Armenian Cultural Association of America (ACAA)
James Sahagian - at the 30th anniversary of the Artsakh Movement that brought together 75 supporters and community activists for a reception benefitting the Artsakh Fund of the Armenian Cultural Association of America (ACAA)

Artsakh Movement Marks 30th Anniversary

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By Taleen Babayan

SADDLE RIVER, N.J. — The 30th anniversary of the Artsakh Movement brought together 75 supporters and community activists for a reception and presentation benefitting the Artsakh Fund of the Armenian Cultural Association of America (ACAA), hosted at the home of Greg and Meline Toufayan on Sunday, February 11.

Master of Ceremonies Alex Sarafian

Organized by the ACAA of New Jersey, the gathering served as an opportunity to reflect on the origins of the movement, which emerged on February 13, 1988 during the first demonstrations in Stepanakert that called for the majority Armenian-populated lands to be transferred to the jurisdiction of the Soviet Republic of Armenia. Over the last three decades, funds were raised not only for the war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s but to continue providing aid to citizens, particularly in the border villages.

The program opened with a cocktail hour and a musical performance by pianist, composer and conductor Karén Hakobyan, who played classical and jazz selections from Komitas, Gershwin and Kapustin.

Serving as the master of ceremonies, Artsakh Fund member Alex Sarafian reflected on his experiences in the late 1980s when the movement for autonomy began to unfold. Sarafian provided a historic sketch of the turbulent times as protests in Armenia and Artsakh gained momentum and the consequential need emerged for weapons, ammunition, vehicles and fuel during the ensuing war as well as aid for the countless refugees, which were funded by the greater American-Armenian community.

“Whenever we are faced with a dire situation or calamity, we have always come together to help,” said Sarafian. “This is what happened with the Artsakh Movement when American-Armenians from all the organizations and from all corners of the world helped the cause.”

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Setting the tone for the evening, Sarafian noted that the evening’s speakers  “will share stories today that have become part of our oral history.”

In his welcoming remarks, community leader James Sahagian, active with the Artsakh Fund and a member of ARF Dro Gomideh, said that over the past 30 years, “there has been a continuation of our national aspiration to live independently and to live freely.”

Sahagian also elaborated on the importance of advancing towards the mission of “surviving and thriving, economically, politically and militarily.”

Pianist Karén Hakobyan

Sharing his personal story as a Diasporan Armenian on the ground in Artsakh during the war, Hratch Kaprielian, who was initially involved in helping raise funds, spoke about his eye-opening experience when he first traveled to the conflicted region.

“I first arrived in June 1992 and there were four of us in a small truck,” recalled Kaprelian, a prominent businessman and chairman of the Board of the Artsakhbank. “All of a sudden, we were in a war.”

During the battles, he remembered how they found four brothers and a grandmother who were stranded and despite the gunfire and road closures, they found a way to safely arrive in Stepanakert.

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“That was the day we lost Martakert and lost many of our men,” he continued solemnly, referring to the Azeri capture of the largest town in the region on July 4, 1992. “I said I would rather die here than anywhere else.”

Richard Sarajian, Esq. recalled how quickly the American-Armenian community mobilized upon learning about the first demonstrations in Stepanakert and the subsequent pogroms against Armenians in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait.

“In 1988 there was no Internet, no cell phones, no email blasts,” said Sarajian, former ARF Eastern Region Central Committee Chair. “But in less than 24 hours of the first pogrom, we began demonstrations at the Soviet Mission in New York City.”

He observed the unity of the churches and organizations that came together for demonstrations, numbering up to 3,000 people outside the Soviet Mission to pass on messages to then-leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. With the onset of the tragic earthquake in Armenia a few months later, Sarajian said it was a “time of major cooperation.”

“There is no question the people in Artsakh truly benefited by the work done here by all these organizations and groups to help build infrastructure,” said Sarajian. “That’s why we are here to continue that work.”

Zaven Khanjian, chairman of the Armenian Missionary Association of America, recounted a humanitarian trip to Armenia when for the first time he heard, through the public radio, that the Parliament in Stepanakert had declared union between Artsakh and Armenia.

“It was a moment of reckoning and really made an impression on my mind,” said Khanjian.

Along with the AMAA, he soon entered Artsakh in the early 1990s with humanitarian aid and started camps, schools and after-school centers. He recalled one momentous day when the roads were closed in Martakert and Gandzasar so they had to take an alternative route through the mountainous roads and villages.

“Nowhere in my life had I seen such beautiful nature,” said Khanjian, reinforcing the importance of protecting the lands.

“We have a free and independent Artsakh and our top priority as a nation should be to sustain the people and populate the land,” said Khanjian. “A safe and secure Artsakh is a safe and secure Armenia.”

Reporting from Artsakh as a freelance journalist during the war, Antranig Kasbarian spoke about the effects of the Artsakh Movement on the Armenian community, for him personally, and for the Armenian nation.

As the editor of the Armenian Weekly in the 1990s, Kasbarian spent late nights translating news that arrived from Armenia’s news agency Armenpress, but he wanted to become more immersed in the cause.

“I was accustomed to being active from afar,” said Kasbarian, “But I really thirsted for on-the-spot involvement.”

That thirst led him to Artsakh for periods of time between 1990 and 1993, where he got to “witness things up close.”

Kasbarian remarked that up to the late 1980s, the community was divided along political and church lines, but Artsakh was “one of the instrumental moments to bring our community together.”

“We finally got beyond the labels and got to know each other and realized what brings us together is stronger than what divides us,” said Kasbarian, a trustee of the Tufenkian Foundation.

He emphasized the significance of lending aid not only during times of crises but to also focus on long-range development work, which ACAA has been working on during peacetime.

“There is a need for wounded soldiers, demining and safeguarding the liberated territories, which are the most historically ancient Armenian lands,” said Kasbarian, noting that there are fourth-century Armenian churches in the Lachin Corridor, which provides a passage between Armenia and Artsakh. “Without the Lachin Corridor, Artsakh becomes an island.”

Kasbarian spoke about the current efforts being made to resettle and develop the strategic borderlands of Artsakh, which “require massive investment in resettlement and economic development so it can never be given back or n

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