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STEPANAKERT, Artsakh (ChurchMilitant.com) - On July 12, Church Militant reporter Trey Blanton was the first American journalist to enter the Republic of Artsakh since Nov. 10, 2020, when a Russian-brokered cease-fire was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
During the conflict, which has been officially recognized as lasting for seven weeks, Church Militant is credited by members of Artsakh's government with having provided the most prolific and accurate reporting of any Western media, despite conflicting propaganda and misinformation arising from the conflict.
In Part I of this exclusive report, families who lost loved ones during the war with Azerbaijan shared their testimonies. Here, a journalist in Artsakh and government officials share their stories. For access to the full report with historical perspective and analysis click here.
Norayr Hovsepyan, Artsakh News Department
On July 16, Church Militant sat down with Norayr Hovsepyan, head of the information department for Artsakh television. He has pledged to share news with Church Militant. He relates:
Essentially, this was the second war in the past five years. The April 2016 war was shorter and more localized. 2020 was much bigger and, in a sense, still familiar because the weaponry was the same, but it was used everywhere on a larger scale.
This war was anything but unexpected because, for the past 30 years, the war never stopped. Every week, we have casualties; every day, shots were being fired. During the past 30 years, the people of Artsakh were constantly in a state of war. While the last war in 2016 was essentially a trench war, 2020 saw the war come to the doorstep of every civilian, every person living in Artsakh.
There was no difference between a soldier standing in a trench or a civilian walking in the streets of Stepanakert; the shelling reached both of them.
Artsakh security would not allow the press to get too close for our safety, but we were able to witness and report shelling and various military activities from a distance.
The war did not just consist of the shooting and fighting, there was also an information war. An element of fake news was very important, and it was being used as a weapon. Our goal was to clean up the propaganda and fake news, in order to present, as much as we were able, the truth to the people so they didn't have to listen to the fake news and not be left out.
Every group and individual present spread information that added to the confusion and was weaponized to keep people unaware of the truth. There were both, organized and unorganized, and it is acknowledged that Azerbaijan deliberately spread false information to confuse the international community and our own people.
For example, the targeting of Ghazanchetsots Church by Azerbaijan. First, Azerbaijan officially said they were not behind the attack on the church. After a couple hours, they said it was an accident. Then, a couple hours later, they shelled the church again.
Today, when we see they are changing the church in what is called the "Albanization process," it makes us certain they deliberately targeted the church.
If we are being honest, we've always been preparing for another war. Maybe there was a failure of expectations, a question of the scale of what the war would be.
We did not expect Turkey to be openly involved in the conflict, and not hide their complicity in any way. We were prepared to fight Azerbaijan, and we were confident of victory against them. But we were not prepared for Turkey and their use of terrorists. We also did not expect the international community to remain silent and blinded by whatever factors impacted them.
International terrorists were brought here by Turkey, confirmed by leaders and top officials from France, Russia, the United States, and international organizations. They all said Turkey brought terrorists to the region and, to this day, we have been given no information on whether the terrorists have been removed from the region. On the contrary, we're hearing news asserting family members of the terrorists are being transported to the region to settle in the occupied regions of Artsakh.
The Azeris continue to provoke us. The Armenian side is aiming to establish and preserve some form of civility, and so we are trying to cover the incidents and provocations to prevent future provocations.
I call on the international community to remember that when the Turks took Constantinople, the rest of the Christian world was indifferent and thought they had nothing to do with it. After some time, they had to meet the Turks within the walls of their capitols. Today is a similar situation: Everyone is saying they witnessed how the church in Shushi was targeted, but were still indifferent. Don't be indifferent. Open your eyes.
Lusine Gharakhanyan, Minister of Education
Lusine Gharakhanyan was the first government official to speak with Church Militant on July 13. After the interview, Gharakhanyan invited Church Militant to watch the first concert held in Artsakh since the end of the war. The concert was an effort to revitalize the culture and musical education for the youth of Artsakh.
Gharakhanyan had the following to say on the consequences of the war, Islam and the Turkic enemies seeking to eliminate the Armenians:
Whatever happened during the 44 days of war and how the world reacted to it shows, in my humble opinion, a crisis of civilization.
The geopolitical interests prevented or blinded the great powers so they did not want to see what was happening to the small country of Artsakh. In the 21st century, something occurred that is not able to be expressed through any norms or moral principles. Turkey, along with extremist groups and terrorists, occupied through force 80% of Artsakh's territory.
A lot of educational and cultural facilities are now occupied by Azerbaijan. 108 schools, 37 kindergartens, schools of music and art, cultural institutions, and 11 expensive engineering labs were occupied. Approximately, 2,000 historical monuments are currently in occupied territories, plus 10 state museums and two private museums. There are 20,000 very valuable items stored in those museums. We are currently unable to negotiate with Russian peacekeepers to bring the Armenian pieces back to us.
Right now, the Holy Savior Church is literally covered in packaging tape. Azerbaijan is carrying out the destruction of the cultural heritage in two distinct directions. The first one is the physical destruction of our cultural heritage. The second is the so-called "Albanization process." The second is more dangerous because they are trying to undermine and falsify the origins of our identity.
Small nations and ethnicities are considered dangerous and aggressive. We are dangerous because the Turks haven't completed their genocide. Azokh cave is a worldwide heritage, and it has been a destination for various scientific researchers. It is no exaggeration to say we live in holy land. We have a rich heritage from ancient times in Tigranakert. [Azerbaijan's president Ilham] Aliyev — along with his wife Aliyeva, who is considered a good-faith ambassador — is currently taking "selfies" in front of Azokh. What kind of "good faith" is that?
It is shameful that in the 21st century, when we are considered to live in a civilized world, we are seeing the continuation of aggression and violence. On Oct. 9, air strikes were directed at Ghazanchetsots Church. I contacted the director of UNESCO and his response was that both sides must refrain from damaging cultural heritage sites. I addressed every single international organization that protects cultural heritage, and I was ignored. Experts are being encouraged to visit occupied territory. I suggest Armenian items be returned.
Azerbaijanis, as a people, are nothing but an ethnic commune. They are a collection of different peoples, including Muslimized Georgians and Talysh. They settled in various regions, including Artsakh, and started claiming it as their own. We are being forced to live with barbarians. We have a Christian heritage and are unable to live with barbarians.
Shame on you [indifferent international community]. It is very shameful that in this developing world, a small, creative nation is currently cornered. It will take time for us to recover and become stronger. However, my ideology is that we must protect and cherish whatever is ours, our homeland. We must own our cultural objects, regardless of whether it is occupied.
There are interesting ideas in Islam. However, there is no word to fight in the Bible, but [a command to make war is] widely circulated in the Koran. There are many stereotypes in the Koran against Christians. I believe that, right now, Islam poses a danger to the entire world. Not just Artsakh, but also Europe and other places. In general, there are very aggressive elements in Islam directed at Christians. One example, "break that which is above the neck of the Christian." And I can offer many examples like that. [Belief in] Allah empowers those acts.
During the 2020 war, those on the Turkish side were calling on Allah. Essentially, in Islam, if you call on Allah's name, you go to Heaven.
French President Emmanuel Macron tried to give a response. However, he succumbed to [Turkish president Recep] Erdoğan after Erdoğan insulted him. The civilized, soft France was invaded by Muslims [through immigration] and became too soft. Islam is a dominating religion. It dominates others. Islam is deprived of tolerance. It is enough to say Islam rejects the Christian.
I would love for a dialogue in the world between everyone. I would want to meet with ministers of culture and education in Azerbaijan. I am certain it would be rejected. That meeting can occur in the occupied territory, Baku, or here, but those people are not prepared for dialogue.
For the growing generation in Azerbaijan, the prisoner of war museum is a very dehumanizing and anti-humanitarian and immoral example to civilization. It is a grave insult to the 5,000 fallen soldiers on our side and their relatives. I'm surprised that, till now, there has been no call by the world to tear that museum down. If you ask me, as a psychologist, why I think they won't take the museum down, I see they are a nation deprived of identity. They want to keep it in order to feel strong. Azerbaijan did not win the war against Artsakh, Turkey did — 80 million-strong Turkey.
This is a war of two civilizations: one nation, the Turks, that has not completed its own ethnogenesis; and ours, which is one of the oldest civilizations.
Aram Sargsyan, Minister of Infrastructure
Aram Sargsyan has been busy in his role of rebuilding Artsakh's infrastructure and providing adequate shelter for citizens displaced by the war, or whose homes were damaged before the onset of winter:
During the war, the civilian infrastructure was damaged heavily from shelling and artillery fire from Azerbaijan. After the war, we set up a hotline to register all the damage and to proceed to rebuilding.
One of the problems — because the war ended near the winter — the priority was to rebuild roofs and windows so that basic needs to cover and preserve heat could be met. It is estimated that more than 7,000 civilian buildings were damaged, but we are still in the process of registering so the number could be even higher.
It is estimated the damage cost was 40–45 billion drams, or the equivalent of $81–91 million.
We haven't registered any cases of Azerbaijan interfering with our reconstruction efforts because we are using resources from within our territory. We are also bringing materials from Armenia through private companies, so there are no problems because of the help from Russian peacekeepers.
We have received a lot of humanitarian aid, mostly from the Russians and the Russian government specifically. A number of international organizations have helped us with rebuilding efforts. However, the most aid — the roofs, windows and wood — came from the Russians.
The priority now is to recover the different facilities damaged. Most of it is completed. We have recovered the facilities supplying electricity and water. The goal is to have the rest complete by the end of the year.
The people's primary concern brought to my office is security. The government takes care of the basic needs, but our safety is the biggest concern.
We are sending experts out to assess damages and manage different arrangements with firms to help the reconstruction.
My primary concern, along with every Armenian living in Artsakh, it the status of our republic and our security, both as a country and to each person. We're very close to European values and interact with various international organizations. We meet the standards to be considered our own state and should be recognized as such.
Davit Babayan, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Church Militant interviewed Davit Babayan during a video call on Feb. 3, 2021 to report on the aftermath of the war with Azerbaijan. Babayan's office was instrumental in arranging interviews with government officials and the local population. His office accredited Church Militant as journalists in his country.
Babayan commented in July:
This war is significant because it is the third war we have been involved in. In the first two, we won when we only fought Azerbaijan. This time, Artsakh fought against Azerbaijan, Turkey and international terrorists combined. This small Artsakh — with a population of 150,000 — had to face a population of nearly 100 million.
This was an existential battle, because the criminal alliance wanted to finish the genocide, to solve the Karabakh question.
This conflict generates a lot of questions. How come a NATO member is able to make an alliance with terrorists and attack a democratic state? This was an attack on the Western community because, as a member of NATO, Turkey ignored the opinion of its partners. NATO tacitly gave a green light to this attack because of its silence. If Turkey ignored NATO, is it because NATO or the United States is so weak that they couldn't stop Turkey?
We paid a high price. Five-thousand people, the most important people of our genetic code, sacrificed themselves to fight terror — to defend our land and the civilized world. We lost around 80% of our territories.
Now we are like a wounded man who has lost a leg or a hand. But we are alive, which means we have a chance to recover.
There is a dilemma in the international community between morality and interests, between geopolitics and international humanitarian law. Unfortunately, the international community either can't make a decision or it makes, unfortunately, decisions based on interests and geopolitics.
If a small state is under threat of genocide and the international community is unable or not willing to do anything, it means there is a serious crisis in the value system of [the] international community. If this is the case, then we may expect further negative developments all over the world.
Azerbaijan killed a lot of people. They mutilated people. Their prisoners of war became hostages and targets of terror. They won't even tell us how many hostages they have, and we suspect they are illegally using our prisoners of war for organ trafficking.
They won't refute the information we are receiving and are denying access to this information.
They are destroying our heritage, committing a cultural genocide. They are poisoning our water system. It should be a signal to the world that if terror succeeds here, violence can spread to the rest of the world.
The state of Azerbaijan appeared for the first time on the world stage in maps in 1918. This place was never called "Azerbaijan" previously. They were a geopolitical project of the Ottoman Turks. The nation, under the name Azerbaijan, appears in 1936 for the first time.
Armenians are indigenous to this region. We have lived here for thousands of years. How can we illegally occupy our own historical lands?
The result of the first war was to try to settle the Karabakh movement, begun in 1988, when we separated from the Soviet Union. We fought and won our independence and wanted to reunite with Armenia. There was no question of borders. What we won was one-sixth of our historical lands, but we didn't push for our full lands.Exclusive Interview: Foreign Minister Davit Babayan
We defended ourselves and our right to live on our land. They started this war. They are our oldest enemy because they never conceal their true intentions. They publicly say they are planning to kill us, to destroy us. Why do they say it publicly? Because the international community was not so active.
Now we see different ambassadors from various countries are visiting occupied territories with Azerbaijan. It is a kind of show by Azerbaijan. Why do they visit? Have they lost their conscience, their moral values? Or do they simply enjoy caviar? This is a crisis of value system [sic]. It is the destruction of the immune system of a society. It means a crisis in faith system [sic].
I think a clue to healing society is to strengthen faith, because all other ways are not effective. International law has been infringed, as are moral values ignored. The only way to bring back order is faith.
You could expect in Nazi Germany, during Hitler's reign, something like this prisoner of war museum in Azerbaijan. You see this park, like a Disneyland; they are creating a concentration camp museum, but praising hatred — worshipping hatred. It is a degradation of moral values in society. The ordinary people of Azerbaijan are not guilty, but they are being injected with this Armenophobia and hatred.
The international community is totally mute, aside from a few organizations. Can you imagine tomorrow you could see a park praising Nazi leadership? If we ignore this here, then tomorrow you could see another opened elsewhere in the world.
International entities are becoming weaker and can't react to these atrocities.
Our people are very resolute. We are going to sustain ourselves through difficulties. This is not a job; this is a mission that we have to face and overcome. We have to strengthen our faith system. If your faith is unshakeable, you will be optimistic. You will have additional power. Our self-control must be so great that we are inspired to accomplish our mission.
We need patriotic, professional leadership. Patriotism is different from nationalism. You cannot love your nation by hating other nations. You have to love your nation and respect other nations.
We have all Armenians all over the world because they fled the 1915 genocide. This is our greatest strength and weakness. We need to utilize our friends all over the world.
The entire world should understand that what happens to Artsakh, what happens here, will be reflected in other parts of the world. If we do not stop terrorism here, it will spread.
Artak Beglaryan, Minister of State
Artak Beglaryan is the second-highest-ranking member in the Republic of Artsakh and the right-hand man to the president of the Republic of Artsakh, Arayik V. Harutyunyan. Beglaryan provided documentation, both public and private, on the human rights atrocities committed by Azerbaijan and its allies:
In general, we suffered multiple war crimes committed by Azerbaijan and Turkey. The purpose was ethnic cleansing, or genocide, in order to clean the whole territory of all Armenians. The governments of Azerbaijan and Turkey say this is not Armenian land, but the history, the culture, lots of monuments, show the contrary. We've lived here for thousands of years.
The only problem was the Soviet time history. During the Soviet time, Karabakh, with its 95% Armenian population, was given to Soviet Azerbaijan. All conflicts stem from that decision.
Thousands of our houses and apartments have been targeted directly and indiscriminately. Our civilian infrastructure — our electricity, gas, road system, bridges and more — was totally destroyed.
At least 80 civilians were killed. Over 40 civilians were captured by Azerbaijan and killed. Many were tortured and beheaded. Our cultural heritage, our Christian heritage, is being vandalized or destroyed.
During the war, many of our schools, hospitals and ambulances were targeted by Azerbaijan.
Human losses weren't as high as material losses because 70% of our population fled homes to Armenia for safety because the war was intense and aggressive.
There were cases of beheadings of our civilians. They not only brutally did those crimes, but published videos to a welcoming reaction. There is systematic hate speech against Armenians. Killing an Armenian is considered a heroic act by Azerbaijan.
For decades, there have been signs of this Armenophobic policy, including awarding soldiers who beheaded Armenians and welcoming a soldier who axed to death an Armenian officer in his hotel room.
Azerbaijan used banned weapons, including phosphorous and cluster bombs on civilian and military targets. This is forbidden by the international community. Even though Azerbaijan and Artsakh are not signatories to the convention banning cluster bombs, however, the ban on cluster munitions is customary under international law. So, even if you are not signed, there is an obligation to not use them.
That could be argued on a legal basis. Using phosphorus weapons, however, is 100% banned by international law, and there is no need to sign on to that provision. There is a rule in international law not to recruit and use mercenaries and terrorists, which Azerbaijan and Turkey did.
Unfortunately, human rights are only wishes. Human rights protection in an international relationship is only a curtain for geopolitical interests. Azerbaijan and Turkey are strong enough and have enough resources to push their interests in different countries, especially great powers.
Armenians are the first nation the embraced Christianity as the state religion over 1,700 years ago in A.D. 301. We are the core of Christian values. We have cathedrals and churches from the fourth and fifth century.
Since European and American civilization is based on Christianity, they should accept the reality that we are in danger because of our Christian identity. We can benefit the world in communications and tourism, but those advantages aren't as valuable to the world. There is development potential here in intellectual resources.
Since the beginning, our nation has defended its Christian identity. Since the seventh century, our lands have been under control of Muslims, be they Arabs, Seljuks, Turks, Persians, again Turks, etc. The Armenian nation has never changed, despite this. We were tortured, suffered through a genocide, have lost millions of lives for centuries. Our core, unchangeable values, endure.News Report: Blinking at Terrorism
The world needs to understand this reality and understand the risk of Islamic radicalism, which doesn't tolerate Christians but wants to eradicate them. In Europe and the United States, it's already visible. The world should be intolerant to any Islamist who rejects other religions.
Christian Armenians live in many Muslim nations and they respect and love the nations they live in. Radical Islamists do not. Azerbaijani and Turkish propaganda accuse others of the actions they themselves are committing.
International organizations report on abuses — Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty [International], Council of Europe, U.N. reports, etc. — never can you see signs of Armenians committing Islamophobia, but you will see many documents of Armenophobia.
Turkey wants to be the leader of Muslim states, or at least Turkic states. Armenia is an obstacle for them in that geopolitical plan.
We want to recover from the war, have enough resources to develop the country, and to keep people in their homes. We are working on large housing projects because we have over 40,000 displaced refugees from the war. This is a humanitarian crisis we must solve.
Our international status must also be cleared. Our right to self-determination should be recognized and respected by [the] international community. We have the right to live in our homeland and decide the political status of our country. We have a problem of boundaries because much of our territory is occupied by Azerbaijan. My hope is one day we will get these lands back. However, based on Azerbaijani statements, we know this will not be easy for us, but we will fight for our rights.
They want to take everything. They want to continue the Armenian Genocide and reach the end goal of the genocide. They know our statements, they know they are criminals, they know they are crazy. They know their own people will see new tragedies if they continue their policies.
In part III, Church Militant will shed light on Azerbaijan's human rights violations using documents not yet released to the public. The content is graphically disturbing and should only be used for educational and advocacy purposes. For access to the full report, with historical perspective and analysis, click here.