Nina Vosbigian hasn’t slept well since Sept. 27, when fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
She stays up until 3 or 4 a.m. every night, devouring the news from overseas. She braces herself each morning as she searches Twitter for updates from Armenia’s Ministry of Defense, wondering if she knows anyone on its latest list of the dead.
“Honestly, you’d think we’d become numb to this over the past 100 years," said Vosbigian, a 24-year-old dental assistant living in Watertown, the heart of Greater Boston’s Armenian diaspora and home to one of the largest Armenian communities in the United States. “We’re not numb to it. I thought I’d be numb to it. But when it’s people you know going to fight, it’s pretty sad.”
The fierce conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian separatist enclave internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, has claimed hundreds of lives and fears of a full-scale war are mounting. In the Boston area, home to thousands of Armenian-Americans, including descendants of the survivors of a genocide that began more than a century ago, many are anxious about the fate of their homeland and its people.
“It strikes really at the core of our identity,” said Aram Arkun, executive director of the Tekeyan Cultural Association in Watertown and an assistant editor of the Watertown-based Armenian Mirror Spectator. “We feel this is different than prior small-scale incidents and clashes. This is an existential threat, as many people call it, to the very existence of Armenia.”
The clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh, known as Artsakh among Armenians, date back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. War over the region erupted between the two former Soviet Republics after the government of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had been given to Azerbaijan by Joseph Stalin, voted to become part of Armenia. A cease-fire was declared in 1994, but brief skirmishes on the border are common.
The current standoff, however, has escalated over the past two weeks, drawing in Turkey, which is backing Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia and agreed to broker talks on a cease-fire. Those talks opened on Friday. Turkey has reportedly deployed 1,000 rebel fighters from Syria to assist Azerbaijan. Some Armenians from Lebanon have also traveled to the region to join the fight.
Without intervention from the United States, many Armenians worry the consequences could be dire. Turkey’s involvement, in particular, has raised alarm among many Armenians, fearing another genocide. From 1915 to 1923, amid the chaos of World War I, 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman Empire. In December 2019, Congress voted to formally recognize the Armenian genocide, despite objections from Turkey and the Trump administration.
“People [are] distraught, thinking, 'They’re trying to finish the job,’" said George Aghjayan, chairman of the Eastern US Central Committee of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, an Armenian political party, “and that once again, we’re in a situation where Armenians are being left to their own demise.”
News of the conflict has mobilized the Boston area’s thriving Armenian community. The Greater Boston chapter of the Armenian American Medical Association is collecting surgical supplies and medications to send to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Others are raising money for the nonprofit Armenia Fund and other Armenian relief groups.
“Everybody is doing their best, I think," Arkun said. “People are trying to collect goods that they can send to Armenia. There are flights that are shipping things to Armenia that are necessary, whether it’s medical supplies or even things like sleeping bags or blankets. People are doing fund-raising. They are staying up all night. They’re trying to rally people together.”
“Any spare time anybody has is being spent on this," he added.
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of local Armenians are expected to turn out for a demonstration, starting at 2:30 p.m. at the Turkish Consulate in Boston and ending with a march and rally at the Armenian Heritage Park on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
“The Armenian people that are on the front lines defending the homeland and their families, we can’t be with them physically. But we can show our solidarity,” said Aghjayan, one of the organizers behind Sunday’s demonstration.
“Our government has a major role to play here," Aghjayan added, "and has played a major role in the past. Unfortunately, during this time of COVID and the presidential cycle, obviously this news item gets buried. It’s not a high priority politically, but yet if it’s left to its own accord, it could become a major issue for us down the road.”
A daughter of emigres, Vosbigian is a member of the Armenian Youth Federation and Homenetmen, an Armenian youth scouting organization. She helped plan a protest outside the Massachusetts State House on Oct. 2. More than 600 people showed up, she said, including Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian. She and four childhood friends are raising money for Armenian relief efforts by making and selling evil-eye bracelets. So far, they’ve raised more than $2,000.
“Within the past week or so, I’ve never seen the Armenian community this united,” she said. “There’s a lot of passion behind all of us."