“These Attacks Happen Everyday”: As War Erupts in Armenia and Azerbaijian, Remote Students Grapple With an Upended World

On Sept. 27, ethnic and territorial tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted into full-fledged combat. The fighting, which is a result of deep-rooted historical grievances concerning the occupation of the independently-governed Nagorno-Karabakh region, known to Armenians as Artsakh, has brought hardship to both Armenians and Azerbaijanis alike. As the college has transitioned to remote learning, students who live in these countries have shown resilience as they complete their coursework in the face of astounding adversity.

Last week, the former Soviet territories accused one another of unprovoked attacks and reignited their military offenses. Unlike past disputes over the region, that lasted no more than a few days, this clash has only intensified since Sept. 27. NATO member Turkey has backed Azerbaijan and has been accused of escalating tensions. Additionally, experts fear that the exacerbation of the crisis will cause Russia to intervene, further contributing to diplomatic instability.

Javid Alizada ’23, an international student from Azerbaijan, has experienced the burdens of war firsthand. In the past few days, his city Mingecevir has been attacked several times to the point that he feared for his life. Alizada recounted one instance when his city was hit by missiles: “One day, I was doing homework when I heard two large booms. I decided to send an email to professors in case I died,” he said. “Yesterday, there was another missile attack. These attacks happen everyday.”

Ikram Gabiyev ’22, a friend of Alizada, also currently resides in Azerbaijan, in Baku, the nation’s capital. While Baku has not been targeted, he worries for the safety of many of his friends and relatives who live in Ganja, the country’s second largest city, because “they have been hit by Armenian rockets from the territory of Armenia — and we can’t hit them back directly, as Russia has a military base in Armenia, they are members of Collective Security Treaty Organization — with many civilians killed and injured.”

The attacks have also brought a heavy emotional toll for Stephanie Masotti ’22 and her family. Masotti is a descendant of survivors of the Armenian genocide, during which the Ottoman government — the predecessor to modern Turkey — persecuted and killed nearly 1.5 million Armenians amid the First World War. “Growing up learning the horrific stories of what my ancestors had to endure contrasted with this apathetic dismissal is painful, and it is often very difficult to stay hopeful. It is an exhausting fight against the revived imperialist and colonialist power of Turkey and Azerbaijan, but we must keep fighting,” she asserted. “Our only options are to fight or to lose our homeland. We want peace, but as long as our right to live in our homeland is threatened, we must defend it.”

In addition to causing emotional hardship, the conflict has hampered the education of Azerbijiani and Armenian students. Alizada and Gabiyev have had to relocate, limiting their access to Wi-Fi. Beginning on Sept. 27, the internet connection weakened in many regions of Azerbaijan. Additionally, access to social media was restricted almost entirely. 

These conditions make learning remotely next to impossible. “It has been very bad. No Wi-Fi and weak data. I couldn’t really participate in any of the lectures or office hours, except for some rare occasions,” said Alizada. “I do think my education has been significantly affected by my current circumstances.”

Gabiyev, who is also studying remotely this semester, has encountered many of the same problems. “I emailed my professors the day I learned about the declaration of war, because I wouldn’t be able to attend lectures through Zoom,” he said. “They have been pretty supportive, and helped me out with several issues I have encountered — mainly issues with accessing some software I wasn’t able to use at that point.”

Alizada also pointed out that his professors have been trying to assist him in this difficult time, and is thankful for the ongoing help and understanding of his professors and class dean. As he explained, “[Class Dean Jess] Caldwell[-O’Keefe] and [Director of International Student Engagement] Hanna Bliss have been attentive and supportive, which I greatly appreciate.”

Gabiyev also mentioned that his peers have accommodated him. He explained that they agree to use programs that have a better connection than Zoom such as Discord or Slack. He added that he has “had several friends from Amherst reaching out to me offering emotional support.”

Though the struggles caused by the 2020 outburst are recent, Armenians and Azerbijianis at Amherst — students and alumni alike — have felt the weight of the antagonism throughout their lives. Chris Bohjalian ’82 H’16 is a descendent of Armenian genocide survivors. The issues plaguing Armenians and Azerbaijanis are tied to events that began in the early 1900s, he said. 

The origins of Nagorno-Karabakh — the zone in conflict — can be traced back to the early 20th century when Joseph Stalin made the region an autonomous oblast of Soviet Azerbaijan. However, the most recent conflict originated in 1988 as a result of demands from the Karabakh Armenians to transfer Karabakh to Soviet Armenians. The pressure eventually erupted into full-scale war in the early 1990s which resulted in 30,000 deaths.

The war ended with the signing of a ceasefire in 1994. At this time, Armenians were in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding territory, although the territory was internationally recognized as Azerbaijani. Since then, many world powers, including France, Russia and the U.S., have attempted to nullify skirmishes and push negotiations forward. One recent confrontation occurred in 2016 on the Nagorno-Karabakh line of contact. This dispute, called the Four-Day War, also ended in a ceasefire on April 5, 2016. 

“Artsakh has always been Armenian,” Bohjalian said. “It only became part of Azerbaijan in 1923 when Stalin was carving up the Caucasus. Th[e] [conflict] is, intellectually, about a people’s right to self-determination versus territorial integrity — and the people of Artsakh voted almost unanimously when the Soviet Union collapsed to leave Azerbaijan.”

“Moreover, a people’s right to self-determination always takes precedent over territorial integrity when the people are in danger of genocide, as the Armenians are,” he added. “This is a continuation of the Armenian genocide.”

Masotti, like most diasporan Armenians, grew up with a contant awareness of the effects of the Armenian genocide and the threat of losing Artsakh. “As long as Turkey has its imperialist goal of Pan-Turkism, or the creation of a Turkic superstate from Europe to China, Armenians will be threatened. Azerbaijan is a Turkic state … and Armenia sits in between the two,” Masotti said. “Pan-Turkism was the driving force of the Armenian genocide, that was committed 105 years ago, in which 1.5 million Armenians were killed and more than 75 percent of our ancient historical homeland was emptied of its aboriginal population.”

“From a humanitarian perspective, one would hope that western governments would assist this tiny country facing the combined power of Turkey, Azerbaijan and imported terrorists,” she added. “Failing that, one would hope that the same western countries would realize their own self-interest in this fight should the Armenian David fall prey to the Goliath that assails it.”

Like Bohjalian, Masotti is a champion of the Armenians. She has done her best to support their cause in whatever ways that she can. “Despite the pain it brings, I try to stay updated with what is happening by checking in with my contacts in Armenia and do anything I can abroad to help,” she said. “Even when I am able to help by fundraising for supplies for the Armenian civilians who are being attacked, for example, I still feel a sense of diasporan guilt. I read the memorials of the Armenian soldiers who had given their lives for the sake of protecting our right to live in our homeland, many of them younger than me, and my heart breaks more every time.”

Similarly, Alizada has always been keenly aware of the friction between Azerbaijan and Armenia, even at school. “The tensions have always been there; they were never absent,” Alizada explained. “We knew that something like this would happen sooner or later.”

Indeed, despite frequent peace-making initiatives, conflict often seems inevitable. On Saturday, a Russian brokered cease-fire was organized between the two countries. Less than 24 hours after the agreement, each side has accused the other of violating the agreement’s terms.

Alizada does not see relations between the two parties resolving in the near future. “You see, this issue of Karabakh, or Artsakh as Armenians call it, is an unhealed wound and trauma that has affected generations in Azerbaijan,” Alizada said. “It is still very fresh; you can search up the Khojaly massacre that happened in 1992. There are people who vividly remember how their father was burned alive in front of them, pregnant women were cut open, little kids were tortured … I can talk about these atrocities for hours, and show you footage of the aftermath, but the truth is these acts are denied by the Armenian government. I find it hypocritical how one nation, that wants others to recognize their genocide, openly denies any involvement regarding these inhumane acts and massacres against another nation. So, this Karabakh issue is a national pain.” 

Bohjalian is also painfully familiar with the atrocities caused by the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Namely, in an article that he wrote for the New York Times, Bohjalian recounts stories of mutilation, abandoned villages and decimated land. Though Bohjalian is not currently in Armenia, he has visited Artsakh and Armenia many times and feels “deeply connected to the soil that is Armenia and Artsakh.”

As Bohjalian wrote in his 2016 op-ed for the New York Times, “I return every year to Armenia and the remnants of Armenian civilization that are scattered across eastern Turkey: This earth is in my blood, and my visits are a pilgrimage. I am an Armenian-American, but only at midlife did I understand the draw of this ancient land for me.” 

The issues at the core of the conflict are extremely personal for Alizada, Bohjalian, Masotti and Gabiyev. When speaking about the subject, their words are imbued with passion and patriotism. In spite of their differing perspectives, the four of them all yearn for peace. 

Gabiyev is hopeful that the conflict will eventually end but does not see it occurring in the near future. “I still think the de-escalation might occur at some point, due to the danger of this conflict turning into a regional war with third countries getting involved,” Gabiyev stated. 

Alizada stands firmly on the side of his people: “Thirty years of negotiations led to nothing,” he asserted. “We could never get an objective solution, or a solution at all, when the Minsk group head members — France, Russia and the U.S., that are supposed to handle the Karabakh issue objectively — hold strong pro-Armenia positions. Our rights have been trampled.”

Yet, he too is deeply cognizant of the pain wrought by the conflict and hopes for an end to the violence in both countries. “Young men are dying on both sides. Mothers are left without sons, sisters without brothers, wives without husbands and kids without fathers. I have lost friends, and my relative was badly wounded,” he added. “People here aren’t pro-war; people are pro-liberation. People want justice.”

Oct. 14 Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Stephanie Masotti’s name as Mascotti.