Idaho-based Armenian Liyah Babayan is one of the thousands who witnessed the aggressive xenophobia towards Armenians living in Baku in 1988-90.
War kills childhood – spotlighting a Baku Pogroms survivor's story
STEPANAKERT, FEBRUARY 6, ARTSAKHPRESS-ARMENPRESS: These scenes had a strong impact on her and shaped her personality - later empowering her to bring justice for her family and the future generations.
Although Liyah was just seven years old when her family fled to Armenia surviving the pogroms, she clearly remembers the details of their journey - the harassments towards her family members at work and the brutal killings of her neighbors in the tension point of Karabakh conflict. As she says, being an Armenian in Baku in 1990, was a death sentence.
The mobs had no mercy for babies, children or the elderly and even the dead - their tombstones were vandalized, defaced and destroyed in the Baku Armenian cemetery. Even in her childhood perspectives, this was the most immoral, shameful criminal act a society could commit.
In the 6th chapter of her book, she tells us a story about her aunt Lola, who was murdered on January 13, 1990, by the mobs of Azerbaijani men. Her grandmother got a death certificate only after the pogroms in January in order to take Lola’s body out of Azerbaijan. With the help of the KGB, she obtained official government documents, accounting the injuries, and the evidence of the torture Lola suffered and died from. Aunt Lola’s murder haunted Liyah even in her sleep, replaying in her mind. The challenges for the family didn’t stop at only losing relatives and being at the scene of the terrifying events. Their only mission was to simply stay alive. The Babayans arrived in Armenia after the Earthquake of Spitak and had to live in a school shelter room for almost four years, with no money, electricity, in a state of hunger, as most people in Armenia.
In 1992, with the help of the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Program, her family was able to settle in the US. She started journaling her story not only as a survivor of Baku Pogroms but also as a refugee living in a completely different society in America. Later, her grandmother encouraged her to write a book based on the journal entries about the organized genocide that her family and thousands of Armenians survived in Baku.
Liminal is a refugee memoir, documenting her family’s escape from ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Baku, taking the reader into her childhood’s outlook of war and her personal space along with her struggle with identity and survivor's guilt, conveyed through her emotional reflections about life after the genocide. It is also a glimpse into Armenian Anne Frank’s experience in America as a refugee.
"War kills childhood, everything else can be rebuilt" is a quote from her book and journal. “This violence killed our childhood,” she says. Emotional, mental, psychological and many other traumas became physical disorders for her family members later in life. Liminal is also the journey of empowerment, embracement, appreciation for life after violence and chaos for a girl longing for her childhood and life’s lack in breaking the human spirit.
The beatings, sadistic tortures, rapes, and murders in Baku terrorized all of the survivors mentally, psychologically and spiritually - leaving them physically homeless and emotionally deformed. Despite this, Liyah’s victim story was later converted into a victor story - a journey dedicated to rising awareness of the crimes committed against humanity in Baku. In her perspectives, the organized killings, fabrication of death certificates and dates, confiscation of property, expulsion of a population are considered as crimes against the humanity and Ilham Aliyev is as guilty for covering up the facts of genocide as his father, for planning and operating the movement.
We had a great honor to talk to Liyah Babayan and get a broad understanding of her survivor story from her perspective.
-Thank you Liyah for sharing your story with us, can you tell us where is your family originally from?
-My father Martin Babayan's parents are from Shushi, Karabakh, they migrated to Baku for work. His father Sarkis Babayan was a political secretary in Baku during WWII and re-enlisted to fight during the war, he never returned from war and was declared Missing in Action. My mother Tamara Ter-Simonyan grandparent's escaped the 1915 Armenian Genocide of Turkey and escaped to Cyprus, then Uzbekistan and to Baku. My parents, brother and I were all born in Baku.
- Your book is based on your memories of the Baku Pogroms. Could you speak about massacres of Armenians in Baku? What did actually happen there?
-It was a very terrifying time in my childhood. The adults around us were very scared, and as children we could feel that something was very wrong. I watched the demonstrations of thousands of people outside our apartment. Our building had 16 floors, we lived on the 12th floor and could see out into the public square near the Karl Marx statue the mobs of men gathered chanting to cleanse Baku of Armenians!! My mother put her hand around my mouth and took me inside from the balcony because I was singing Armenian songs. This was a tension point of Karabakh conflict.
My parents were harassed at work, and told to not come to work. Then the attacks and violence began, we escaped October 1989, was the last time I was in Baku. We were living in complete fear those days, because we were being hunted. To be Armenian in Baku in 1990 was a death sentence. I remember hearing about neighbors killed and relatives escaping. It was very a scary time for us children. "War kills childhood, everything else can be rebuilt." this is a quote from my journal and book. This violence killed our childhood.
My aunt Lola, I write about in chapter 6 of my book, did not survive. The mobs of men entered my grandparents’ house and murdered her on January 13, 1990. My grandmother went back to Baku after the pogroms in January, under a different identity with a KGB escorting her at the airport. She went back to her house after the killing of my aunt. She also retrieved a death certificate with the help of the KGB official and attempted to take Lola's body out of Azerbaijan. I write about what happened in my book.
-Would you tell us about how your family escaped the Baku Pogroms in 1990? When did you move to the USA?
I went back to Armenia in 2005, I went back to Yeghvard and saw our old shelter in that school. It brought me many tears to relive those memories. I wanted to have a time of closure so I could have the mature emotions to finish my book. It was very painful to relive the past and difficult to write my book. I wish to come to Armenia again and again visit the school in Yeghvard.
-What has made you commit yourself to speaking about humanitarian values, justice and compassion?
-I felt the injustice my family survived and the cold murder of my aunt Lola in my heart all my life. As a child I had a very difficult time healing and coping with my aunt Lola's murder. It haunted me in my sleep, her being killed in Baku. My family was very wounded and shattered by the violence we survived in Baku. Even after we moved to America, we never talked about it because it was too painful to remember. I was encouraged by a teacher to start journaling when I started to learn English in 4th grade.
To write about my emotions and what our family survived, and about how it was to live as a refugee in U.S. - so since 1994, I kept journaling and one day I shared it with my grandmother. She encouraged me to write a book about what happened to our family, how we came to America. She made me promise I would write about pogroms and how this injustice we survived. I promised my grandmother I would.
I feel it is my duty to tell what happened, the organized genocide that my family and thousands of Armenians survived in Baku. This was a criminal act against humanity by a government, it was an organized ethnic cleansing campaign. The Azerbaijan dictatorship family, has blood on its hands. Father, Heydar and now the son Ilham Aliyev, is just as guilty of covering up this genocide. First the father, now the son. The destroying of Armenian Cemetery, this is an international crime against humanity. The organized killings, fabrication of death certificates and dates, confiscation of property, expulsion of a population - all this is crimes against humanity by international law. They continue to manufacture anti-Armenian sentiment in Azerbaijan and hostility towards Karabakh.
Whole Aliyev family is corruption, manipulation of facts and rewriting of history. Look what's going on there now, they lock up in prison anyone who speaks freely against their corruption, political prisoners, authors, any opposition to their false narrative. Their own people accuse them of this corruption, this oppression of free thought and speech. This family has built their empire off their talent of corruption.
-How did you come up with the idea of writing this book?
-My memoir is a combination of my journal writings from (age 10-18 years of age) also included my memories of our life in Baku, escaping pogroms, life in Armenia and coming to America. I promised my grandmother I would write it, and it was very important for me to keep my promise to my grandmother. She is no longer alive, but I feel we wrote this book together, with her help and information. My entire family was involved in the process of this book, very supportive and this gave us opportunity to talk about what we survived.
When I tried to think of a word that described how it felt losing our home, our identity our whole life - and becoming refugees, it was difficult to describe this emotional and mental state. How it feels to come to America and not be American, and slowly become part of a new country, how that change feels every day. The psychology of refugees and the way our identity is shattered, fragmented and how we have to piece our identity and life back together - this is how I found the word LIMINAL. It best described my emotion about myself, our family identity and our refugee family trauma. Our life was always in the air, changing and out of our control. Especially after we came to U.S. we did not understand this new society, culture or what to expect about life ahead. Was a space of constant changing and unknown.
That is why I call my book Liminal, a refugee memoir - it is about how traumatic events change our identity and what becomes of us after this. I was young when I wrote about this 16, 17, 18 - but my thoughts searched for a word to understand my own experience as a refugee child and teenager growing up in America. There was a lot I had to process about my past, and what my family endured before I could understand who I was in this new country. It was liberating to write about the difficult thoughts and feelings I had as a child, my own way of coping.
It is important for my children the truth about how we came to America, they will their lives knowing their Armenian roots.
-Is there a desire to translate it into Armenian and present it to the Armenian public?
-This is my dream, to meet someone who would be passionate about translating it into Armenian and Russian. Especially in Armenian, I studied and learned Armenian when I went to school in Yeghvard, but now I can read and write a lot less. I feel it is important to have my book in my mother tongue, to honor my ancestors in the language they preserved. I hope I have an opportunity to translate the book and share with our people in Armenia.
I am pleased to announce, a U.S. Veteran man age 86, purchased 100 copies of my book to donate to schools, universities and libraries throughout the U.S. He wanted people to know what happened in Baku to Armenians.
-It is known that thousands of Armenians had to leave Baku without any documents and money, leaving everything behind. You have been studying this issue for quite a long time. What steps have been taken to file private lawsuits against Azerbaijan and demand compensation for lost property, as well as moral damages? Many of the survivors have settled in the US after the pogroms. Are you in touch with other witnesses? Have you tried to work together with those people and launch joint projects in the US to raise the awareness of the massacres in Baku?
-It was crucial for me to solidify the research first, gather information and documents. I have been working on this book for 15 years, especially the emotional strength to relive the past and feel the trauma over again. Connecting with geo-political professors, historians, genocide studies programs, these are the foundation of my memoir. Understanding the effects of genocide on the psychology of survivors, from Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia and other genocides, the Post Traumatic effects on survivors and life after genocide. My family lost everything in Baku, our home (that was issued by the government to my WWII Veteran grandfather Sarkis.) My family suffered long after the pogroms, emotionally, mentally, psychologically and many of the traumas became physical ailments in my parents and grandparents later in life. Our personal possessions, family heirlooms, photographs, the historical and sentimental documentation of our family's history was destroyed and stolen from us. The vandalism, desecration, destruction and paving over of our loved ones in the Armenian Cemetery in Baku - that is the most immoral, shameful and criminal act any society can commit. Desecration of secretarial graves is an act of genocide and criminal according to international law. Azerbaijan is guilty of this crime.
When I visited Armenian and Yeghvard again in 2005, this sparked my spirit to be strong about telling the world what happened to my family. Before there was too much pain, an open wound - now there a desire for justice where the wound was before. For my aunt Lola, for the Armenians killed in Baku, there is a desire for truth and accountability for their murder. If there is not justice by international law, there is justice by international awareness. We, Armenian refugees, are victors not victims of our past. I dedicate my life to making sure the international community is well aware of the crimes against humanity committed in Baku.
This book helped my family connect with old friends who we lost contact with, friends who lived in the same building as us in Baku. With social media, the book has reached people all over the world. Hundreds of Baku survivors, from all over the world have contacted me to share about their own family's escape. I will be working towards a lawsuit through the international human rights court. Connecting with a knowledgeable legal team, who understand the gravity of such injustice on future generations and holding those who commit crimes against humanity to an international law, is crucial to this case.
I have dedicated my life to bring justice to the crimes against my family, the truth cannot suppress by Azerbaijan's government outside of Azerbaijan. The international community knows of the pogroms of 1990, it is reaffirmed by academia and online archives of history. It is clearly available for anyone to learn about through journalist, intentional government statements and eye witness contributors on Wikipedia. The government of Azerbaijan has zero credibility in the global community - it is a swamp of corruption. Even the people of Azerbaijan know they are held hostage by their own corrupt leadership, and are right now fighting for the dignity and freedom of basic human rights.