Never Distant: Nagorno-Karabakh in Three Places

Armenian Heritage Park in Boston, MA. Photo:
November 9, 2020

At a time when so much of our focus is on national events and crises here, it is also important to recognize that there are those in our community who also are dealing with the impact of violence, loss, and upheavals that, while occurring beyond our borders, have profound and personal impact. The Center’s Administrative Manager, Sabina Sarkisyan Griffin, is among them. – Ed.

Sabina Sarkisyan Griffin is the Center Manager at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.  After immigrating to the US as a refugee from Azerbaijan, she received a degree in film and television from Boston University.

I:  In the record of contestation.

Artsakh has been inhabited by Armenians since antiquity but is known today as the unrecognized territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.  The seeds of the conflict currently raging there can be traced back to 1923, when Joseph Stalin placed the majority Armenian-populated region under the jurisdiction of the Azerbaijan SSR.  In 1988, after decades of oppression, discrimination, and attempts at cultural erasure, Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, inspired by perestroika and glasnost,’ petitioned Moscow for reunification with the Armenian SSR.  These demands were met with ethnic cleansing and pogroms against the Armenians in Azerbaijan that lasted from 1988 to 1990.  As the Soviet Union was collapsing, the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh overwhelmingly voted in a referendum to secede from Azerbaijan and form an independent republic.  This decision was followed by a war in which an estimated 30,000 Armenians and Azerbaijanis were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.  A 1994 ceasefire mediated by the OSCE Minsk group froze the war, making Nagorno-Karabakh internationally unrecognized, but de facto independent, with 150,000 indigenous Armenians controlling Artsakh and the surrounding territories of Azerbaijan as a defensive buffer zone.  During the last twenty-six years, as they have been rebuilding their infrastructure, cultural heritage, and democratic society, all negotiations for a long-term resolution of the conflict have been deadlocked by seemingly irreconcilable positions. Armenians insist on their right to existence and self-determination, while Azerbaijan demands its territorial integrity and return of Nagorno-Karabakh under its full control.

II: In the stacks: from Baku to Boston.


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Reading Room at Boston Public Library. Photo: Paul Griffin

A library saved me – literally - in the early summer of 1989.

Six months earlier, my parents sent me to Moscow to stay with friends, away from an unstable situation in Baku, my hometown, where anti-Armenian attacks were steadily increasing. Throughout that winter, such demonstrations and sporadic violence against Armenians in Azerbaijan continued. But I very much missed my family and my friends. So, when the unrests quieted down a bit in the spring 1989, my parents hesitantly allowed me to return home. I was an introverted fourteen-year-old who loved reading and looked forward to my trips to the neighborhood library. “I have to return books” was an excuse for me to get out of the house. And that’s what I did on that warm summer day, when the leaves on the trees were still new and of light-green color, unsoiled by dust, car exhaust, and time. I checked out new books and decided to read on a park bench across the street from the library. A few minutes later, I was approached by a young man in his early 20s. “Ermani? (Armenian?)” He asked with a smirk. I knew that word from the chants during anti-Armenian demonstrations. I don’t remember what I did or what I said – shook my head? stayed silent? responded in some way? backed away? I could feel the horror rising in my chest and flooding my face and my head, panic taking over my entire body. The young man quickly walked away.

I knew I had to flee, and bolted back to the library. From the safety of the library’s hall, I could see the park bench where I was just moments ago. I watched as the young man returned with three other men, and it was clear they were searching for me. After a few minutes of frantically looking around for my possible escape route, they gave up and dispersed. I don’t remember how long I stayed in that library or how I got home that day. I did not leave the house alone for the rest of that summer. In August, my parents and I packed two old suitcases, left everything else that they built over the years – home, family, jobs, friendships, books, memories – behind and fled to Moscow to apply for the US refugee program.

In January 1990, my mother returned to Baku to recover some of our property and became trapped in the week-long anti-Armenian pogroms.  She watched through the window as violent Azerbaijani mobs roamed the city, torturing and killing Armenians in their homes and on the streets.  After two days of chaos, the mob entered our home.  Thanks to a brave Azeri neighbor who came to her defense, the knife that the attackers placed against my mother’s throat didn’t penetrate her skin but left a deep emotional scar that’s still raw and painful to this day. She escaped Baku, leaving everything behind and bringing with her memories of burnt bodies lining the route to the airport. 

Seventy-two years earlier, during the 1918 anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku, my great-grandfather and his family also survived a knife attack by a mob. Despite a neighbor’s pleas to spare the family’s lives, my grandmother’s 15-year old sister died during the attack. The survivors did not speak of that event during the decades that followed. So, the family story is sparse, raising more questions than it answers, and what was passed down was that she died from fear during the invasion. What really happened to my grandmother’s sister on that day was buried with the memories the survivors took to their graves.

Sabina with family at Boston Public Library,
on the 25th anniversary of arrival to Boston.

Our arrival to Boston in 1992 as refugees was filled with anxiety about the unknown, and a relief that we no longer had to fear that our passports may reveal an undesirable ethnicity.  A local Jewish organization assisted us with basic needs and arranged a spot for me in a small innovative public school.  My teachers at Fenway High School introduced me to the history and the stories of the Holocaust and the Civil Rights movement through Facing History and Ourselves curriculum, and encouraged me to research my own (hi)story.  Growing up in Soviet Azerbaijan, the words “Armenian Genocide” were only occasionally whispered by my family – in part because of the family trauma, and in part for fear of reprisals from the authorities.  So, only four years after my escape to the stacks in Baku, I once again found myself among the books.  But the musty halls of Boston Public Library did not have to shelter me from danger this time.  As I was researching and learning about the Armenian Genocide, I did not feel trapped and afraid, but, for the first time, empowered and liberated.

III. In the streets of Boston

The last few weeks have been devastating for millions of Armenians around the world still reeling from inter-generational trauma of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-23, when 1.5 million Armenians were murdered, and the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Azerbaijan in 1988-90.  To this day, the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan deny the Armenian Genocide and lobby against its recognition. Since September 27, Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, has been bombing civilians in Artsakh in order to retake the territory by force.  Although Armenians are fighting back, in the midst of Covid-19 pandemic, an estimated 40% of civilian infrastructure in the capital Stepanakert have been destroyed and 70% of the population displaced.  The rest have been living in bomb shelters, helping with defense efforts, and bearing witness to the devastation. As the daily attacks continue unabated, the world once again stays indifferent.  Powerful governments and world organizations condemn but fail to take any meaningful steps to stop the atrocities. Local and diaspora Armenians view the actions of Azerbaijan and Turkey as renewed efforts to kill, exile, and erase us, and have been protesting the war and the world’s indifference, demanding concrete actions to stop annihilation of the Armenians in Artsakh. 

Rally in Boston to protest Azerbaijan's war against Artsakh.
Armenian Heritage Park. October 11, 2020

In October, I also joined a demonstration in downtown Boston that started in front of the Turkish consulate, and marched through the city, across the Common, past the State House and Faneuil Hall, ending at the Armenian Heritage Park. The Park, dedicated in 2012, is a memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide as well as a tribute to the immigrant experience in Boston.  As thousands of Armenians and allies marched through the city that welcomed and helped generations of our families heal over the years, we pondered our privilege of safety from bombs, as well as our connections and responsibilities to each other and to our siblings in the homeland who, after one hundred years, are still fighting for their rights.  Gathering at the memorial park, I couldn’t help but reflect on our shared past and present, the recurrent cycle of heartbreak and loss, but also on the resilience, strength, and solidarity that bind us together in the constant struggle against violence and injustice.

It has been very difficult to process everything that is happening now: the sense of existential dread is all-consuming and devastating. Many of my friends are dealing with the stress of the pandemic, elections, the urgency to recognize racist inequities, climate catastrophe, and so much suffering around us, but some of us carry an additional pain and grief of an ignored and recurrent violence against our people in other parts of the globe. We share in our activism with that of so many others, as we all raise our voices with the demand for human rights, justice, and a better world.