If you have been watching the news recently, you may have heard of the atrocities. Dozens of bodies lay on the ground. The corpses showed blood from the bullet wounds along with the places where the unarmed victims had been stabbed. Armed young men from a corrupt, Muslim autocracy had invaded their peaceful neighbor and engaged in indiscriminate killing.
This could be taken as a description of the savage attacks undertaken by members of Hamas militants against Israel last month. It also is a sketch of what has been taking place in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region of the Caucasus. There tens of thousands of Christians are being pushed out of their ancestral homes. What’s more, the results of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh are likely to be more permanent than what is happening at the border of Israel and Gaza.
And worse seems to be in the offing.
A Conflict Dating Back More Than a Millennium
The origins of the conflict date back more than a millennium. In 301 A.D., Armenia became the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its official faith — decades before the Roman empire. Yet, placed within a landlocked portion of the Caucasus region, Armenia eventually found itself bordered by an aggressive Islamic neighbor to its east. This happened when the Azeri people swung towards Islam at the end of the seventh century. As the Byzantine empire began to crumble before Turkish invaders in the Middle Ages, the Armenians were faced both east and west by hostile Islamic states. Most famously, this led to the Armenian genocide during the First World War. More than a million Armenians were murdered. Most of these came in a notorious death march in which at least 800,000 Armenians were forced to traipse without food or water towards the Syrian desert. Others were shot or stampeded by horses, while many Armenian women were raped, and children and old people were converted to Islam at gunpoint.
In the aftermath of the war, Armenia formed an independent republic. The new nation staked a claim to the adjacent territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Then, as now, the region was predominantly Christian. But as the Azeris have oil wealth and the weapons that come from it, they were able to invade it and force a union. When Soviet Russia’s commissars took control soon afterwards, they placed Nagorno-Karabakh within Azerbaijan, but with a designation that it should be an autonomous region.
Russia Sits on Its Hands
After the Soviet Union fell and both Armenia and Azerbaijan were recreated in 1991, the Armenians turned to Russia as their protector. Unfortunately, Russia is proving to be as honorable as its leader, Vladimir Putin. Although bound by treaty obligations to defend Armenia, Russia is sitting on its hands, watching as Azerbaijan engages in one war crime after another.
Warning of what was to come first emerged in 2005. Taking power from his late father, Azerbaijan’s dictator Iham Aliyev ordered his troops to destroy thousands of Armenian graves that were protected as UNESCO heritage sites. Aliyev proceeded to claim that they had never existed in the first place. In a speech six years later he next declared that, “Armenia as a country is of no value. It is actually a colony, an outpost run from abroad, a territory artificially created on ancient Azerbaijani lands.” Just one year after that, he announced that Azeris would soon live and rule joyfully in Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan.
Aliyev began taking steps to make his frightening plans real in 2019 by starting a war with Armenia. That compelled the democratic government of Armenia to renounce its claims to Nagorno-Karabakh. After that, in March 2020, he shut off a gas pipeline, leaving the people of the disputed region without heat or power. With typical deceitfulness, Aliyev denied responsibility for this saying that what had happened was “an Armenian plot, Armenian duplicity.”
The World Looks Away from Indiscriminate Slaughter
Things briefly cooled down when 2,000 Russian troops were sent in to act as peacekeepers. They were also charged with protecting the narrow strip between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh: the Lachin corridor. Then the Ukraine war broke out. That gave Aliyev his opening. With the Russian army tied down, Aliyev had his chance, and in December 2022, he sent troops in to blockade the corridor. Accomplishing this, Aliyev demanded that the self-governing forces in Nagorno-Karabakh disarm. That permitted him to begin fearlessly removing and slaughtering Christians who wish to be free of his corrupt, brutal government.
What is especially shocking is the reaction of so much of the world. Anxious for Azeri gas supplies at a time when Russian shipments have been cut off, the E.U. said in February that it would be giving Azerbaijan two billion Euros in aid, and at present it has not backed off from this offer. Meanwhile, the United Nations, which remains under the thrall of its Islamic Conference, presented a whitewashed report on the situation, refusing to reference the hundreds of murders that have already taken place. Moreover, all of the fighting happening in Gaza and Ukraine makes it nearly impossible for residents of Nagorno-Karabakh and for the people living in Armenia itself to get the media attention that they need.
Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, recently said that the disputed territory has become “a vast concentration camp for 120,000 Armenians.” Armenia itself could soon be that, too. As a character in a play once said, “Attention must be paid.”
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York. His new novel is City of Angles.