Armenian Students’ Association hosts events for Artsakh Awareness Week
The Armenian Students’ Association gathered outside of Kerckhoff Hall on Tuesday in a protest calling for the release of Armenian prisoners of war still held by Azerbaijan. (Constanza Montemayor/Daily Bruin senior staff)
Nov. 15, 2021 12:39 a.m.
The UCLA Armenian Students’ Association hosted an Artsakh Awareness Week from Nov. 8 to Friday in light of the first anniversary of the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020.
Azerbaijan attempted to capture much of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Armenia since the violence started Sept. 27 of that year, according to the International Crisis Group. After 44 days of violence, Armenia signed a ceasefire agreement that ceded multiple districts of the region – which is also called Artsakh by Armenians – to Azerbaijan. More than 3,000 Armenian soldiers and more than 2,000 Azerbaijan soldiers were killed during the war, along with around 150 civilians on both sides. On Nov. 10, 2020, the ceasefire agreement went into effect, ending the war.
The war and the land cessions led to many displaced Armenian families, and Armenian prisoners of war have been subject to torture and other cruel treatment in Azerbaijan captivity, according to Human Rights Watch. More than 100,000 people were displaced in Nagorno-Karabakh and around 200 prisoners of war remain in Azerbaijan, according to Forbes.
According to a Tuesday statement by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at the 76th United Nations General Assembly, Azerbaijan continues to hold and kill prisoners of war, violating international law.
“There is a lot of cultural heritage that was destroyed. … I’m heartbroken but also somewhat angry because we have so many international organizations, and institutions like UNESCO that are just closing their eyes,” said Martin Makaryan, the political affairs chair of the ASA. “They bombed one of the most famous churches … in Artsakh during the war, and there was almost no international reaction.”
In recognition of the ongoing consequences of the war, ASA held a series of cultural, philanthropic and educational events throughout the week.
On Nov. 8, the ASA invited the Lernazang Ensemble – an Armenian dance ensemble – to lead a workshop to teach students traditional dances from the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The event also provided zhingyalov hats – a traditional Artsakh food of flatbread stuffed with herbs.
The event aimed to celebrate Armenian culture, said Makaryan, a fourth-year political science transfer student. Artsakh Awareness Week was previously an ASA tradition but had not been celebrated the past few years, he added.
“We decided that it would be a good idea to bring back this tradition and revive it and specifically dedicate it to the commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the war, to pay our respects to the victims of the war, civilian and military, and to also make it sort of a week for us – the Armenian students – to come together in celebration of the culture of Artsakh,” Makaryan said.
Sonya Ashikyan, a fourth-year cognitive science student and the philanthropy chair of the ASA, said the ASA’s cultural, philanthropy and political affairs committees each helped plan different events.
“It was good because they got an understanding of how to utilize their interests when it comes to helping Armenia,” said Ashikyan, who immigrated to the U.S. from Armenia when she was in the second grade.
Makaryan said many members of ASA hold personal connections to Armenia and its people. His grandfather was born in Nagorno-Karabakh, and his cousin fought and was wounded in the war after being drafted, Makaryan added.
Similarly, Ashikyan added that she has relatives and former classmates who still reside in Armenia. Three of her former classmates passed away in the war and some came back as amputees now unable to cover their medical bills, Ashikyan said.
Sofia Boiajian, a fourth-year psychology transfer student, said she spent last summer volunteering at Birthright Armenia, which connects the Armenian diaspora to volunteer opportunities in Armenia. Boiajian saw families who had lost young sons and mothers grieving and decided to join the awareness week events to educate others about what was happening, she said.
On Tuesday, the ASA gathered in front of Kerckhoff Hall in a protest calling on Azerbaijan to free Armenian prisoners of war. Club members chanted “Armenian civilians displaced” and “Free Armenian prisoners of war,” with some wearing blindfolds.
“(The blindfold) symbolizes how the world has turned a blind eye to this,” said second-year English student Devin Grigorian at the protest. “We’re here to make our voices heard, to educate our non-Armenian brothers and sisters about this as well.”
Grigorian emphasized the importance of people coming together to speak up for justice for Armenians.
“It’s a universal cause for justice. It’s about all of us because, at the end of the day, an attack on one group of people is an attack on humanity,” Grigorian said.
Later the same day, the organization held a panel titled “The Future of Armenian Advocacy in the U.S.,” in which California State Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian and other Armenian activists discussed current Armenian issues and how students could get involved.
The ASA also collected toys and raised funds at a toy drive for Armenian children affected by the war on Wednesday. The club plans to distribute the toys to Armenian children by winter with help from the Armenian Ministry of Defense, Ashikyan said. Monetary donations at the event will be used to support children who have lost fathers to the war, she added.
Ashikyan estimated that the club collected more than a hundred toys at Wednesday’s event. By the end of the event, the club had also raised around $1,000 in donations.
Beyond inspiring activism and philanthropy, a goal of the awareness week was to spread accurate information regarding Armenian issues abroad, Ashikyan said.
On Friday, the club held a social media campaign on Twitter and Instagram to raise further awareness about the torture and illegal imprisonment of prisoners of war, encouraging people to use the hashtag #freeArmenianPOWs on Twitter and Instagram to protest.
Boiajian added that lack of knowledge was a factor slowing progress toward addressing the fallout caused by the Nagorno-Karabakh War.
“There are a lot of people that are politically active, especially at UCLA, and I think that should extend to matters such as wars in Artsakh,” Boiajian said. “Knowing that you have people on campus that are Armenian, that are going through this, it just makes us a better community.”