A Story of Exile


ExileBOok

By Florence Avakian

NEW YORK — The Eastern Diocese’s Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center was the venue to hear a riveting account of childhood dreams crushed, the daily fear of violence, and escape from country to country in search of a safe home.

On Thursday, November 13, Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte related the harrowing story of her family’s life in Baku during the ethnic cleansing of Armenians by Azeri Muslims. The story recounted in Nowhere: A Story of Exile includes their flight to Armenia — at a time when it was teetering on the edge after the disastrous 1988 earthquake — and their eventual emigration to America.

The Zohrab Information Center sponsored the lecture. Its director, the Very Rev. Daniel Findikyan, called the book, “an extraordinary memoir documenting the heartbreaking story of the 1988 pogroms against the Armenians in Baku.” The Azeri terrorists who went from door to door with prepared addresses of their Armenian victims also committed the atrocities against the Armenians in Sumgait and Kirovabad.

The speaker has traveled to several locales presenting her book to both Armenian and non-Armenian audiences. She began her talk by pointing out that in Azerbaijan it was dangerous to name Armenian children with Armenian names, and so she was called Anna: “a safer version of Anoush.” She was 10 when the brutalities began in Baku, and kept a diary from ages 14 to 16 of her family’s struggles in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and America.

Her family’s graves and the graves of all Armenians were destroyed. Three hundred thousand Armenians fled Baku and went to Armenia.

Escaping with her family (and nothing else) to Yerevan in 1989, she found a country on the brink after the disastrous 1988 earthquake, the Turkish blockade, and the Artsakh crisis.

“The people were in no condition to receive us, including our own family members,” she related. “Anger, fear, and darkness had overtaken everyone.” Shunned by teachers and resident Armenians, with no prospects for work, and no decent place to live, her family decided that there was no future for them in Yerevan.

“As a child, the resentment that drenched my little heart from this treatment in Yerevan stayed with me for years. And it’s not isolated. It stays with many Baku Armenians in Russia, Western Europe, and the United States. It often overshadows other reasons why conditions were so bad, because we saw humans at their worst in Baku, and then were seen as traitors, or un-Armenian, by many in Yerevan.”

She and her family came to America with $180 and four suitcases, and “eventually built a successful life.” She called the 22 years in the US “not easy either financially or emotionally. I worked hard to become a normal teenager, a normal young adult, a normal American, hoping to blend in and forget. But I never really fitted in, not in Armenia, not with Americans, and not with diasporan Armenians” — whom she said did not help her family.

“Mine was a refugee fate. Two decades were lived avoiding the news from my homeland Azerbaijan, my ancestral home Armenia, and the heartache in Nagorno-Karabagh.”

But her years of avoiding everything Armenian and her outrage at her childhood memories diminished as she read the diaries she had written in her teenage years. As a mother of two children, her “maternal instincts kicked in” and she decided that her childhood memories had to be printed and read.

Following a two-year US tour of her book, she was ready to return to her ancestral home. “Coming back to Armenia was a freeing experience. There cannot be a better way to return to your ancestral home than with love and forgiveness, surrounded by the proud but quiet humming of your ethnicity in every aspect of your life,” she said with obvious emotion.

This time she was warmly welcomed as an Armenian. Strolling through the busy streets of Yerevan with her father, and seeing the thousands of people in Republic Square enjoying the musical fountains, the lights, and the many children dancing with flowers and balloons, she realized with pride the inspiring achievements of these people who have survived Genocide, earthquake, ethnic cleansing, war, and blockade: “a people who cannot be exterminated.”

During her stay there, she also visited Artsakh and saw the dramatic achievements of the brave people of that ancient Armenian land.

A lawyer and a human rights advocate, Turcotte currently lives in Maine with her husband and two children, and works in banking regulatory reform. In April 2013, she successfully spearheaded the Nagorno-Karabagh recognition efforts at the Maine House of Representatives. She has been honored with the Mkhitar Gosh Medal by President Serge Sargisian and a Gratitude Medal from Artsakh President Bako Sahakyan.