I am Armenian-Italian. One morning three years ago, I woke to the news that my beloved Artsakh was under attack. I remember sucking in my breath as the words of the Italian song “Bella ciao” flooded my head: Una mattina mi son svegliato / O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao / Una mattina mi son svegliato / E ho trovato l’invasor—“One morning I woke up / Oh goodbye beautiful, goodbye beautiful, goodbye beautiful, bye, bye, bye / One morning I woke up / And I found the invader.”
I know invaders. I lived through a war as a child growing up in Veneto. I remember the sight of soldiers with machine guns, and checkpoints. I remember food rationing. I remember “Pippo,” the solo fighter plane that could drop a bomb or tin foil, could fire at us or just fly away. I remember the whistle of a bomb as it dropped from the sky. I remember the English pilot we hid and fed, and whose parachute we transformed into shirts for us girls. And I remember the darkness of those nights of the war, when we all covered our windows with thick blackout curtains. Oh, do I remember the invasor. I am old, very old.
I was a child then, and like all children considered myself immortal. I had the luxury of seeing the horrors of the invasor from afar. This does not mean that I did not know them—that I wasn’t there when my mother risked being arrested by the Nazis, or when my father and grandfather worriedly wondered if Armenians would be traded for alliances, or when they hid Jews in their clinic.
It also does not mean that I did not know what I had to do during the war. Despite what modern parents may think, children can and need to shoulder their own responsibilities. I did. I was the eldest. I knew that my parents could not protect the littler ones if they had to watch out for me too. So every night, I made sure my shirt and skirt were properly folded, and my shoes and socks were placed where I could quickly reach them if the air-raid sirens went off. I also knew what to do during an air-raid. One night my parents forgot me while they hurried with the other children to get to the bomb shelter. With the sirens howling, I quickly dressed and made my way down the staircase. When I got to the atrium, I saw my grandfather. “Are you afraid?” he asked me. “No,” I replied. “I am not either,” he said. So we sat side by side on a bench and heard the bombs drop on the city.
I remember the joy we all felt when the Americans arrived. With them came food (chocolate and peanut butter, most importantly), protection, smiles, and laughter. It was not just a liberation. It was a sunrise: a chance to start anew. I owe Americans my life. When I was about to die from one of those terrible diseases that all wars bring, my grandfather was able to purchase the penicillin that broke the fever that caused me to lose all of my hair.
I watched the world begin to rebuild. There were ominous signs then, signs that I have since understood are the aftermath of our terrible modern ideological wars: a referendum that all of Italy suspected had been manipulated, the private vendettas against the collaborators and allies of the invasori, the micro–civil war in central Italy that the writer Giovannino Guareschi described so well. The war was over when Italy began its massive effort to start over. Ideological warfare was not.
The Cold War had already broken out while Adenauer, Schuman, and De Gasperi began to lay out the plans for a united Europe. We, the children of the war, rejoiced in their plans. They meant freedom: a solid future. Such was my own hope in the united Europe that I stayed in the Europa-Haus dormitory while I studied in Göttingen, and lived alongside my Spanish, French, German, and Norwegian friends. We all wore pins with the European flag.
But the ideological battle that the war had left in its wake killed our dream before it was born. The late sixties were filled with loud, angry protests, and the seventies with terrorism. Worse than the violence was the hypocrisy of those who ignored the underlying discord, who refused to address it. And now that hypocrisy has destroyed Nagorno-Karabakh.
The war that I grew up in never really ended. It has reached my beloved Artsakh, the Artsakh in which I drank Tuti oghi (mulberry vodka) under a star-filled sky near the excavations of the old city of Tigranakert, the city founded by the great Armenian king Tigran the Great. It was handed over to Azerbaijan after the 44-Day War in 2020. And now, more recently, over 100,000 Armenians have been driven from Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan launched an attack in September.
I saw that governments would make grand statements about morality and do nothing. I saw that they would try to take advantage of the unrest in the Caucasus in order to further their own ideological agendas. I saw that it would be the people, my people, the Armenians of Artsakh, who would suffer.
I hope the United States, who liberated us before, will remember its extraordinary generosity. Our memories of violence stretch back millennia. Centuries and centuries of wars and invasions have made hypocrites of us.
But America is young; it can still be a beacon, an example. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey has introduced a bill to “prevent ethnic cleansing and atrocities against ethnic Armenians.” He recognizes that this is not a matter of “two sides” who “simply have differences,” as Matthew Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesman, claimed days after innocent Armenian civilians were bombed by Azeris. I thank Rep. Smith for his support—and, more importantly, for caring about the truth, which is so often the first casualty of war.
Antonia Arslan was a professor of modern and contemporary Italian literature at the University of Padua. She is the author of the international bestseller Skylark Farm.
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Image by Diego Delso licensed via Creative Commons. Image Cropped.