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To Live and Die for Artsakh

Young Armenian Americans in LA are caught between the choices of their immigrant parents and a desire to fight for a homeland many have never seen

by
Marten Weiner
December 19, 2023

Courtesy the author

The red, blue, and orange tricolor flies from a modest auto shop in Glendale, California, where the smell of gasoline in the air mixes with the scent of freshly baked cardamom cookies. Across the street, a parked Escalade sports the most aggressive decal I’ve ever seen. On the rear window is the silhouette of a giant Kalashnikov, below the words: “Defend Artsakh.”

It’s a common sight in Los Angeles, which has the largest Armenian population of any city in the world outside Yerevan, and especially in the diaspora’s heartland of Glendale in northeast LA County, nestled in the intimidating grace of the Verdugo Mountains. Between all the kebab shops and bakeries, the young families and couples walking through the neighborhood’s two giant malls, the luxury cars roaring down Brand Boulevard, and the elderly men playing board games and barbecuing in the parks, there’s a central fact about the otherwise idyllic life here that’s easy to miss. Many of Glendale’s young men and women are deciding right now whether to go fight and possibly die to protect a homeland many have never been to.

The snow-capped peaks of Nagorno-Karabakh, known to Armenians as the Republic of Artsakh, is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. But most of its territory has been governed by the region’s majority ethnic Armenian population for the last 30 years, during which Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought sporadic battles. Artsakh was under blockade and siege for months before Azerbaijan attacked again late in September 2023. This time, the Armenian government, and its patron in Moscow, declared they would not intervene. After decades of conflict that transformed this small collection of mountains and villages, roughly the size of Rhode Island, into an Armenian national symbol of historic proportions, that symbol has been surrendered to the Azerbaijani army.

‘I would prefer to live there,’ Gevorg told me. ‘But in Armenia you can’t have a future as a professional. That’s the only reason I would like to stay here.’

The government of Artsakh has agreed to disband itself by the beginning of 2024, and a mass exodus of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians has since ensued. Azerbaijan has meanwhile intimated, with backing from its patron in Turkey, that it may also establish a land corridor across southern Armenia to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, which borders Turkey. (Baku insists it does not intend to take military action to create the corridor.)

With Armenia proper potentially under threat, and the country facing down Azerbaijan and Turkey virtually alone, already strong feelings of Armenian nationalism have exploded in the diaspora. My question is: How far is a young person in America willing to go in defense of that nationalism? Why would someone leave their current life and allegiances, and in many cases defy their parents’ wishes, to risk death for a place their parents left—and which many of them have never seen?

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, emergent nationalisms took the place of communism. In the Caucasus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, like so many others, went to war. After six years the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh (which will henceforth be referred to in this article as Artsakh) ended. Armenia was temporarily victorious, and thousands of Azerbaijanis were displaced from the region. After years of living in relative harmony, Azerbaijanis in Armenia were also forced to move to Azerbaijan, while Armenians in Azerbaijan were displaced to Armenia.

When the war in Artsakh erupted again in September of 2020, the Armenian diaspora mobilized in defense of the cause. There were campaigns of solidarity from Lebanon to France and the United States, and especially in Los Angeles. During those months, there was hardly a city block that didn’t have at least one Armenian flag flying from a store, a residence, or a car. In Glendale, streetlights were adorned, businesses emblazoned with murals, and car caravans shut down major thoroughfares. Even the 101, one of LA’s main arterial highways, was immobilized by protests.

But Armenia was quickly revealed to be underequipped and unprepared, despite 20 years of occupying the area and knowing that conflict was coming. Armenians abroad supported the Armenian military and government by fundraising, sending supplies, and bringing awareness to this war. The support intensified as videos taken in Azerbaijani-captured areas circulated online of Armenian churches being desecrated and prisoners of war and civilians being tortured and killed. Panic quickly set into the Armenian community in Los Angeles, as many worried that the war would end in another Armenian genocide—almost exactly a century after at least 664,000 and possibly as many as 1.2 million Armenian Christians were massacred by the Ottoman authorities. This time, they would helplessly watch it unfold via videos on Facebook.

Many were left with a kind of doomed nationalism: They supported their homeland, but lost whatever faith they had left in the Armenian government. After years of rampant corruption, official scandals, and military and strategic failure, an attitude of “we support the troops but not the government” has become near-universal in the diaspora.

It quickly became apparent, for example, that Armenian soldiers in Artsakh were fighting without basic supplies like boots, leaving many of those who donated to the cause wondering where their money went. Tigran, who used to work at a famous Armenian fried chicken restaurant in Glendale with a friend of mine and now works at a nearby smoke shop, described bitterly what he says happened to his younger sister when she donated money to the Hayastan All Armenian Fund, a well-known charity that has provided supplies to the war effort. “She gave almost all of her savings, $5,000,” he claimed. “It’s all gone.”

According to reporting in the Armenian Mirror-Spectator, this is perhaps not an uncommon experience. The All Armenian Fund raised over $180 million in donations to help the Armenians of Artsakh during the 2020 war, but many smaller donors were left with more questions and resentments than pride. Several of the accusations of corruption or incompetence are leveled not just against the fund, but the Armenian government itself, to which the fund’s Board of Trustees transferred some of the money raised.

When I mentioned the issue to a priest at the St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Glendale, who is involved in raising money for the All Armenian Fund (and who spoke with me on condition of anonymity), he categorically denied any rumors of the charity’s corruption.

Whether these rumors are real or perceived, many young Armenian men and some older ones in LA have decided that giving money isn’t enough anyway, or is no longer the best way to contribute. Nearly all of the dozens of people I’ve spoken to have someone in their family who went to the front lines to fight in the last three years. The decision to go back to the homeland has been seen as a kind of patriotic suicide.

I first met with Gevorg, a 17-year-old who moved to the United States from Armenia when he was 12, outside a bakery off Broadway Street where he was picking up bread for his family. He agreed to be interviewed and invited me to a park next to the Glendale Galleria, one of the largest malls in LA. A group of boys in the park shouted at each other in Armenian and played soccer nearby. Gevorg has been seriously considering enlisting in the Armenian military in case the conflict with Azerbaijan flares up again. The only thing preventing him from signing up now, he said, is his age.

“If I got the chance I would go. Obviously [most] parents would not allow it, because it’s wrong, because their son will die, and the chances of dying are very high. Sometimes we watch the videos of the fighters who have died and we feel very guilty. [We] say, ‘Why am I here, safe, when they are in danger? What can we do?’”

“My uncle’s friend’s son died in that war,” he continued. “My father’s closest friend and his son have been in the frontline of the war. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Many of the Armenian Americans I spoke to talked about the conflict as a continuation of the Armenian genocide of 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. Azerbaijanis are a Turkic ethnic group and heavily supported by the Turkish military and government, which still denies Turkish complicity in the genocide, or even the genocide itself. Yet both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have both made veiled references to the genocide in speeches.

“So, right now,” Gevorg told me, “we are anxious because … have you heard of pan-Turkism? If this war continues like this, and Armenia is still losing, maybe another pan-Turkism will be opened and this will cause another hell for the earth ... During the war, they found an older man who didn’t leave and they tortured him. I saw that video a while ago. They are torturing him. And they are saying we [are] welcoming Armenians.” “Now there are 17 or 18 political parties [in Armenia] fighting each other,” Gevorg continued, “blaming each other, like ‘You are selling out territories to them,’ saying ‘You are Turks.’ They are calling each other Turks! They are fighting each other, but in the middle, who is getting hit the hardest are the people.”

I asked Gevorg why his family came to the United States. “I would prefer to live there,” he told me. “But in Armenia you can’t have a future as a professional. I would like to become a scientist, and the United States is the Western country that is the center of science. There is NASA, there is SpaceX, there is a lot of great opportunity. In Armenia, the people who like science, physics, chemistry, the thing they can do is become a professor or a teacher, and I would like to do research stuff. But that’s the only reason I would like to stay here. I think I will go and come back and continue my studies.”

I noted that it was possible he wouldn’t come back. “I know,” he said, “But I’m thinking positive. If many people are dying there and you know you can help them, why won’t you do that? You can save many innocent people’s lives. If you die you die, at least you die as a hero. That’s what I can say.”

“When I’m walking alone, most nights,” he said, “I’m thinking about it. It’s hard to think about this stuff when you’re powerless, it’s very stressful and very painful.”

Nearly every American is an x-American—Asian American, Mexican American, African American, Native American, Jewish American, Italian American, Christian American, etc. For many recent immigrants, the American part of the heritage can sometimes feel empty, as if it’s just the place where you are, not who you are. The question facing the rising generation of Armenian Americans is one faced by many others in the past: Is there something missing from life in America that would make a young person want to leave behind the material wealth and security of their adoptive home and go fight for something else?

One young woman I spoke with, Hasmik, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, works for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a nationalist and socialist party founded in 1890 and the most influential political party in the Armenian diaspora (though its influence in Armenia itself is considerably smaller). Today the party’s diaspora activities mostly involve teaching young people about Armenian culture and language. When we spoke, Hasmik talked about how her identity was under siege by both the rise of Turkish nationalism and her own integration into American society. When she traveled to Artsakh with the ARF some years ago, she discovered for the first time what she described as community.

“I don’t identify as an American. I feel like I’m in exile. ... My parents don’t like me wanting to go [to Artsakh], they’re like, ‘You’re crazy, it’s so dangerous, we’re trying to get my mom to come here’ ... We don’t see eye to eye at all on that. I was privileged to have a good life here ... after going to Armenia, it moved me in a different way. It’s very community and family oriented ... you’ll walk down the street and say hi to every stranger. Here that’s weird.”

Derek, a 20-year-old Iranian American from Glendale with whom I used to work at a local Armenian bakery, agreed. “A lot of Armenians here come to make money, then leave ... America promises that everyone can be successful, that you can be fresh off the boat [and go from] driving Uber to being a CEO. We’ve lied to ourselves on that point. The fresh-off-the-boat people are also shocked how greedy people are here. It’s not the same culture anymore.”

Gayane, a middle-aged woman who used to run a corner store selling tchotchkes in Glendale, described how she wanted Armenians and Azerbaijanis to be brothers. “My children gave money, gave stuff for the army, but I don’t know what’s going on. Disappointed, very disappointed. My cousin is now in the army, but he can’t tell me nothing. He don’t have permission. I’m very worried. I was upset. I keep thinking about this situation because we don’t have any true news about the situation. We don’t have good journalist, true journalist. I can see nothing good for the future. It’s all black for me.”

“I’m very happy I’m here,” she continued. “My children are here, my husband is here. We are happy because ... here we have work. I love my country, but it’s hard. When your child wants something, you can’t buy it, and you can’t explain why you can’t buy it. Here you can find any jobs. Wash dishes, wash clothing, I don’t know, cleaning something. You can live. There you cannot.”

When I asked Tigran, who grew up in the East Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles, whether he would go to fight for Armenia if Azerbaijan invaded, he conveyed a less idealistic set of emotions from some of the other young men I met. “I feel apathy,” he said. “Anger and apathy. Nobody cares. If Azerbaijan invades Armenia proper a lot more people will get involved, but by then how many people will have died? Armenia has bled its country dry. We don’t have the equipment necessary. A lot of the people who volunteered ended up going back or regretting it because of how poorly mismanaged it is.”

“You might be sent on some suicide mission while some rich guy’s kid is in the back in a tent,” he continued, evoking a fear and reality of nearly every army in every era. “The ones you see going now have some kind of specialty, they’re doctors or engineers. A lot of the young idealistic dudes who say that they want to join, you see them walking around Glendale in camo, they come from well-off families and have been driving BMWs since they were 16. To them it’s just an adventure. They don’t realize how bad the difference is going to be when they get there.”

When I asked Tigran about joining the country’s civilian militias instead of the Armenian military, he grew angry. “These guys tried to get me to join and they tried to get my dad to join, and I fucking hate them. I think they’re fucking idiots and they’re going to pull my dad away from his family who needs him, and they’re trying to pull all these young men away who are trying to establish lives here to just fucking die over there … My dad wants to take my little brother who’s 13, too, when he gets older. Both me and my sister said we would physically stop him if he tried to.”

“If they want to try to come to my house and take him, I’ll kill them,” Tigran said. “I’m not going to let my father abandon his family, abandon his mortgage, ruin everything he has here. I don’t care if you’re Armenian. It’s not the end of the world if you’re stateless.”

The thought of his brother dying in the war tormented him, especially because he had heard firsthand accounts of the devastating effects of fighting from his coworker. “One of my coworkers at the smoke shop I work at, he actually fought in the most recent war. He’s 24, born in Artsakh. He said that he heard a woman screaming in the middle of the night across the border. They woke up in the morning and saw her crucified. The next night they snuck over there and kidnapped one of the soldiers. They took him back, smoked a bunch of pot, and tortured him. They cut his skin, peeled it back, and put salt and iodine in the wounds and closed it back up and went all night with that. These were all happy kids once.”

The reality of such violence is a harrowing reminder that even for those who survive the war, their lives will never be the same again. Yet people continue to leave home to fight.

Some of Glendale’s young want to go out of a personal ambition for heroism. For others, their motivation comes from a sense of guilt: that instead of acting to help, they’re living the good life in America. But without exception, everyone I spoke to who wants to take part in the war does so out of a sense of obligation to their people. Such feelings mix uneasily with despair about the dark reality of the situation, and a sense that another genocide is an inevitability.

The economic opportunities and material comforts offered by life in America, as important as they are, don’t satisfy all the needs people continue to have for purpose and community. Those who made the choice to immigrate themselves tend to be surer in their identity. For their children, it’s often more complicated. Many turn to nationalism as the answer, using it to repair a fractured sense of self. Wealth and security are not always enough, it seems, especially in the lives of young x-Americans. To attain a deeper sense of community, shared history, and identity, some are willing to sacrifice everything.

Marten Weiner is a journalist, writer, and documentarian based in Los Angeles and Athens, Greece. Find him on X @MartenWeiner.

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