selected for publication by Janisse Ray
In the winter of 1945, Olinka Verdian leaves the Shahumyan province by foot to trek the three miles to the next outpost where they say the telegram has arrived with the names of the dead. She treks through Verin Shen village, over the river, now frozen, through the woods that border Azerbaijan to receive this news which could bury the hope that Badal Verdian, her husband, now missing six years, will return hale and solid from the war. She leaves in their sleeping beds the children, my tati, ten years old, her brother, fifteen, who has already, in these few years, become so old as to hide in his breast pocket the sweets he receives at school to bring home to his sister, who, due to rations, has no sweets at all. Olinka has on her person the good coat, a few layers of down and animal fur, her woolen stockings and her one pair of good shoes.
In another version of this story, published in the now archived newsletter Մրավի Ղողանջները (The Echoes of Mrav), tati describes how her mother arrives at the outpost where she and other widows stand in two feet of snow, their woolen stockings frozen to their skin, many of whom could not read the names of their dead, so waited, heads bowed, for the men to read the names one by one. I was not there, and neither was tati, but I remember this story because of the way she described this moment: her young mother, waiting with dread, with hope, for a name that would not be read on that list, nor any other, in that silent white grief. What must have been relief colored the grief of everyone else whose name was called, who knew that the world had emptied out of the person they loved and not disappeared them to die over and over in their imagination. That is a kind of grief I can’t understand, but perhaps it was like that last week of hospice, when tati’s breaths became a metronome against my own, at first, a relief, and then, a prolonged torture—what no one tells you about death is that it’s boring, much of it a building pressure waiting for this tremendous lessening. I thought that the worst part was the death, but there was something underneath it, even worse, that I could not imagine yet.
Tati described it better. When I try to find the article now, almost twenty years later, Մրավի Ղողանջները is gone. I would pull up the scanned copy of the newsletter from a barely legible website for tati, who’d sit in front of the computer as if she was sitting in front of alien weaponry, the screen zoomed in to the point of comedy, when the physical copies became harder and harder to get from Krasnodar. The archivist, a survivor of the 1991 pogroms that Azerbaijan enacted in Shahumyan, collected all the stories of the decimated village and the exiled who still dreamt of it. Now smiling in pride, now crying, tati read each story, some remembrances, some grievances, some announcements of marriage or death. Then she got to her story:
Look, she said, taping her name under the title, look.
I could have imagined it differently, but to write fiction as I used to, I’d have to imagine possible futures, which should be the job of the writer. Realism, like death, is boring. To reflect merely what there is, even profoundly what there is, when what there is is so knowable to me—in every iteration, I begin to see what will happen despite what could happen—a family trapped inside their burning home in Palestine, the bodies uncounted under the rubble in Syria, the 120,000 Artsakhstis freezing in this winter’s blockade. Stop the automatism of perception, said Victor Shlovsky. I teach my students about defamiliarization as a technique and then spend a few class periods on this exercise: take something that is automatic to you, that you perceive almost without question, then show it back to me, stranger.
Here is an example: When tati’s brother began bringing me bags of collected items, we thought it was a quirk, not a symptom. Twenty-five sunglasses, six giant Hershey bars, military pamphlets, romance novels about young mothers in Texas. Due to the long years he lived in Baku, he’d slip into Russian often, often catching himself when he spoke to me, knowing I struggled.
Девушкa, he’d call: Girl. Then he’d correct himself in Armenian: Աջիկ. Never my name, and never the full word, Աղջիկ (ałǰik), with its harsh fricative in the center.
Աջիկ, the diminutive version, an endearment.
Then he’d hand me a plastic bag filled with empty CD cases, newspapers from other people’s lawns, strange assortments of presents. And always with it, something sweet, just as he’d done with his sister, and his children and my mother, and finally, me.
In the way of my people, no one mentioned dementia for a long time. We keep our elders as long as we can, and perhaps because it does not make a difference, we don’t diagnose them until we must. We’d always teased the siblings for their memory; tati could remember the song playing in the background at a dinner party in 1973, the exact number of trees in their mother’s orchards, her brother’s phone number in Baku in the ’80s. And her brother, too, could remember the work numbers from the factories he ran, and even when they moved to the states, every spam letter addressed to him—he’d have me translate, and he’d remember. For twenty-five years, he’d walk the five miles from his Section 8 housing to see tati. They’d brag, then complain, about their children, their grandchildren, yes, but mostly they’d remember their childhoods, the village, the land which no longer was.
Around the time that we could no longer ignore it, tati, too, began to take a turn. For years, my mother and I had quietly worried for the day one of them would go without the other, and just as we’d worried, when one began to leave, the other was not far behind.
Soon, tati’s trips out to the garden to take in the fresh air became rare, and then, she could no longer see her flowers but only the shapes and colors, and then, just the colors, and then, just the silhouettes as if, she said, shadows being cast against the light of her eyes. Still, she loved the orchids I brought to her room, and that my mother watered when she no longer could.
You know, she told me once as I watered them, sometimes I think I can see them, just from somewhere else.
Before her vision went all together, I wanted to give her a portrait of her mother, young, as she’d always described her to me—and as she’d described her more and more frequently the more ill she’d become.
I will describe her now, and so you may imagine here, again, walking in the snow in her woolen stockings and one good pair of shoes. Olinka, a braid down her back as thick as your wrist, as shiny as obsidian, so long she’d tuck it into her belt so that it would not touch the ground. Olinka who held the guard dog’s pups to her face and kissed them on theirs when other villagers tied them to trees to make them ready for the wolves. Olinka who taught herself first to read Armenian, then Azerbaijani, by reading over her brother’s shoulders as she pretended to sweep the floors.
When I was young, tati gave me two pictures, both wallet sized, both overexposed to the point of illegibility. Look, she said, look—her parents, the only two pictures of them as she remembered them. The only picture of her father she ever owned.
Մրավի Ղողանջները (The Echoes of Mrav) was printing her story about Olinka and the names of the dead, and she wanted desperately for their pictures to be in the newsletter, for people to see their faces and remember them. And so, with what little skill I had, I filled in their faces, balanced the contrast, softened the shadows under their eyes and their chins. I put them into the same frame, posthumously, together. It was not my best work: for one, I was sixteen. But also, there was not much to go by—the pictures themselves were outlines, but tati was pleased. And when she received her copy of the newsletter, there, next to her name was a black and white picture, the only one she had of her mother, Olinka, and her father, Badal.
So when it was time to paint a portrait, I had only my own shoddy work to return to. I blew up the picture, already only a guess at what Olinka must have looked like and stared at her nondescript features. In my apartment, I set up a séance of sorts, the audience empty wine bottles and the occasional phone call home to ask my mother how very blue her eyes had been, how very dark her hair? It was all conjecture—my mother had never seen her grandmother young, and tati’s eyesight was not what it once was.
I can’t tell you when I knew it was right. When I began to love her, not the portrait, but Olinka behind it. Seeing, all of a sudden, tati’s smile in her smile. I picked the blue of her eyes with my mother, who said less ocean, more sky—I picked the cheekbones of my aunt, and my own hair, which tati always said was like her kins. I knew Olinka then: all the times I’d heard her name in a story had been information, but this was knowing, seeing, as if somehow, from somewhere else.
On Christmas, I gave her the portrait and she cried so hard I regretted painting it. She ran her hands down the sides of her mother’s face and dragged the paint, still tender, under her fingertips. It looks just like her, she said, but earlier she’d mistaken my cousin for my aunt —apologized because she could only see resemblance now and not the details: a likeness, in Giacometti’s sense. The portrait still hangs right outside the door of tati’s former room in the hallway of my parent’s home. It’s not a very good portrait, and I am not a very good painter.
One of the last times papi came to our house, my aunt brought him for a visit with tati for Christmas. This was near the end, when papi’s stomach cancer had left him skin and bones, and his dementia had made him change in other ways. He no longer said Աջիկ. He spoke mostly in Russian. He remembered only his daughters’ names and tati’s phone number, whom he’d call multiple times a day, forgetting he’d called, or perhaps needing to hear a voice he’d known for all his life, a voice that had been in his head along with his own, now strange and filled with broken information.
We’d been preparing tati for this for years, but, she’d say, he was the smartest man in our village—he remembered everything I couldn’t. But he spoke little now, if at all, and mistook the names of all of their relatives, forgetting whole bloodlines, misremembering dates and conversations.
Agh, Rafik, she’d snap (that was papi’s name), that’s not right, at all!
He’s sick, I’d explain, he can’t help it. But the pain of losing him this way was personal to her, as if he was forgetting on purpose.
A few years later, talking her down off the cliff of her own dementia, I would listen patiently to all her ramblings for a sign of cohesion, my phone filled with voice memos and notes of fragments of stories I thought might be something to hold onto.
But she never forgot the details, never got them wrong.
What did it mean, for tati, to be the last one to remember, to remember a place that had been overwritten on the map, that, if she stopped remembering, would be as if it never existed, at all?
The job of the writer is to imagine possible futures. Perhaps the job of a writer is also the imaginary past—the archivist trying to make a whole from the fragments—that is, give color, even if the color is not exactly right.
That last day, tati walked her brother out, both of them slowly making the turn into the living room where the portrait sat on the piano from the night before.
After this, he would not visit again as often, and his health would decline such that he’d need 24-hour care at a home. He would die, and tati would follow him less than a year later.
When the portrait came into view, papi stopped walking as if from a daze.
Raya, he said softly (that was tati’s name).
Raya, isn’t that my mama?
The line I was looking for from tati’s story in Մրավի Ղողանջները (The Echoes of Mrav) was: “Նրանց վիշտը մխրճվում էր ամբոխի մեջ այնպես, ինչպես նավը կմխրճվեր սառած օվկիանոսի մեջ:” their grief cut through the crowd like a ship slicing through an ocean of ice. It is more beautiful in my language. That’s how I remember it, though the archive of Մրավի Ղողանջները is gone, perhaps with the archiver, who knows. When I search now for the newsletter, I only find mentions of its importance and relevance but not the archive itself. Who had access to the archive? Perhaps all of them now dead, like tati, their children and grandchildren uninterested in the recalling of the details of lives lived long before them.
The worst part is not the death. Not dying, though I could not imagine a worse thing having watched my loved ones cling by their teeth to living. In hospice, they differentiate between the act of transitioning, a stage which lasts months to weeks, to actively dying, a stage that lasts days. One day they go from dying to actively dying and they slip out from underneath their tired, painful bodies without you. But that wasn’t the worst of it, either.
Before the end, my aunt arrived with a spiral notebook to write down as many names as tati remembered as far back as she could. At this point, we knew most of the stories by heart but the things we hadn’t accounted for, the dates and names, which had seemed up to this point abstract, became crucial identifiers for our genealogical line.
Was it Suren ami who died in the war?
No, he came from the war, though his father died in the genocide.
The first story I ever wrote, pen to paper and not babbled during a bath or repeated until it lost meaning in its repetition was “The Story of Artsakh.” I don’t remember all the details, but I know tati would if she was still here. There was a girl named Artsakh, the endonym for what you call Nagorno-Karabakh, separated from her father, the king, kept in a cage by the enemy, waiting to be set free. Not my most nuanced work but I was a child. I remember her quiet, huddled over me as I translated to her. I held the paper so hard it crinkled; I remember her tears streaking blue ink where they hit the page. I was seven which meant it was ’94 and tati had been with us for six years. Six years in which she’d lost son and mother and land. In May of 1988, my uncle, a paratrooper in the special unit of the Soviet Army died suddenly in Yerevan, a few months after the first pogroms began in Baku. But in ’94, I didn’t know this or why my tati yelled into the phone, long distance, to so many different countries to reach her family. I remember thinking my tati was old then—all in black, hair perpetually tied back in severe knots, never smiling in those days, or only ever smiling at me. But she was younger than my mother is now. It seemed to me that when she told stories they were all in past tense as if she’d already seen the end of everything, because, of course, she had. The only time she broke from the past tense was when she talked about the village and her son. When she spoke about the village and her son, she talked about them as if they were still here.
Once tati said of her son, dead by this time for thirty years: Even when I see people’s eyes glazing over, I can’t help myself—I must speak of him.
The worst part is that no one wants to hear about grief.
The last two years were marked by deaths in my family: first, all of our elders went, and then, unspeakably, began the next generation. People who loved me would send me lovely cards and thoughtful gifts—but I’d find myself recounting those last moments with growing desperation, knowing that the more I remembered them, the less real they would become, each new memory replacing the first original moment which was filled with a sudden religiosity.
Those who could not speak to me about grief sent me books. One such recommendation was Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which has long been considered a seminal book about grieving. But what I felt when I read it was the absolute abandon of someone reliving, in minute detail, all of the moments preceding death, the dying, the things no one cares to know about—the last dinner order, the new foods you’ve eaten since they’ve died and that they can no longer try. A year after tati’s death I tried sweet carrot dumplings for the first time and added them to the list of things I would have wrapped in plastic and brought to her deathbed after I was told it no longer mattered, the diabetes, which had precluded so much of her diet before the cancer. What we archive changes so profoundly after death: what would she have thought of the gray hairs at my temple? What would I have gotten her from the museum gift shop?
What right did Didion have that I could not find to talk about my grief this way?
In my writing, I often think of Toni Morrison’s concept of rememory, a subjugation of transgenerational trauma—a knowing that proceeds perhaps epistemic knowledge. When people die, we pull them into an archive—their pictures, their recipes, their idiosyncrasies. We invent them again and again, to reinstate them into our future without them. Perhaps the opposite of rememory—a rememergency. We aren’t remembering, we are raising from the dead the person who we can no longer raise our hand to brush the hair out of their face. We are recalling a future for the dead, a contradiction, in which we build new truths about someone who we know as far and well as we will ever know them.
Necromancy is a difficult undertaking: it needs the roots and the history and the blood of you. Tati fed and fed her whole life the stories of her dead, passed them down to my mother, then to me. In the impermanence, we are creating a new cast for their souls from our stories—we need an audience to remember.
We need a village, a people, lost in ruins.
What we call a thing is important.
In the first century BC, Artsakh was the tenth province of Armenia, in the Middle Ages, the principality of Khachen. In the 18th century, it was part of the five Melikdoms of Karabakh and in the 20th century, it became known as Nagorno-Karabakh, when Stalin, as a means to strengthen Soviet and Azerbaijani relations, gave the later the land, and my people inside of it.
The common denominator was first the halving, then the quartering, of the lands. In the archive, there are folios and manuscripts, palimpsests, those books that fold into themselves endlessly and accordion out. The job of the archivist is to sum, the collection of objects, the arbitration of their afterlife.
In archives, I search Artsakh and am redirected to its exonym: the names did not change by era but by colonizer. Now, occupiers call Shahumyan, the province where tati grew up, the Kalbajar district.
Every summer, tati brought her children to Shahumyan, to Olinka. They lived an idyllic life, chasing through the mountains, climbing the trees in the neighbors’ orchards, telling scary stories by firelight. There were rules in the village that there weren’t in the city—for instance, no running through the high grass for fear of snakes, no swimming in the river if the water was past the waist. And there were different rules when it came time to return to the city, too. My mother tells me the most important rule for traveling back through the woods that neighbored Azerbaijan, was this one: Never speak Armenian on the bus.
In 1988, the Armenian majority of the Karabakh enclave, the land formerly known as Artsakh, voted to be reunited with Armenia. Any subdivision was given the right for self-determination in the Soviet Union. In response, the Azerbaijani people committed the Sumgait pogrom a few days later, in which hundreds of Armenians were killed and thousands deported on the outskirts of Azerbaijan, though, of course, the numbers are contested. The pogrom lasted three full days, in broad daylight, in reach of authorities who could have intervened at any moment.
This, I believe, they called a massacre.
In 1990, on a trip back home to Baku, papi’s wife, my great-aunt, found their Armenian surname plastered in large letters on the door of their home. My great-aunt is half-Russian, fair and Slavic, and she could pass when others would have been stopped. She found a Russian soldier whom she begged to allow her on the first train out.
They’ll kill my child, she said, clutching her son’s hand, Just let my child get on.
Shortly after, their neighbors were pulled from their homes. Those Armenian neighbors who’d been warned to keep their lights on at night later learned it was the difference between life and death. My Aunt fled with her baby sister, watched in horror on the news as images of her dead neighbors lined the streets. No help was to arrive over the span of seven days, no state of emergency was declared: it was slow and methodical.
An ordinary genocide, though that’s not what we call it.
These mass riots aimed at exterminating ethnic groups we call pogroms.
Ninety people were executed, 700 beaten, and women gang-raped in the streets. My aunt’s friend hid with her family in their Azerbaijani friend’s home. When the authorities came to search the premises, her four brothers surrounded her at the window of the upper floor. They’d watched, terrified, as the mob below stripped the women naked, gang-raped them, then dragged them by their hair into large bomb-fires to burn.
If their Azerbaijani friends had not been successful in deterring the search, her brothers were there to make sure she would not be taken alive.
One year later, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated Operation Ring, in which Azerbaijani and Soviet forces violently displaced 17,000 from the Artsakh region, killing thirty and decimating twenty-four villages, including tati’s Verin Shen in Shahumyan. Olinka escaped to Yerevan to be with her son and daughter where she lived for two more years in a city that was not hers, to be buried in a city where she didn’t belong.
And all of these things, which were too frequent in episodes, too large in casualties, we named the First Nagorno-Karabakh War.
In 2004, twenty-six-year old Armenian soldier Gurgen Margaryan was murdered, when a Azerbaijani soldier, Ramil Safarov, broke into his dormitory at night and killed him in his sleep with an ax during a NATO-sponsored training seminar. Hungary convicted Safarov and sentenced him to a life-sentence with a minimum incarceration period of thirty years.
In 2012, when Safarov successfully requested extradition to Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, pardoned him and welcomed him as a hero. He was promoted to the rank of major and given an apartment and over eight years of back pay. In the news, the Azerbaijani media called him A hero for the Muslim world, and killer of Armenian terrorists.
In 2015, a twenty-year-old Yazidi soldier in the Artsakh Defense Army, Kyaram Sloyan, was beheaded and his head posed for pictures with smiling Azerbaijani soldiers, two months before Sloyan would finish serving the mandatory two-year draft and return home to his family.
These, I believe, are called hate-crimes.
In 2020, Azerbaijan once again invaded first Artsakh, then Armenia proper, and we called that the 44-Day War. 3,825 soldiers died, most of them eighteen years old. In the aftermath of the ceasefire treaty, Armenia conceded seventy-five percent of its territory in Artsakh, and 30,000 villagers were exiled from their homes.
As I write this 120,000 Arsakhtsis who rely on the Lachin Corridor for their connection to Armenia, and therefore sustenance, are being blockaded by Azerabaijani soldiers masquerading as eco-activists. The blockade has been ongoing since December 12, 2022, almost a year since tati’s death to the day. And this systemic purge of our people from their lands we call ethnic cleansing. And we write it down.
Soldiers who look indistinguishable to me from my own people—same dark, deep set eyes—still scream death to Armenians in the videos that have been widely distributed online, still hold up the heads of fallen soldiers as if they were never alive.
And we write it down. We write it down. We write it down.
When the name changes, the trace is left: we know this in the Derridean sense. The thing we’re naming is never truly captured by the name but by some other process—we agree to call it a sound, we agree that sound will mean what we say.
The worst part of the occupation of Shahumyan for tati was that they did not occupy the land, only destroyed it. Before we had the internet, she heard from her kin that their village had been reduced to rubble just for the spite of it. When I was old enough to pull it up, she asked me to find aerial pictures of the lands. The pixelated image was an unreadable grayscale of what looked to be perhaps a pile of boulders in an otherwise desolate valley. She stared for a long time, the screen reflecting onto her glasses: Look, she said, that was my home, pointing at the empty fields.
Because I do not have a land that feels like it is mine, I must turn to the stories of my ancestors to understand a village. My great-grandmother and my tati were the kind of woman for whom their feet had to be in their home soil, carrying their own weight in the woods they knew, to feel themselves. From knowing tati, who, when she had the strength to stand, would limp to the garden to check on her plants, I can imagine what the land meant to Olinka. The land which held the bones of our ancestors, which fed the trees that bore the fruit that my tati grew up eating, that my mother and uncle ate, and that I will never eat.
The plums in mama’s field are ripe now, she’d always say when summer approached, and no one’s there to eat them.
At the end of her life, tati wanted many things for me, regretted many things for herself. But the thing she would repeat most wistfully was the plums which were the size of fists, sweet as honey, and no longer there. The archives are filled with oral histories as witness and testimony, but to find the proof we must find the trace. Where were my people, in which country were they hiding? In which century? Instead of looking for their presence, I look for their erasure to find them. Instead of searching the categories, I look at the empty fields.
Maybe land, too, is passed down cell by cell. The love of this land. The body grows short and wide with big lungs in the highlands and here I am, stout and belting in the valley, a century and seven thousand miles away.
Love is my inheritance. Death, too.
I am here to speak of our grief, in minute detail, until we all agree upon the name, me and tati and all of Shahumyan and the Mrav mountain with the river which swallowed the dead down its banks for centuries before we knew the word genocide, and even when we learned it, we couldn’t get it to stick except to say the pictures didn’t matter and the whole wing in the basement of the museum of tolerance didn’t matter and the entire MET Armenian collection didn’t matter, all of the metacarpal bones of the children who have not been dug up because no one has gone searching, all of the four-cornered crosses labeled Anatolia under the fluorescent lighting. I am searching in the archive, and I am finding me folded over and over myself, tati, the mountains, the water shut off, the gas line, the ecoterrorists, the Gray Wolves, the white phosphorus, the proof rewritten, the mosques built on top of the pillaged Armenian churches. I am searching and I am finding the proof, I am finding the ruins, I am finding the smoking berserker, and what it is, is the archive, or the archive is the body, the body of my people which folds onto itself for centuries and centuries and accordions out.
What would it mean to know the ending of the story before you begin it? A friend writes to me about a professor from my alma mater whose research spoke to her about spoilers and storytelling. Turns out knowing the ending may lead to a more pleasurable experience. I thought of all the books I love so well that their pages are engraved in my mind, that I can call upon with photographic certainty. It’s true that when I finished them, I almost always went back to the beginning, again.
Often what I think I remember is what I felt, the pleasure of the text—perhaps, in some cases, the bliss of seeing something as if from somewhere else. I teach my first-year students Barthes in hopes that they will graduate to writing writerly texts, to challenge themselves not with pleasure but with jouissance, to challenge the reader not with answers but with questions.
I used to describe writing as a game of poker. The writer is the big blind, puts down their chips without seeing their cards. And then it’s up to the reader to check—that is to say: the reader will join the writer if they are vulnerable about what’s at stake.
Writing is an act of faith in your future self.
My friend reads this work and after some lengthy critique, she asks with tears in her eyes: I want to ask you who you’re trying to reach. But how can I, having read this, ask you that question?
Tati is dead. She will not see what I fear is the chipping away of her country. The children landlocked and freezing in Artsakh will not be warmed by this writing.
It’s not them who I am trying to reach.
I write this because it is a thing to be born in grief. To be born with knowing, perhaps before epistemic knowledge, that in this world there are those who will kill children in their mother’s wombs for being born across a border. It is a heavy thing to watch with weary acceptance as mothers line up in front of government buildings where the telegram has arrived with the names of the dead.
This grief can break you, like ice under the bow of a ship.
It is important to name things. My great-grandfather Badal may have survived years after the war without a way to return home and we know this because a three-fingered man at a prison camp asked after his son, Rafik, and his daughter, Raya, and someone, somewhere, wrote it down. In every archive, I look through the black and white photographs to find him, Olinka, Simon ami, my uncle, the Shuhumyancis I’ve only heard of in stories. I look for tati. I look for tati. I look for tati. This reality deserted them, betrayed them, erased them, so I write this just past this reality—to those who will read the minute details of our grief, those who will take up the names of our dead.
I write this because the work of the archivist, like the writer, is to imagine possible futures.
It is an act of humanity, an act of love for our future selves.
October 06, 2023
Artsakh will cease to exist on January 1st, 2024.
After nine months of blockade, Azerbaijan began shelling Arstakh on September 19th, 2023. We, all of us, watched as my starving and exhausted people huddled in basements, in their winter coats, wrapping their arms around their children and their elderly, as if their arms could withstand the shrapnel from above. Human rights organizations spent nine months alerting the international community of the continued ethnic cleansing and risk of genocide. The Lachin Corridor, the sole road connecting Artsakh to Armenia, remained closed to the those trying to flee the lightning offensive.
We are very concerned, the international community said.
We, all of us, watched as 200 more of my people were killed. The mayor of Sarnaghbuyr village, Garik Alexanyan, successfully led the children of his constituents to safety and left his dead son behind. Mothers who’d gone foraging for scraps rushed to the only working hospital left to identify the tiny, blackened bodies of their children: bodies so mangled, only a mother could identify them.
After nine months of blockade and two days of shelling, we watched as the president of Artsakh surrendered, as Azerbaijan finally opened the Lachin Corridor to let the survivors out.
Before they leave, they bury their dead in their own land. As they leave, they take down the pictures of their dead fathers, brothers, sons lost to war. They cover the graves so that they will not be desecrated by the Azerbaijani soldiers who record themselves gleefully slicing ears off Armenian POWs.
This mass exile of 100,000 Armenians takes a week, all in all. Seen in aerial clips, the road to Armenia, once meant to move cattle, becomes a white serpentine creature of caravans with families, orphans, the injured laid on top of each other. For the first time in thousands of years, the land is empty of Armenians. In their place, Azerbaijani soldiers roam the streets, record themselves shooting indiscriminately into homes, sometimes empty, sometimes not.
In a clip from the road, a young Armenian veteran of three wars pulls his fist from his pocket. In his hand is his homeland: a palm of dirt.
The United Nations agreed to a monitoring mission the day after the last Armenians left Artsakh, the day after Azerbaijan President Illhan Aliyev made a one-million-dollar donation. There are no reports of violence against civilians, the UN said. This is a voluntary exodus, the international community corroborated.
Here’s what I think about every morning when I wake and every night before I go to sleep: In the picture is a tati like my tati. I don’t know where she is and neither does she. She is surrounded by several bags, the seams at the zippers frayed. All the things she has left.
She tells the interviewer that she thought about burning her house down before leaving. Instead, she washes her dishes, put them out as if for guests. She says that the fig crop is good this year, supposes that the Azerbaijanis will eat them. She leaves them a note that says hard-working people lived here, who kept the house clean.
She begs them to water her flowers.
What does it mean to be from somewhere that no longer exists? It means to have hope that you will return, and if not, that someone will water your flowers. It’s the hope that you carry your country with you on your back, in several bags, in a pile of dirt in the palm of your hand. It means to speak the name Arstakh: to remember, for those like my tati, who were so afraid that one day they’d live to see their lands forgotten.
And now, reader, so will you.
Call to Action
Organizations providing support to Artsakh:
Master list of organizations:
Learn more about the history of Artsakh and the plight of Armenians:
Gina Alexandra Srmabekian is a writer whose work grapples with transgenerational trauma, memory and identity. She writes from the interstice of her first-generation idealism and her grandmother’s villager-pragmatism. She writes toward her own freedom and toward the freedom of all displaced peoples from Artsakh to Palestine and beyond. She writes about grief and in times of grief because it is the most powerful articulation of love. She is a lecturer at California State University, Northridge and lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Bailey.
Guest Judge: Janisse Ray is the award-winning American author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and eleven other books. Ray has won an American Book Award, Pushcart Prize, Southern Booksellers Award, Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Award, Nautilus Award, and Eisenberg Award, among many others. Her collection of essays, Wild Spectacle, received the Donald L. Jordan Prize for Literary Excellence. Her books have been translated into Turkish, French, and Italian.Ray earned an MFA from the University of Montana and has accepted two honorary doctorates. She serves on the editorial board of terrain.org; is an honorary member of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment; and has been writer-in-residence on many university campuses. Find out more at her website, janisseray.com or via her Substack newsletter, “Trackless Wild.”