the Armenian National Committee have made lobbying on behalf of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population a priority.

“Our organization set up a Save Artsakh campaign, where people sent direct emails and made phone calls to the White House and the State Department and USAID,” said Sarkis Balhikian, executive director of the group’s western region chapter, which is based in Glendale.

Balhikian, like many other Armenian Americans, sees the blockade as part of a larger Azerbaijani effort to push Armenians out of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The intentions are very clear,“ he said. “Either ethnic cleansing of the 120,000 Armenians and their displacement from their ancestral historic lands, or if possible, even … perpetrating a second Armenian genocide.”

A woman sits at a laptop in a room lit by a bright window to one side.
Attorney Maggie Arutyunyan volunteers for the Center for Truth and Justice, a nonprofit that works to document human rights abuses in Nagorno-Karabakh.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
LAist )

Arutyunyan, an attorney, volunteers with a nonprofit called the Center for Truth and Justice, set up by Armenian American attorneys after the 2020 war. They work with lawyers and law students in Armenia to interview war survivors and gather evidence of human rights abuses in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The blockade has held up the on-the-ground work. But for now, Arutyunyan said she can at least work on a report the group is putting together on state-sanctioned anti-Armenian hate speech in Azerbaijan, using data they had already gathered.

“I had to put into action all the rage that I'm feeling,” she said. “And if there's nothing I can do physically there, there's at least something I can do that can help my people in the long run.”

The role student activism is playing

Armenian American student activists have gotten involved, too. USC sophomore Mane Berikyan said she has a personal connection to the conflict: her aunt’s family, which lives on the Armenian side of the border with Azerbaijan.

She had just visited them over the summer. In September, as the conflict escalated, the town the family lives in was shelled, she said.

“I got a text from my mom telling me that my aunt called,” Berikyan said. “It was in the middle of the night. Everyone was asleep … they woke up to the sounds of shelling, and it was just very terrifying.”

Berikyan is active in the university’s Armenian Students’ Association and works for USC’s Institute of Armenian Studies. She got together with her peers at USC and other schools, connecting via social media.

A young woman wearing glasses sits on a bench in an outdoor public area.
USC sophomore and Armenian American student activist Mane Berikyan.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas

“We made this huge group chat on Instagram,” Berikyan said, “and we just sort of started brainstorming.”

She and fellow Armenian students have since written an open letter to the academic community calling attention to the crisis, organized panels, and held a candlelight vigil.

“I know it's very, very small on the scale of things that can help affect change,” Berikyan said. “But because Los Angeles is home to such a huge Armenian diaspora, I think we have a special responsibility, and also a privilege, to be able to do this work and continue advocating for our people back in our home country.”

Displacement and trauma

Berikyan and others say they’re trying to get more elected leaders to pay attention to a faraway conflict that may seem trivial to many, but which for Armenian Americans brings back the trauma of the Armenian Genocide a century ago.

Maggie Aratyunyan, the attorney, said Nagorno-Karabakh is where her mother’s family originally comes from. But over time, especially after the last war, many relatives left. Some went to the Armenian capital of Yerevan.

“Maybe 1% of them is left there,” she said. “So that place was ethnically cleansed of my family.”

The other day, on the phone with her cousin in Stepanakert, Arutyunyan decided to ask a difficult question.

“I said, ‘If they do open the blockade, will you leave?’” Aratyunyan said. “And she said, yes, because this is no way to live.”

Arutyunyan had hoped for a different answer, she said, but she understood.

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