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Armenian community at UCLA calls for awareness, education on recent conflict

Members of the executive board of the Armenian Students’ Association at UCLA are pictured (Left to right: Mary Keushkerian, external vice president; Mher Arutyunyan, political affairs chair; Angela Minasyan, president). The Association signed an open letter criticizing the conflict at the Armenian border. (Joseph Jimenez/Assistant Photo editor)

By Yifan Gu

Oct. 23, 2022 10:37 p.m.

Editor’s note: This article contains details of war and violence that may be disturbing to some readers.

The Armenian Students’ Association at UCLA joined several other Armenian student groups across the country in signing an open letter to condemn the recent conflict at the Armenian border.

The largest outburst of violence in almost two years amid the decades-long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan – two former republics of the Soviet Union – occurred Sept. 13 and a ceasefire was declared the next day, according to AP News. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said 105 Armenian soldiers were killed, while Azerbaijan reported the deaths of 50 of its service members.

AP News also reported on Oct. 17 that the European Union agreed to send as many as 40 experts to Armenia, aiming to monitor its border with Azerbaijan and moderate the two countries’ relations.

ASA’s open letter, published Sept. 25, was a collaborative effort between Armenian student groups from UCLA and other universities. It gathered nearly 1,400 signatures from students, faculty and alumni at various universities, including UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

The letter raised concerns of potential erasure of the Armenian heritage, in addition to casualties resulting from the conflict.

Hagop Kouloujian, the Kachigian Family Lecturer in Armenian language and culture in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, said in an emailed statement that he supports ASA’s letter.

The experiences of the Armenian diaspora are largely shaped by the concepts of genocide and loss, Kouloujian said in a later interview. Attacks from Azerbaijan evoke strong emotions among Armenians, given the events of the 1915 Armenian genocide, he added.

Since December 2021, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention has published multiple red flag alerts for genocide focusing on Azerbaijan. It said Azerbaijan has perpetrated violence that could lead to a future genocide in an Oct. 7 update. The United Nations and other international human rights organizations have expressed concern over violence in the region, but have not specifically commented on the possibility of genocide

In the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, which Azerbaijan has controlled since the Soviet era, the Armenian population declined significantly from the 1920s until the 1990s, Kouloujian said. Armenian historical sites have also been destroyed in that republic, he added.

As recently as around 1990 there were pogroms against Armenians in Azerbaijan, where hundreds or more were killed because of their heritage, and people escaped to Russia or Armenia, Kouloujian said.

Mher Arutyunyan, ASA’s political affairs chair, said he is concerned for his family in Armenia. Armenia has a small population and men are immediately enlisted upon reaching the age of 18, he said, adding that this creates a concern among many Armenians because of conflict with Azerbaijan.

“It’s really disheartening to speak to Armenians who are still there. … There’s a sense of malaise, there’s a sense of depression,” Arutyunyan, who is also a fourth-year political science student, said. “They’re watching their sons and their daughters perish, and there’s just nobody that really cares for them, that helps them.”

Angela Minasyan, a fourth-year psychobiology student and president of ASA, said her godbrother was enlisted and sent to defend villages close to the border. He died in combat at the age of 18, Minasyan added.

Minasyan said the village where some of her family lives has experienced the effects of the conflict as well, adding that women and children have been completely evacuated from some villages. Remaining men there had to take on the role of servicemen, she said.

“It’s just a terrible situation, and as students in the United States, what we can do is we need to advocate as much as possible,” Minasyan said. “If you want to support the Armenian Bruins at UCLA, you want to support your peers in any way possible. … Please, please, share this letter.”

In response to the escalating conflict, ASA has organized a fundraising campaign that started on Sept. 15 and garnered thousands of dollars in just over a day, said Mary Keushkerian, a third-year psychobiology student and external vice president of ASA.

The money raised will go to the Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund, a nonprofit organization which provides first aid and medical rehabilitation for Armenian soldiers, according to ASA’s Instagram. The open letter also includes the fund as a trusted organization.

Keushkerian said she feels that it is important to voice support for Armenia as a member of the Armenian diaspora, adding that she is trying on a personal and organizational level on behalf of the ASA to help raise awareness about Armenia.

“I try to tell everyone that I meet about Armenia because I think getting the most exposure is the best way possible,” Keushkerian said. “Knowledge is power. Knowledge is where we can all grow, learn from each other and not let history repeat itself.”

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