EDITOR’S NOTE: Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte has spent the better part of her adult life speaking about the horrors of Azerbaijani state-sponsored pogroms against the Armenian population in Baku, which commenced on January 13, 1990—25 years ago today—and saw the forced deportation and gruesome murder of Armenians who had called Baku home for generations. What makes her qualified is that she and her family escaped the atrocities and she lived to tell the world. She has spoken about this tragic incident in recent Armenian history at State Houses, as well as Congress. In September, 2014, Astvatsaturian Turcotte accompanied her father, Norik, to his first-ever visit to Armenia and Artsakh since the Baku pogroms. On the 25th anniversary of the tragic events in Baku, Astvatsaturian Turcotte has allowed Asbarez the exclusive right to publish below an excerpt of her book, “Nowhere, a Story of Exile – a childhood diary of Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte.”
BY ANNA ASTVATSATURIAN TURCOTTE
“One evening, she said, during the [Baku] riots and demonstrations, a group of five to seven young men came into the patio and directly went up to Vilya’s apartment on the second floor. They had batons in their hands. These batons were infamous for instantly breaking a bone. Some of the men carried other dangerous objects, like knives and clubs.
The men broke into Vilya’s apartment and beat Vilya’s grandmother in their hallway. This happened during evening hours and Vilya was there to witness the violence. Grandma couldn’t tell us if he himself was hurt. They didn’t touch his mother, Zhanna, who was the daughter of an Azeri father, making her an Azeri. But they did beat her sixty five year-old mother in front of her. No one had ever heard such horrifying screams like the ones that came from Zhanna’s throat when she pleaded for them to stop beating her already unconscious, old mother. Zhanna screamed and tore off her long hair, and the men were holding her back as their friends beat an old woman. But they didn’t stop.
The thugs left very suddenly – when Zhanna died. Her death was surprising and instant. A heart attack killed her. Her heart literally broke. Her mother, Lilya, was injured but alive. Zhanna, an eccentric, yet beautiful woman in her mid 30s, with long black hair and big passionate dark eyes, was dead.
The apartment was left the way it was when Zhanna died; the shock of her death was astonishing to even the thugs. They ran off without touching a thing. There were valuable objects in her apartment, more expensive than anyone’s in our building. Rahiba and a Russian neighbor, Katya, said that they’ll look after it. Instead, over several nights, they robbed the place clean of everything Zhanna possessed.
We didn’t doubt for a second that Rahiba had informed on Zhanna and her family just for the expensive things in their comfortable apartment. It wasn’t only about religion, or nationality or a piece of good real estate called Karabakh. It wasn’t about the pride and honor of the country, or a sense of national supremacy. This tornado of events brought up the dirt and the slime of humanity to the surface, and at the end we didn’t suffer just for being Armenian. We suffered equally for having the best apartments, the most beautiful Czechoslovakian crystal, gold jewelry, precious gems, china, hand-blown German New Year Tree decorations, valuable furniture and silver forks and knives.”
Rereading these words I wrote as a child brings a nauseating, dark feeling of imminent danger. This familiar feeling, triggered by memories, comes and goes in forms of health problems, flashbacks, bouts of sobbing or nightmares over the last 25 years. This sick feeling is a lifelong companion to many survivors of the Armenian pogroms in Azerbaijan, close to 400,000 of us. Every autumn, with every first snow I am instantly taken back in time to my first few months in Yerevan as an Armenian refugee from Baku. The smell of the autumn air or of new notebooks bring back the feeling of safety, away from my turbulent home city. But it also brings back the anticipation of a human catastrophe and helplessness over the memories that keep flooding back.
My family made a sudden move out of Baku on September 18, 1989. After months of resisting my father’s persuasions to leave our home, my mother had a sharp, intuitive need to leave immediately. We had no plans apart from our trust in a handful of relatives in Yerevan to house us until the violence in Baku subsided. This street aggression was erupting in surges over the last year and half since Nagorno-Karabakh voted for its right to self-determination. The movement to rid Azerbaijan of its Armenian population was gaining momentum after the Sumgait and Kirovabad massacres, taking on a more organized and precise form. Something suddenly scared my mother and we were gone.
The day before we left my home forever, my mother begged her friend and our next door neighbor Zhanna to leave as well. Her son Vilya was one of my best friends. Zhanna believed that because she was Azerbaijani through her father’s side, despite her mother being Armenian, that she, her son and mother would be spared. But she wasn’t. She died of a heart attack at the age of 37. Her Armenian mother died of debilitating injuries after being smuggled into Russia. Her son was hidden in Baku like a precious gem for over a month and then also smuggled into Russia to live in coldness and poverty for the remainder of his childhood.
My parents still beat themselves up for not pushing Zhanna harder to leave, but they also understand how difficult it was during Soviet times to make the sudden move into nowhere without permission to work or live outside of Baku, away from the comforts of our apartment and our life. It was even harder for a single parent like her. Such was the fate of many Baku Armenians who believed for months that they would never be slaughtered the way they were. “The Soviet government would never allow such Azerbaijani disobedience,” all of us thought. And many Armenians simply had nowhere to go.
It was incomprehensible for my family to imagine what would have happened if we had stayed. Would they break through our door? Would Papa be stabbed or beaten to death? Would Mama be raped or burnt alive as many Armenian victims were in Baku, Sumgait and Kirovabad? Would I survive like Vilya did? Those were the thoughts of an 11 year old child imagining the fate of her family at the hands of Azerbaijani government’s tools of Armenian destruction.
Between February 1988 and September 1989 we came across many instances where death was around the corner, while we hid in the dark, waiting out the storms of violence outside our dining room windows. My father was always armed with knives. At the time, my Grandmother was the only person who knew that I escaped near rape by our Azerbaijani neighbor. We didn’t tell my father in fear of what he might do or what might be done to him. But Baku of January 13—19, 1990 was a different animal. It was executed with surgical precision; with mass numbers. Only the addresses of Armenian families were targeted. People were slaughtered; then the survivors were shipped out of Baku by the military, across the Caspian Sea just like my ancestors were in 1918.
Azerbaijanis rid themselves of Armenians again, and with them, they rid the country of intellectual capital. We built Baku. Our history, along with our people, was erased. It remains only in the minds of the many who still remember the old Baku; those same silent ones that long for the past when Armenians and Greeks and Russians brought diversity, culture, beauty and prosperity to the Capital city. These same people tell me how everything Armenian is being destroyed and demolished, to be replaced with gaudy shiny skyscrapers; that the Azerbaijanis suffer from fear of being targeted by the despotic dictator; that they suffer from unemployment and poverty in the shadows of those ostentatious towers.
It is inconceivable for me to go through life without this cross we bear as Baku refugees. Once in a while I try to imagine what it would feel like if none of this happened; who I would be like had I grown up in peace and security. But I snap out of my introspection when I remember just how lucky we are as a family, with few cuts and bruises. I recently found Vilya. My best friend grew up as an orphan without a mother, a father, or grandmother. My other close Baku friend left her house without one single picture of herself as a child. Many families lost children, sisters, brothers, parents and grandparents. I cannot comprehend how they move on and grow and thrive and succeed. And they do.
We remember the beauty that made Baku our home and we are aware it no longer exists there. We bring this beauty with us to the thousands of communities across the world where Baku Armenians make their homes, from the United States to Germany, Norway to Australia. Armenian Nation will never let this happen to us or our descendants again. I am sure of it. And no matter how long it has been, 25 years or 100 years, we are here and we resist, each in our own meaningful way, the Aliyev government’s efforts to change history. This is the least we can do to honor the innocent victims of the heinous crimes by Azerbaijan.