Armenian community commemorates lives lost

Los Angeles is home to one of the largest Armenian diasporas in the world, with around 700 Armenian students attending USC. The Armenian Student Association held a vigil Wednesday night. (CJ Haddad | Daily Trojan)

Azerbaijan launched unprovoked attacks on sovereign, internationally recognized territory of the Republic of Armenia on Sept. 13, killing 207 Armenian servicemen and civilians and displacing 7,600 civilians.

The recent outbreak of violence between the two countries is the deadliest since a 44-day war in 2020 in the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. The territory is a majority Armenian enclave that is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has claimed independence since 1991. Nagorno-Karabakh has historically been at the center of territorial disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former Soviet republics where conflict has been simmering for decades.

“There’s always been skirmishes on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the decades, but there hasn’t been this type of blatant violence deep inside Armenian territory in towns [and] villages,” said Syuzanna Petrosyan, associate director of the USC Institute of Armenian Studies. “We’re not talking directly on the border. We’re talking about kilometers inside, where there’s communities of people, schools and pastures.”

Though a ceasefire halted last Tuesday’s attacks, many Armenians fear another full-scale war between the two countries, Petrosyan said, as Azerbaijan continues to make claims on Armenian territories.

“The people living [in Nagorno-Karabakh] don’t want to be part of Azerbaijan because they’re Armenian, and they know that for them being incorporated, fully controlled by Azerbaijan, means ethnic cleansing,” Petrosyan said. “Now that war has ended, and Azerbaijan has new claims on the Republic of Armenia, but there’s been so much history of violence and trauma. Every time Azerbaijan has come to a territory, there’s torture and crude violence.”

Mane Berikyan, a sophomore majoring in international relations, was working in the Armenian Institute when, soon after they happened, she found out about the attacks. She learned her aunt’s family woke up to the sound of shelling in Vardenis, one of the settlements that was attacked. 

“I think it was the most scared I’ve ever felt for my family’s safety,” Berikyan said. “It’s not the first time that their village has been [under fire] just because it’s close to the border, but it’s the first time that it was with this intensity and with other major towns deep inside Armenia, not very close to the border.”

Berikyan said that for a few hours, her relatives could not evacuate, but eventually male civilians were able to drive women and children to the capital. 

Gegham Mughnetsyan, an archivist at the Armenian Institute, was also working when the news of the attacks broke. He said another student worker at the Institute mentioned his brother was in the army serving in the attacked stretch of the border. Both he and Berikyan were attempting to get in contact with their families.

“It was a very chaotic moment where there is this war 5,000 miles away, but it was directly affecting the students in the middle of their work at USC,” Mughnetsyan said. “And we had to, at the moment, also scramble to get information from Armenia and try to find some sources …everybody was in this state of trying to look over the internet to try to find trustworthy information to see if this was war again.”

Berikyan said many Armenian students at USC are feeling scared, but also angry and “invisible” due to the administration’s silence on the conflict, despite the size of the Armenian community on campus. Around 700 Armenian students attend USC, with many hailing from Los Angeles — home to one of the largest Armenian diasporas in the world. Many Armenian students are also dismayed at the lack of resources offered by the administration during the difficult time. 

“We have a lot of events coming out soon,” Berikyan said. “We’re trying to channel the anger and fear into something productive, but it’s easy to just feel paralyzed and like you’re not able to do anything about it being so far away from your family and loved ones who are in danger.”

Armenian students coordinated several efforts in response to the crisis, including a fundraiser to support displaced Armenian civilians, an open letter jointly issued urging University communities to action and a vigil honoring lives lost in the recent attacks. 

Araxi Malazian, a senior majoring in civil engineering, learned about last week’s attacks on social media and said she appreciated the vigil after an incredibly stressful week. (CJ Haddad | Daily Trojan)

During the initial week of the attacks, the USC Armenian Student Association started a fundraiser for Kooyrigs, a nonprofit organization providing on-the-ground humanitarian aid to displaced Armenian families. Donations have exceeded $2,000 so far. 

USC ASA also joined other ASAs at prominent universities across the nation in issuing an open letter Tuesday to their university communities. The letter calls for students and faculty to oppose Azerbaijan’s “assault on humanity” and demonstrate their solidarity with Armenians. 

The letter noted “horrifying developments,” such as a series of videos released Sept. 16 showing Azerbaijani soldiers celebrating the mutilation of female Armenian soldiers. Christine Almadjian, a senior majoring in law, history and culture, said Azeris, the main ethnic group in Azerbaijani, have international messaging channels where they created GIFs of such videos—one channel, Telegram, made more than 3,000 of them.

“It’s been the laughingstock of the Azeri channels and even among other officials,” Almadjian said. “They laugh at the fact that our identities are constantly at stake and at risk because of their violence. These are just aspects of the Armenian reality. These are things students have to cope with.”

The letter also called attention to the risk of cultural genocide in Armenia under Azerbaijan. The letter cited a recent Cornell University and Purdue University report detailing how Azerbaijan wiped out many Armenian cultural heritage sites under their jurisdiction. The letter additionally went on to mention Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Armenia on the weekend of Sept. 17. During her visit, Pelosi expressed strong support for Armenia, highlighting the country’s position as a democracy in a “sea of autocracy.”

On Wednesday evening, the Armenian Student Association held a candlelight vigil in the Religious Center Courtyard in support of Armenia under attack, where a priest was invited to make remarks and lead a prayer. Students lit candles and stood for a moment in silence to pay respects to those who died in the fighting.

The date of the Sept. 21 vigil held a deeper meaning to those who attended as well— it is the date Armenia won its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Araxi Malazian, a senior majoring in civil engineering, said that a day that traditionally called for celebration was sadly overshadowed by the recent violence. 

Malazian learned about last week’s attacks on social media after waking up and said she appreciated the vigil after an incredibly stressful week juggling “helping out in whatever way I can,” grieving and daily life.

“It just felt a little bit surreal to wake up to that and go about the rest of my day,” Malazian said. “So it’s nice to have events like [this, where] there’s something I can do to pay respect and show support.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the attacks against Armenia began Sept. 14. They began on Sept. 13. The Daily Trojan regrets this error.