PINELLAS PARK — On a Thursday evening in October, standing straight and tall in his Armenian Armed Forces uniform, Lt. Col. Armen Zakaryan choked back tears as he stood before the congregation at his Pinellas Park church.
Earlier that week, word had spread that airstrikes from Turkish and Azerbaijani forces had leveled parts of the Armenian city of Artsakh in an ongoing dispute over who can lay claim to the tiny territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
More than 200 Armenian soldiers and thousands of civilians were killed.
“I am here, but I wish to be there,” Zakaryan said then from the pulpit of St. Hagop Armenian Church, where he, his wife and three children have found a home during his assignment as Armenia’s representative to the U.S. Central Command Coalition at MacDill Air Force Base.
“I wish to be there to sacrifice my life for my homeland — I am ready for that. I am ready to be there with my friends, my brothers and sisters in arms to defend my homeland, but my government, my leadership, decided to keep me here.”
Nearly eight months later, Zakaryan still replays that night in his head. It was the low point in a 44-day war that ended in surrender by Armenia, a geographically isolated Middle Eastern country the size of Maryland and with a population of 3 million — about the same as the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area.
A treaty left Russian peacekeeping forces in charge of Nagorno-Karabakh and surviving Armenians — soldiers and civilians alike — were held as prisoners of war.
On Monday, three of those prisoners were released under international pressure. They join others who are slowly regaining their freedom. More than 200 are still being held, Zakaryan said. Human rights groups and Armenian officials say many are being tortured. Azerbaijan says detainees are being treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
Armenia made headlines last month for its painful history of oppression. President Joe Biden used the word “genocide” to describe the death of some 1.5 million Armenians who were driven from their homeland by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire during the outbreak of World War I.
Previous U.S. presidents stopped short of using the word in their annual commemorations of the deadly deportation. They had been reluctant to complicate relations with Turkey, a NATO ally and important power in the Middle East.
Turkey, the nation carved from the Ottoman Empire after World War I, has rejected the genocide label, saying there was no concerted campaign and calling the number of dead a fraction of the Armenian claims. Decades of hostility have followed, culminating in last year’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh, a largely Armenian territory inside Azerbaijan.
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Zakaryan is using his CentCom position to showcase the suffering that continues in his homeland.
“My mission is to share the truth about what’s going on in Armenia with anyone who will listen,” he said, “that we are a peaceful people who are acting in self-defense. Armenia cannot be victim to genocide again.”
For the first time, as his three-year assignment draws to a close in September, he sees hope that his message is getting across.
“You see, even the day after President Biden’s message, things in my country began to change for the better — just in one day,” he said. “Just knowing that they were heard, that across the world people were starting to try to understand what’s going on in their lives, that was all they needed.”
Zakaryan has spent nearly 20 years in the Armenian Armed Forces, rising through the ranks to become deputy chief of the nation’s international military cooperation branch. The branch is responsible for organizing the country’s communications with the United States and 27 other NATO member countries.
More than 50 countries have representatives working together in the CentCom Coalition, formed to combat terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 jihadi attacks on the United States. Turkey is also one of the members.
Working alongside his nation’s biggest adversary isn’t easy, Zakryan said, but it’s an important step towards securing an internationally recognized, truthful account of the situation in Armenia.
“Sometimes it’s hard, but I have to remember this is so important for my country,” Zakaryan said. “I actually have two representatives from our enemy camps here, and you can talk with them, you can give them messages, and you can help Armenians.”
He added, “We are part of an alliance.”
Zakryan called Armenia a peace-loving country. After the 9/11 attacks, Armenia small military sent officers to aid the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan and Iraq and Armenian troops are still working with international coalitions in Kosovo and Lebanon.
Armenians at home and abroad are eager to set the record straight about their plight through history and today, said the Rev. Hovnan Demerjian, pastor of St. Hagop Armenian Church. Demerjian welcomed the renewed emphasis on human rights that is behind Biden’s declaration, saying warfare in Armenia might have been stopped had the U.S. taken this stand earlier.
Aiding in the cause, he said, is social media and its capacity to help more Armenians tell their story.
“Our fight is not with the people invading our country,” Demerjian said. “Our fight is against apathy and those unwilling to listen to the truth. But now we’re finally starting to win that war.”