After an Azerbaijani attack on Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) left many Armenians dead, a protest at the Michigan Capitol on Sunday saw Armenian Americans calling for an end to the brutality.
“These are peaceful people," East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens said. "This is a peaceful country. A country that just wants the right that every American holds dear — to exist. To be themselves, to define themselves, to represent themselves, and another country — a bad entity — has decided that that is not their right."
Stephens, an Armenian American himself, said in a post from Oct. 2 that Artsakh has been fighting for years for their independence and attempting to peacefully form their own government after years of war. The recent attack, he said, was an attempt to exact control over the region and its people who are simply trying to live peacefully.
On Tuesday, Stephens said Artsakh claims the territory, the land and the Armenian people that have been living there for centuries, but now they just want to govern themselves. They have been working within the United Nations (UN) and the Armenian government to negotiate peacefully, but that did not stop Azerbaijan and other entities from bombing citizens, Stephens said.
"It was something where one side was trying to act peacefully and try to gain their independence and another side just wants control over a territory," Stephens said. "And unfortunately, they guarded that in terms of military strength. So, there are people that are going to die now because folks want the right to govern themselves. ... They just want an ounce of freedom and unfortunately, there are powers that be that don't want to see it."
In his post, Stephens said he had visited Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) with a group of U.S. officials last year by flying into Armenia and taking a drive through the country through military outposts. He sat down with mayors, leaders in the legislature and the president of the country to get a first-hand understanding of their fight for independence.
“We heard of issues with trade, the need for other countries to recognize sovereignty and the effects it could have for their people. We heard of the desire for a peaceful transition, working with the world’s superpowers to let them gain independence without bloodshed. This week’s occurrence showed that the other side has decided that bloodshed is necessary for their control,” Stephens wrote.
During that trip, Stephens said he visited different cities that had been bombed before, saw schools being rebuilt and a non-governmental institution (NGO) specializing in getting rid of landmines so kids could get to school.
"That's the kind of thing that they're going up against right now," Stephens said. "Those are landmines from wars that were waged by those countries that are now attacking them, many years prior."
Michigan State Rep. and Armenian American Mari Manoogian spoke at the protest Sunday describing a House resolution introduced last week to condemn Azerbaijan for its continued aggression against the Armenian citizens of Artsakh and to denounce Turkey for its unlawful involvement in the conflict.
Resolution 319, introduced by Manoogian, calls upon the U.S. Department of State to push for the resumption of peace negotiations between Artsakh, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“Azerbaijan and their Turkish allies are engaging in offensive military operations against Nagorno-Karabakh during the middle of a global pandemic, against the pleas of the United Nations Secretary-General,” Manoogian said in the release. “Moreover, they have chosen to attack civilian targets — including schools, hospitals, and threatening to attack a nuclear power plant within the borders of Armenia. These illegal actions must be denounced loudly and immediately.”
On Sunday, Manoogian said several of her colleagues had texted her saying people had been writing and calling urging them to pass this resolution.
“Do not stop calling. Do not stop emailing. Please keep it up, it’s working,” Manoogian said.
Stephens said he has called Rep. Elissa Slotkin, MI-8, and signed on to a letter with the mayor of Los Angeles and several others across the country urging U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the U.S. government to stop providing aid to Turkey, to stop the violence and the bloodshed.
“I’m a proud Armenian-American and whether it’s in East Lansing, it’s at the state level or it’s at the federal level, I will scream from the top of the rooftops, Artsakh is a sovereign nation," Stephens said. "They deserve peace."
Stephens urged others to push their legislators to recognize Artsakh as a sovereign nation if their state does not already. Doing so will further put pressure on the U.S. federal government to get involved in the process to stop the military aid currently given to Turkey, an oppressor in the current fight.
In his post, Stephens highlighted the recklessness of risking a regional war in the midst of a global pandemic and the disaster of threatening to bomb Armenia’s nuclear power station. He said the U.S. must suspend all military aid to the Azerbaijani army and called for a ceasefire to create conditions for a “durable and democratic peace” between Artsakh and Azerbaijan.
“Make no mistake, the most fundamental value of the United States is our ability to govern ourselves and these people just want that same right,” Stephens said in the post. “I am here to serve my community, but part of me wishes I could be with those brave people right now. Long live Artsakh. Long Live the Armenian people. Long live our people.”
Inna Mirzoyan contributed to this article.
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