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Freedom of Belief
3 min read

A tale of two Septembers

The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh is already a twice forgotten war. Forced to flee twice, Anush Petrosyan describes the experience.

Anush Petrosyan is a writer now based in Armenia. She is originally from Nagorno-Karabakh.

A sunset dramatically silhouette's a ruined tower and people at its base.
A September 2023 sunset over Stepanakert.

The ethnic cleansing of 100,000 Christian Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh has left Armenians around the world questioning the world order that allows dictators to have their way without impunity.  

 Following Azerbaijan’s brutal war of September 2020, the people of Karabakh were subjected to a complete blockade of their region – an exclave of Armenia in Azerbaijan. In the small stretch of land where Armenians had fought for independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, civilians were being kidnapped, the elderly were dying for lack of basic healthcare, and schools were closing due to no heating gas. To the outside world, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev was speaking of peace and integration. Inside the region, experts were warning of genocide by starvation.  

In September 2023, Azerbaijan at last got what it wanted - the territory of Karabakh without Armenians. After an attack that left hundreds of people dead, Azerbaijani forces moved into the region as people began to flee to Armenia, forever leaving their homes and homeland.  

This is the story of Anush Petrosyan. A native of Shushi, Karabakh, which Azerbaijan took control of in 2020. Since then, Anush had been living in the Armenian-controlled Karabakh capital of Stepanakert, which she was forced to evacuate during the ethnic cleansing.  

In September 2020, I left my birthplace in Shushi, Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) with a strong conviction that I would be back soon. 

In September 2023, I left Stepanakert, my new hometown, with only the hope of staying alive. 

 

In September 2020, I had a father. He drove us to Yerevan in our own car. 

In September 2023, I no longer had a father… A kind person from Martakert, Artsakh, who I had not met before, agreed to evacuate my mother and me to Yerevan in his car. 

 

In September 2020, I left Shushi when there were still some people in the city. 

In September 2023, I was among the last to leave Stepanakert. The hotel where we had been living as refugees from Shushi for the last three years was empty. I had never seen the streets of Stepanakert look so desperate. There were stray dogs roaming, and those without cars and were waiting for public buses to come and evacuate them. 

 

In 2020, we left behind the harvest of my father's garden in Shushi, and an abundant life. 

In 2023, we left a few kilos of buckwheat, rice, and potatoes in our hotel room in Stepanakert. Food we had managed to get a hold of during a nearly year-long brutal blockade. 
 

In 2020, I left Shushi with dreams in my heart. I had not been broken yet, I had no personal loss, and I was confident I’d be back. 

In September 2023, I left Stepanakert with a sense of uncertainty about my life and my future. I had lost a homeland, my father, and I was lost in my own life. 

 

I have written much about Shushi since the September 2020 Artsakh War. I left a whole life and a garden of violets there. 

But I haven't written a single line about Stepanakert since the violence and ethnic cleansing of September 2023. Maybe one day I will write about this cozy city and its beautiful stadium where I would jog and regain a sense of peace. 

 

In September 2020, for the first time in my life, I felt how alone and powerless a person can be.  

In September 2023, for the second time in my life I felt how alone and powerless a person can be. 

 

In September 2020, I started to realize that in any hopeless situation a person should put their hope only in themselves and God. 

In September 2023, I became convinced that in any hopeless situation a person should put his hope only in themselves and God.  
 

I went through hell twice, or through different stages of hell.  It is difficult to say which hell was worse.... I am only afraid to imagine that there are people whose hell has been more hellish than mine. 

 

But in the midst of hell, I came across the most compassionate people, who made me feel God’s presence in this absurd world of ours. 

Voices of Artsakh is a new series developed in collaboration with The Armenia Project, an educational non-profit in Armenia, that features the stories of the refugees who were forced to flee Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh). These personal essays will focus on their experiences, and life after Artsakh as they try to rebuild new homes following the ethnic cleansing from their historic lands.

Article
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Community
Politics
6 min read

Camden: what’s up in Keir’s backyard?

The new Prime Minister’s constituency has valuable lessons for the country.

Simon Walsh is a communications consultant, journalist and non-stipendiary priest in the Diocese of London.

Kier Starmer walks along a residential development's path with two other people.
Starmer and local councillors in Camden.

‘What good ever came out of Nazareth?’ was asked of Jesus. The same might now be said of Camden, which lies at the heart of the Holborn & St Pancras constituency. A safe Labour seat since the 1980s, its present incumbent is Sir Keir Starmer who has been handed the keys to Downing Street in the General Election.

His wallet apparently has on it ‘Take me home to Kentish Town’. Two buses link Kentish Town, where he lives, with Whitehall – a route of about four miles. He will go into government with a very full in-tray, and many of them are issues he knows first-hand from his own constituency. I know them too, having lived there for 20 years.

Sometimes I cover services for a clergy colleague in the nearby parish of St Mary’s, Somers Town. The church is on Eversholt Street which runs along the eastern side of Euston station, incidentally the capital’s first mainline railway terminus. Last year, as I arrived for a mass one rainy Saturday morning, a random group of people sheltered in the doorway. They were, I discovered, addicts waiting for a drugs drop. Towards the end of mass, one of the group – a young woman – came into the back of church and found a pew in which to start preparing her fix. Once I had disrobed, I asked if she wouldn’t mind doing it somewhere else.

Another time, in the same church, a young woman from Spain was asking for money. She had answered a job advert on social media to come and work on a chicken farm. Having arrived and paid her accommodation for a week, she found there was no chicken farm, and trying to find other work was almost impossible because of paperwork. What could we do to help? The church itself is in dire need of financial support too.

St Mary’s Flats... were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity.

Somers Town was transformed 100 years ago when its energetic parish priest, Fr Basil Jellicoe, created the first housing association. Dismayed by the squalor of Victorian tenements, he set about raising funds for The St Pancras House Improvement Society. Jellicoe was only in his mid-20s but had a solid Anglo-Catholic background founded on mission and a heart for the poor. The cramped and filthy conditions with extreme poverty were ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual disgrace’ – for him, the opposite to the sacraments.

By the time Jellicoe moved from the parish in 1934, the slums had been cleared and a number of the new blocks built, the first being St Mary’s Flats, with others given saints’ names. They were among the first examples of public housing in the country to have electricity and Jellicoe became something of a social housing celebrity. Tragically, having worn himself out he died at the age of 36. His legacy is one of praxis – active Christianity meeting social problems where they are – and his model became the blueprint for many other housing associations since.

No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close. 

The area remains a swirl of social problems in addition to the drugs. Mental health issues are rife. There are plans to redevelop St Pancras Hospital which houses mental health services. The area suffers from traffic and noise pollution, and lacks communal spaces. Camden Council recently saw fit take one corner of a public green in Somers Town on which to build a tower block of multi-million pound flats, handy for nearby St Pancras Station. Crime rates are high with muggings and mobile phone thefts a daily reality. Last year, as mourners left a funeral one Saturday afternoon at St Aloysius Church just a few streets down from St Mary’s, a drive-by-shooting injured six people. Starmer called the incident ‘appalling’ and spoke of ‘extra patrols and community support’ after a conversation with police.

The area has become highly expensive. Local businesses are being priced out by increased rents. Very little social housing has been built this century. The average house price in NW1, which encompasses the Nash terraces of Regents Park, the council blocks and social housing of Somers Town, is £1.3 million. A two-bed flat is in excess of half a million quid. No surprise, therefore, that families struggle to afford to live in the area and migrate further out. As a result, schools have started to close – four in as many years recently. In his acceptance speech in Camden Council’s offices near St Pancras station, close to the world-renowned Crick Institute and Facebook’s UK headquarters, Starmer namechecked the mythical ‘girl from Somers Town’ and his hope for her future.

Charles Dickens went to school around here and knew these streets well. His 1848 novel Dombey & Son detailed the destruction and chaos caused in the area by the building of the railway line through it. 175 years later, it has been HS2, the great White Elephant which has dug up streets, seen whole blocks of accommodation and hotels demolished, diverted roads, and axed much-loved institutions like the Bree Louise pub. There has been no benefit to locals so far (quite the opposite, in fact) and it is a stain on both Labour and Conservative administrations. Sir Keir says he is furious at the ‘big hole’ left by the down-tools project. There is fear now that the redundant land will be subject to a ‘gold rush’ as developers circle to pick up some prime real estate.

Interviewed in June by the Camden New Journal, Starmer said: ‘The government has earmarked money for Euston. I want to see that money and obviously, if we come into power, we’ll see through all this money – and not stripped away from other projects which is the usual trick.’ He also said: ‘The other thing is we need housing. Camden desperately needs housing as many places do. So we will use it – if we are privileged to come into power – as part of our plan for 1.5 million homes.’

His manifesto has five pledges: 

  • Kickstart economic growth 

The cost-of-living crisis is biting hard here and the inequalities are stark. People need real money.

  • Make Britain a clean energy superpower 

It’s going to need more than a few on-street charging points for electric vehicles. And the carbon footprint of that HS2 project? 

  • Take back our streets 

He wants to halve crime rates but London has around 106 crimes per 1,000 people and his own constituency feels less safe than it used to. 

  • Break down barriers to opportunity 

Camden already ranks highly in the deprivation index where barriers are concerned: schools, homes, jobs… 

  •  Build an NHS fit for the future 

Again, the hospitals and GP services are cracking – high demand combined with under-investment is deadly. 

A prophet is not welcome in his own country, it was said. Although the new Prime Minister was elected with a majority in his home seat, it was down to 18,884 votes from the 2019 endorsement of 36,641 votes – a drop of almost 50%. In this election, an Independent candidate called Andrew Feinstein polled 7,312 votes with his pledge to improve life for local residents. Starmer’s constituents will be counting on him to fix the nation along with the problems on their own streets. Otherwise, safe seat or not, he may no longer be welcome in Camden either.