The trucks should be traveling east and west

Posted on February. 24. 2023

by Stepan Piligian | The Armenian Weekly

My heart goes out to all Armenians experiencing the constant rollercoaster of emotions from the humanitarian assault on the people of Artsakh. Unfortunately, human suffering has been caused entirely by human aggression. Last week, a region already saturated with horrific conditions was struck with another catastrophe—this one a “natural” disaster of epic proportions in the form of a devastating earthquake in southern Turkey and northern Syria. Although the news media simply report about the “Turkish” and “Syrian” population, we are all aware that there are significant Armenian connections to this tragedy. The quake impacted the historic Armenian lands of Cilicia including Adana (my grandmother’s home), Marash and other locations. First reports of the earthquake came from Gaziantep, a post-genocide name for the ancient Armenian town of Aintab. Aside from ethnic Turks, there are substantial Kurdish populations in this region. The Syrian areas impacted are territories that have already suffered tremendous carnage from the Syrian War. The impacted locations include the contested land where Turkish troops invaded Syria in addition to historic Aleppo where the Armenian Diaspora essentially began. The devastation has been significant for an area not yet recovered from the impact of war and terror. Once again, the Armenian community has rallied to help with relief efforts as many Syrian Armenians are homeless or fearful of returning to their homes. Relief fundraising from the church and the Armenian Relief Society has begun with pleas for support from all Armenians. Human loss has been significant (currently in the mid-30,000s). We empathize with all communities regardless of ethnicity or religion.
Natural disasters are, unfortunately, an opportunity for all peoples to display their compassion for fellow humans regardless of inter-ethnic and international conflicts. We must never let our current resistance to the Artsakh blockade impact our empathy for the thousands affected by this catastrophe. Conflicts between nations are political in nature, and our issues with Turkey are with their governments and their supporters, not with the common citizens. This is what separates us from racism and ethnocentric behavior. It is what distinguishes us from the behavior of Azerbaijan, which is based on hatred. It is for this reason that I was happy to see the Republic of Armenia immediately reach out to the governments of Syria and Turkey to send relief aid and rescue teams. Given the substantial Armenian population in northern Syria, the response to that country was quite natural. Although a humanitarian crisis should subordinate all political issues, it was still gratifying to see Armenia stand tall with its offer to Turkey. It would be naïve, however, to think that this act will have any impact on Turkey’s current policy toward Armenia. Nevertheless, the relief work should continue simply for humanitarian intentions.
I was particularly struck by an image published a few days ago of an Armenian cargo vehicle crossing the closed Armenian/Turkish border to secure the best land route to the stricken areas (the quake has impacted as far as Diyarbekir in the southeast). The vehicle traveling west was not the issue. Relief supplies were loaded and rushed to the needy. What was interesting was the border crossing. We are all aware that the land route to western Armenia (eastern Turkey) since the border closing by Turkey in 1993 is north through Georgia and then west into Turkey. Although there have been some rumblings of cargo and border traffic changes, the international border has essentially been closed for decades. One can almost touch Ararat from Khor Virap but don’t try to walk there. It always amazes me that when it serves one’s purpose, obstacles that were considered rock solid simply vanish. It was in Turkey’s interest to be perceived as welcoming all assistance, particularly from a traditional enemy. It was in Armenia’s interest to show compassion and remove any doubt about our values. As a result, the obstacle vanished for the moment. It will remain closed except for relief transport. Many of us recall the unprecedented cooperation in 1988 after the devastating Armenian earthquake. The tragedy was simply too significant for any of our petty disagreements. It also reminded me of the centennial anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Washington, DC. For the first time in memory, priests from both the Prelacy and Diocese on a national level offered Holy Communion to the faithful. The event was held in the presence of the Catholicoi and because they sanctioned it, the beautiful reality occurred. It was a grand expression that our problems are artificial and within our capability to resolve. Yet, it was generally business as usual the next week…cordial, but still artificial. While not comparing the issues, it is clear that seemingly deep rooted problems can be solved with mutual will.
The other aspect of that photo that disturbed me was not what I saw, but what I did not see. The relief vehicle was loaded with food, water and medical supplies. This is exactly what the people of Artsakh are denied on a daily basis. It generated mixed feelings. While I was gratified to see the cargo truck traveling west to the quake zones, I was dismayed that there are no trucks from Armenia traveling east to the Lachin Corridor. In a recent column, I mentioned that we cannot expect the US and Europe to do our job. It is unrealistic for Armenians to ask for relief missions and airlifts (which are essential) if we have not extended ourselves first. An article was published this week out of Armenia reporting on the comments from Suren Sargsyan, the founder of the Armenian Center for American Studies in Yerevan. Commenting on feedback he received from the United States, Sargsyan referred to political sources in Washington who stated that the Armenian government says Lachin is Russia’s responsibility. These sources also stated that the Armenian government does not interfere, and that the embassy simply holds briefings to share updates. It was their general impression that Armenia’s interest is limited. We should acknowledge that the sources were not identified (obviously) and may reflect Sargsyan’s view, but it does correlate to the general public perception of Armenia’s limited role to end the blockade. It may also explain the limited support from western democracies. There has been much speculation that the Armenian government’s passive role is based on a need not to upset Russia to the point where further damage can be incurred. In 2020, it was generally believed that Russia tolerated the Azeri invasion (including the loss of Shushi) as a punitive measure for the western leanings of the Pashinyan government. Russia is far more distracted today with the impact of its war on Ukraine, but is still quite capable of harming Armenia.
Regardless of the political implications, the Armenian government should be far more sensitive to the plight of its brethren in Artsakh. Apparently, as the former “guarantor” of Artsakh’s security which they have now abdicated to Russia, they feel that the Lachin blockade is Russia’s responsibility. Sending relief trucks only in one direction is not a problem. To many Armenians, however, it creates anguish to the core. Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan is currently in Ankara to address the “normalization” dialogue with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. During the press briefings, they announced the restoration of the Ani bridge, connecting both countries, “ahead of the full opening of the border.” During his comments, Mirzoyan stated that “the international community must not remain indifferent toward any humanitarian crisis happening anywhere around the globe.” Taken without his context, we should applaud Mirzoyan for his public support of the earthquake and the Lachin humanitarian crisis. To my disappointment, his comments were made only in reference to the Turkish earthquake. We should have empathy for the earthquake victims, but to make these comments without any context to your own brethren suffering from a genocidal inspired humanitarian crisis is insensitive. Frankly, we should be outraged. I wonder how the 120,000 brave souls suffering the daily indignities of the blockade will feel when they read these comments. I will never understand the passion displayed for Turkish duplicity while your own people suffer. Perhaps that’s the answer. Armenia does not consider Artsakh “our” people, and that is horrifically sad. These statements about Armenia as part of the international community supporting humanitarian problems, while the trucks only travel west, further extend this perception.
Armenia’s government seems determined to sign a peace treaty with Azerbaijan and “normalize” relations with Turkey. Honestly, who can be against peace and friendly relations with neighbors? The problem lies in the lack of true negotiations. How can we “negotiate” with a nation that is choking our people and not perceive this as a surrender? Why isn’t Armenia insisting on Azerbaijan’s withdrawal from sovereign territory, the return of POWs and an end to the blockade as conditions for negotiations? Instead, they look like negotiating tools for Azeri leverage. Turkey constantly reminds us that they are “one nation two states” with Azerbaijan. If true, then the blood is also on their hands, yet we welcome the “normalization” as two old friends reconciling. If our leverage is insufficient, we can at least maintain our dignity. We still control what we say in public forums. Soon, Erdogan will begin to exploit Armenia’s goodwill as he appeals to his fanatic base for his struggling re-election. Have we forgotten his punitive comments about “remnants of the sword” or fully backing Azerbaijan in their aggression? We must never behave as subordinates and sacrifice our dignity. What is the purpose of treasured sovereignty if not to maintain your dignity in the civilized world? We must never create the perception of accepting aggression by ignoring it when convenient. Diplomacy can either clarify our values or blur the lines. Have we chosen the latter?

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