Armenian diaspora rushes to Nagorno-Karabakh to back troops

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Alexander Bagdasaryan was visiting family in Nagorno-Karabakh from Moscow when, on the morning of September 27, he was jolted awake by the sound of shelling.

FILE PHOTO: Piruza Harutjunjan, an international business developer focusing on IT who lives in Estonia is seen during her holiday in Jermuk, Armenia, September 26, 2020. Courtesy of Piruza Harutjunjan via REUTERS

“I knew that a war had started,” the 26-year-old from Moscow told Reuters by phone from Stepanakert, the regional capital, as air raid sirens howled in the background.

“I volunteered to fight at the front and am waiting to be called.”

The shelling marked the start of the deadliest fighting in more than 25 years between ethnic Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region that belongs to Azerbaijan under international law but is governed by ethnic Armenians.

The violence has prompted mass mobilisation across Armenia and seen its vast global diaspora spring into action. Armenians across the world have lobbied their governments for stronger support for Armenia in the conflict, while others have donated time and money to support the ethnic Armenian soldiers fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Around 10,000 people volunteered to take up arms on the first day of fighting, according to the Armenian Defence Ministry.

“I know how to hold a machine gun, I know how to shoot,” said Bagdasaryan, who served in the Russian army. “If we all leave, then who is going to defend the Karabakh army?”

Defence ministry official Artsrun Hovhannisyan said on Thursday that tens of thousands of people like Bagdasaryan had applied to volunteer, but could not provide a precise number.

The fighting in the mountainous region has raised concerns it could trigger a wider conflict, dragging in Turkey, which backs Azerbaijan, and Russia, which has a defence pact with Armenia.

For Maria, a 27-year-old PhD student from the United States, the conflict is strongly connected to her family history.

Her father, a diaspora Armenian living in San Francisco, met her mother while fighting in an earlier Nagorno-Karabakh war in the early 1990s.

This week it’s Maria’s turn to travel the 11,240 kilometres (6,984 miles) to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, to bring donations she collected to purchase supplies for soldiers leaving for the front.

“I’m doing this not just for my country and myself, but for all the diasporans who wish they could be in my shoes right now,” said Maria, who declined to provide her last name out of concern over recent hate crimes against the Armenian community in the San Francisco area.

Piruza Harutjunjan, an international business developer focusing on IT who lives in Estonia, was on a long-awaited vacation in Armenia when the fighting erupted. Her vacation was quickly transformed into a mission to collect donations and purchase supplies such as sleeping bags, medication and generators.

“I really hope this will end quickly, but I know that the aftermath will be lasting,” the 33-year-old said, tears welling in her eyes.

“It’s impossible to overcome the effects of a war fast.”

Additional reporting by Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky