In Artsakh, Assyrians of Armenia rise to country’s defense

Assyrian soldier Artur Shakhoev on the front lines of Artsakh. Originally from the Assyrian village of Verin Dvin, Shakhoev fought for Armenia four years ago and now is serving his country again. (Photo by Roberto Travan)

November 2020 | By Joe Snell

WASHINGTON — Assyrian-Armenian brothers Torgom Sayadyan and Artur arrived from Russia to the front lines of Artsakh to defend the region against a fierce offensive by Azerbaijan and allied forces. It was here, as Torgom became injured in the conflict, that Artur clung to his brother as he died in his arms.

Since fighting erupted between Armenian and Azerbaijan on Sept. 27 over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, also referred to as the Republic of Artsakh, five Assyrian-Armenian fighters, as young as 18 and as old as 59, have been killed and six others wounded. Their service highlights mounting military, medical and donation efforts by Assyrian communities around the world to support Armenian forces. 

The ongoing fighting has left more than 1,200 Armenians killed and many more wounded. This is the most serious escalation in the decades-long territorial clash that pits the two former Soviet states and a growing list of powerful allies on both sides. 

As a small community inside Armenia, Assyrians have rallied to the defense of the country they now call home. It’s a bond, many said, that goes back centuries. 

“We have almost the same destinies,” said Dr. Anahit Khosroeva, an Assyrian-Armenian and a leading researcher at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences in Armenia. “Assyrians in Armenia, being a Christian nation, they have always considered Armenia as their home.”

Troops in Artsakh. (Photo by Roberto Travan)

FIGHTING ON THE FRONT LINES

There are four Assyrian-populated villages in Armenia: Arzni, Verin Dvin, Dimitrovo and Nor Artagers. The country has a total population of nearly 3 million and is home to roughly 5,000 Assyrians. That number was about 6,000 just a few decades ago, but the disintegration of the former Soviet Union and economic challenges have forced many to leave to Russia and surrounding countries. 

Armenia requires a military service from its citizens beginning at the age of 18. When the conflict in Artsakh erupted in late September, about 25 Assyrians were on active military duty. And despite having already served their country, others volunteered on contract with the Ministry of Defense. 

Today, more than 100 Assyrians are fighting for Armenia, Khosroeva estimates. This includes Rudik Sarkhosh, 59, who initially was denied volunteer service because of his age. But Sarkhosh refused to leave his local recruitment office for five days and demanded he be taken to the front lines. He eventually was sent to the conflict. 

Sarkhosh has since died in the fighting. He joins four other Assyrians who have died, including three fighters on active-duty and another volunteer. 

Reports last month indicated that two Assyrian fighters have gone missing in action. One soldier had only moved to Artsakh two years earlier to live with his mother. When the war started, he signed up as a volunteer. 

Military service is not the only way that Assyrians are rallying to the Armenian front lines. Assyrian nurses have also joined the fight. Nurses are in dire need, a source told the Journal, and some are flocking to hospitals near the fighting and others are choosing to remain in hotly-contested areas. 

One Assyrian nurse living in Artsakh had the opportunity to leave when the war broke out, but decided to stay and volunteer. Others, like Arusik Babasieva from the capital of Yerevan, have chosen to volunteer in the conflict zone.

Bag filled with sand, used to protect the civilian hospital in Stepanakert, arrive to the front lines. (Photo by Roberto Travan)

HELP FROM BEHIND THE FRONT LINES

Assyrians in the country who can’t fight are supporting Armenia through donation efforts and media platforms, many of which have been organized by local churches. 

Two registered ACOE buildings reside in Armenia, one in the town of Dvin and another in Arzni, while many smaller, non-registered churches also dot these communities. Despite being built around 1830 and at one point in fear of collapse, churches are the lifeblood of the villages and nearly everything is organized through them, a source told the Journal. 

So when fighting with Azerbaijan first broke out,  Assyrian Church of the East (ACOE) priest in Armenia Father Nikademus Yukhanaev, along with local volunteers, didn’t hesitate to help the troops and residents of Artsakh.

“We don’t have a homeland but Armenia is as our homeland,” Yukhanaev said. “We are living here for nearly 200 years and we are free to use and teach our language, we are free to worship in our churches and keep our culture. The attitude of Armenians is very good to us. That is why every Assyrian thinks that he should defend his homeland.”

Yukhanaev and a small group began traveling between villages and setting up donation drives. Initially, volunteers collected clothes and food. After posting efforts on Facebook, donor numbers grew larger and other Assyrian groups began pitching in, including a group of children in Dvin that sold fruit and donated all proceeds to an Armenian fund.

Today, the volunteers send a truck full of food and other items to the conflict area every two days. The contents vary depending on the needs of the troops. Last week, women in the villages sent bags of fresh-baked kadeh for the troops to eat on the front lines.  This week, the group organized 100 sleeping bags and non-perishable goods.

Mourning of a lost life in Artsakh. (Photo by Roberto Travan)

A BID FOR INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT

Grassroots volunteer efforts like those by Yukhanaev soon attracted global attention. Arsen Mikhailov, the Assyrians’ MP in Armenia’s Parliament, announced in late September that money had been received from communities in Russia and Ukraine. Other communities in Europe, Australia and the United States have also donated. In total, Khosroeva estimates that Assyrian individuals and organizations around the world have donated about $100,000 to support the Armenian fund and to assist with humanitarian aid.

Organizations like A Demand for Action (ADFA), a Swedish-based non-profit that works for the protection of Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Armenians and other minorities across Iraq and Syria, receives dozens of Artsakh requests daily from individuals asking for warm clothes, food and hygienic supplies.

In an announcement last week, ADFA sent humanitarian aid to 1,400 Artsakh families. And they are now sending 30 tons of winter clothes to the area.

But despite international support, some Assyrians in Armenia are concerned that the world is growing disinterested with the conflict and the indifference could lead to another genocide. 

“Right now, the international community has to speak up about this issue,” Khosroeva said. She recalls watching the world lose interest in the Syrian conflict and now believes the same indifference is afflicting her own country. “If they don’t benefit from Armenia, they don’t care. I believe being silent, you are becoming a part of the crime. We have to speak up.”

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