'Frightening to Watch': Bay Area Armenians Call for Solidarity As Homeland Faces Attack

Tat Ohanyan, Hrach Saroyan, and Khachik Saroyan at a rally on the Golden Gate Bridge on Saturday October 11, 2020. (Nina Sparling/KQED)

This article includes a correction.

For many Armenians in the Bay Area, the recent outbreak of violence in part of their homeland has sparked grave concerns and painful memories of past conflicts.

"It's been a tense time," said Oakland resident Greg Nemet, who was among thousands of protesters walking across the Golden Gate Bridge on Saturday in a show of solidarity with the Armenian people. "Everybody is extremely on guard."

In late September, fighting reignited in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a territory of roughly 150,000 mostly ethnic Armenians, located in the Caucasus Mountains. Although internationally recognized as part of neighboring Azerbaijan, the region has been governed by Armenians since the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago.

At least 350 people have already been killed in the escalating military conflict over the last few weeks, with Turkish forces backing Azerbaijan, and violence spreading to the civilian population. It's the worst fighting the region— known to Armenians as Artsakh — has seen since a bloody ethnic war in the 1990s that killed upward of 30,000 people, and ended in a ceasefire but no lasting resolution.

Armenians in the Bay Area are "praying for a peaceful resolution" and "rallying together to make sure that the world at large understands," Nemet said.

Concern has also risen sharply among the Bay Area's sizable Armenian community, which includes roughly 50,000 people, following three suspected hate crime incidents last month.

Many observers also see a disturbing connection between the current conflict and the Armenian Genocide in 1915, when more than a million ethnic Armenians were killed or expelled from Turkey by Ottoman authorities.

San Francisco resident Lena Dakessian Halteh, who attended Saturday's protest, has been channeling her response into art. "My most recent piece, titled 'Soaring Cranes,' was inspired by Diasporan Armenian identity, particularly within the context of the current humanitarian crisis stemming from the attacks,” she wrote in an email.

“After Armenians were expelled from their homeland following the Armenian Genocide, the ‘Krounk’ (Crane) emerged as a Diasporic symbol — one of our displacement and also our call to return," she wrote.

Halteh says what is happening is personal for her and many Bay Area Armenians because they are descendants of survivors of genocide. “My grandparents were refugees who fled the Genocide and settled in Palestine, Syria and later Lebanon,” she added.

Lena Dakessian Halteh's son holds a 'Palestinians for Armenia' sign on the Golden Gate Bridge on Saturday October 10, 2020. (Courtesy of Lena Dakessian Halteh)

Roxanne Makasdjian, executive director of the Bay Area-based Genocide Education Project, says she has barely slept since the attacks began several weeks ago.

"It's very frightening to watch — somewhat helplessly — when your homeland, the very survival is at stake," she said.

Like Halteh, Makasdjian's grandparents survived the Armenian Genocide, and she now helps educators in California teach about the tragedy. "We're in serious crisis mode," she said.

It wasn't until 2019 that the U.S. government officially recognized the 1915 Armenian genocide. "When perpetrators of genocide see that they can get away with it ... they keep going," she said.

Makasdjian wants Americans to know that the U.S. government, which she says has supplied weapons to Turkey, is complicit in the current unrest. "Our American friends need to understand that and work with us — we hope to call upon our government to sanction Turkey and stop selling arms to [Azerbaijan]," she said.

Makasdjian is also asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call for a vote on a resolution introduced by U.S. Rep Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, that condemns Azerbaijan for instigating the current conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

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Nanor Balabanian, a longtime Bay Area resident and teacher, spoke to KQED by phone from Armenia, where she had relocated just days before this latest conflict began.

"The reason this issue is different than other world issues is because this is a repetition of a genocide. ... In 1915, the genocide happened because the world was silent," said Balabanian, who is of Armenian descent, but was born in Syria, raised in Lebanon and moved to California as a teenager. She most recently taught history and English at a high school in East Palo Alto.

"I left the Bay to come here [to Armenia] and start a learning center," she said, speaking from Armenia's capital. "But now I'm going to focus on rebuilding houses."

Balabanian says the silence from the international community feels personal. She’d like to see social justice movements in the Bay Area, as well as civil society more broadly, show support for her people.

"I've always supported every movement, Black Lives Matter — we were there at the protests. Issues against immigrants and the immigrant community and the deportation centers — we were there protesting," she said. "Do you know what's going on here? How many times do I have to tell you how I need your help? I need your advocacy."

Correction: The original version of this article stated that hundreds of people participated in the march on Saturday across the Golden Gate Bridge. There were, in fact, thousands of demonstrators — roughly 3,000 by one estimate.

KQED's Nina Sparling and Kate Wolffe contributed to this report.