“The national and spiritual identity are mixed in Armenian blood,” said Reverend Father Vazgen Boyajyan, head of the Redmond church. “You can’t define which part is spiritual or religious and which part is traditional or national.”
Buniatyan and I are sitting in the pews of the Holy Resurrection Armenian Apostolic Church in Redmond. Above our heads, the arches of the domed ceiling soar and light filters through in every shade of the stained glass windows.
Over 6,000 miles away, their ancestral home of Armenia – a small, mountainous nation nestled between Europe and Asia – faces a mounting existential threat as neighboring Azerbaijan carries out an organized ethnic cleansing and more powerful nations have not stepped in to help.
Within the past few weeks, the nation of less than 3 million has been staggering as more than 100,000 Artsakhi-Armenian refugees are forced to seek safety as more land slips from Armenian hands.
On Sept. 19, Azerbaijan announced a new military operation in Artsakh (also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, a term originating from the Soviet era) – a region geographically located within the modern lines of Azerbaijan but whose population is ethnically Armenian – and the ensuing first attack resulted in 25 deaths with 128 wounded. The lines of this conflict are eerily similar to the situation in Ukraine, but that war has managed to capture international attention.
Within a few days, lines of cars packed with thousands of families and what few possessions they could bring with them stretched for miles, all attempting to get out of Artsakh before it was too late.
“There is going to be a small community of Armenians who will stay, a couple thousand, not more,” said Dr. Varuzhan Geghamyan, professor at Yerevan State University (in Armenia’s capital city) and an expert on the Middle East and South Caucasus, in a live video interview. “They will probably be incapable of moving and the Azerbaijani side is definitely going to use them as an example of reintegration.”
According to Geghamyan, factors that contributed to the ethnic cleansing of Armenians from Artsakh include “the absence of any international pressure on Azerbaijan.”
Last December, Azerbaijan established a blockade of the Lachin corridor, the only access point Artsakhi-Armenians had to Armenia. For the past nine months, Artsakhi-Armenians had very little access to essential goods like fuel, medical supplies or services.
The violence currently unfolding in Artsakh is not the first time Armenians have faced large-scale ethnic cleansing. Between 1915 and 1923, approximately 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire during World War I in a plan to crush any attempt at independence, and many more were made stateless refugees. And in 1988, stirrings of another ethnic cleansing began spreading across Azerbaijan.
“When spring ends and summer starts, we don’t notice how it started, right?” said Sergey Pogosyan, an Armenian man who found a second home in Washington after fleeing Azerbaijan as a young man.
It’s late in the evening at a cafe in Seattle, and as we talk, Pogosyan’s wife, Tiruhi Abrahamyan, takes notes.
In late 1989, Pogosyan’s brother woke him in the middle of the night saying that a massacre of Armenians was unfolding about 40 minutes outside Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan where Pogosyan and his five siblings were born and raised. They decided quickly that they needed to sell their home and flee the country, as many Armenians had been doing since 1988 as the threat to their safety mounted.
Although he managed to secure his mother, brother and sister tickets on the last flight out of Baku to Armenia on New Year’s Eve 1989, he was forced to stay behind and try to sell their home. He did not succeed, as Azeris were not purchasing Armenian properties knowing that they would soon be abandoned. For the next three weeks, he lived in a constant state of fear, hidden away and ready to escape out a window by climbing down a tree should Azeri soldiers arrive at his door.
“Sometimes I wanted to run out and say, ‘I’m here!’ he said. “The pressure was too much.”
Armenian addresses were posted at the bus stations so that their homes could be vandalized and their inhabitants harassed or, in many cases, killed. Pogosyan’s own neighbor was thrown off his balcony.
“These guys knocked on our door and said we had three days to leave or they would kill us,” he said. “It was nice of them to give us a warning.”
Finally, on the night of Jan. 21, 1990, when he was 27, Pogosyan was preparing to board a ship carrying Armenians across the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan. As his friends drove him to the docks, he steeled himself to be beaten by the Azeris while waiting to board the ship, as so many had been before. When he arrived, however, there were no soldiers, only one Azeri official.
It was bitterly cold, standing by the ship that January night. The night stretched on, but nobody was allowing them onto the ship. Suddenly, at midnight, a huge boom echoed across the city as red blazed across the sky.
“Can you imagine a thousand people crying?” he said, describing the confusion of the mostly elderly crowd of Armenians waiting to board the ship. “It was a scary noise.”
Although they didn’t realize it in that moment, the boom was the Soviets attacking the city, attempting to wrest control from Azeri hands.
At the gunpoint of a Soviet official, the Azeri official on the ship was forced to let the Armenian crowd board. It was the last ship carrying Armenians to leave Azerbaijan, as Azerbaijan won independence from the USSR shortly after.
After two years in Armenia during which Pogosyan was tearfully reunited with his family – who thought he had died – and completed his schooling, he began the arduous process of seeking refugee status in the U.S. He eventually made it to Florida, where he spent four long years in a state of depression before arriving in Seattle in 1996 to be near his cousin.
Upon seeing the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, he felt overwhelmed with a sense of nostalgia for home.
He made a home for himself with the Redmond community of the Holy Resurrection Armenian Apostolic Church. Because he was young, single and had a car, he quickly earned a nickname: “911.” He gave people driving lessons, helped them with their green-card paperwork, and gave them rides to job interviews. Eventually, after Pogosyan met and married his wife upon returning to Armenia for a visit, the two chose to raise their family in this same community.
“My hope is that Armenia will survive,” Pogosyan said. “Russia didn’t want to help Armenia, they had deals with Turkey and Azerbaijan.”
Many Armenians have voiced frustration with the U.N.’s failure to intervene, almost exactly 30 years since their community arrived in the Pacific Northwest under similar circumstances.
Although President Biden sent a letter and an envoy to meet with Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan late last month, calls to the U.S. government to impose sanctions has so far seen no results.
“There's government officials saying things like, ‘Oh, we urge both sides to stop the conflict.’ If Armenia stops fighting, there’s going to be a genocide. If Azerbaijan stops fighting, there’s going to be peace,” said Elizabeth, an Armenian student at UW who was uncomfortable sharing her last name. “So when government officials make statements like that, it’s very dangerous for us, because when people read that … [they think] ‘This is just them going back and forth’ when it’s not, we’re being constantly attacked.”
Increasingly, major powers such as Russia – Armenia’s most significant ally – are interested in Azerbaijan’s economic prowess as an oil-rich country. Aligning with Turkey, Azerbaijan’s greatest ally, is also more profitable long-term than expending resources defending Armenians, especially given that the war in Ukraine is draining Russia’s resources and attention.
While Artsakh is small, the conflict has broader international implications. Without Turkey and Israel’s weapons, which are sent on a regular schedule to Azerbaijan, the attacks on Artsakh would not have been possible. As one Armenian community member described it, this is a proxy war between the East and the West.
Modern-day Armenia was once controlled by the Ottoman Empire, then Bolshevik Russia, before being incorporated into the USSR. In 1991, Armenia declared independence.
“When I look at the map, I don’t see the current map, I see the broad map that we used to have,” said Mher John Abramya, member of the Holy Resurrection Armenian Apostolic Church and former U.S. military personnel. “Most of Armenia right now is called Turkey.”
In a country that has undergone invasion after invasion throughout history, keeping history and culture alive both at home and abroad is how the community survives.
“We’re a strong community that we have … no matter what, never given up and always believed that our culture will still keep going. Even if our enemies, our neighbors try to remove us, no matter what, we’re always going to still be Armenian,” Buniatyan said.
The Armenian diaspora plays a vital role in the perseverance of cultural and ethnic heritage. Churches like the Holy Resurrection are centers of vibrant community life that help to keep Armenian traditions alive, such as by organizing concerts and exhibitions that celebrate Armenian artists in Seattle, celebrating traditional Armenian holidays as a community, and running the Holy Resurrection Armenian School, which has about 100 students enrolled.
The recent attacks on Armenians have spurred the members of the church into action, raising over $250,000 during 2020 and sending resources back to their homeland. They’re also working to raise awareness.
“In the end, the result is that innocent people are dying … as a priest, I am trying to do my best to open the hearts of the people, and also open their eyes to see what is happening,” Reverend Boyajyan said. “[In] being indifferent, indirectly we are encouraging it to happen again.”
Armenians in the Seattle area have found ways to garner more local support. For example, in 2020, the Armenian Assembly of Armenia caught the attention of Washington State Rep. Adam Smith, and with him in attendance at a large-scale rally held at Reverend Boyajyan’s church, they managed to raise about $70,000 directly to house displaced families and help with funeral costs. The Church is also engaged in current fundraising efforts for the recent displacement of Artsakhi-Armenians.
“I feel sad, I feel angry, I feel like I haven’t done enough,” Abramya said. “I feel like I have to teach my kids to do more than I did. We have to save what we have.”
This story has been updated to clarify that Pogosyan was not able to sell his family home.