SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Dozens of allies and members of Utah’s Armenian community gathered near the University of Utah campus ahead of Wednesday evening’s vice presidential debate with a passionate message.

With signs and flags, they pleaded with national and state’s leaders to intervene and help diffuse the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The purpose of our gathering is not to protest, nor is it a rally. It is not political. It’s apolitical. It’s humanistic,” said Narine Sarkissian, the Utah Chair of the Armentian Assembly of America. “We are calling on our congressional and state representatives to sign House Resolution 1165. Stop the aid to Turkey and Azerbaijan. That aid is being used to kill people.”

H.R. 1165 is a bipartisan resolution sponsored by California Rep. Jackie Speier that “condemns Azerbaijan’s coordinated offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh and denounces Turkish interference in the conflict.”

RELATED: AP Explains: What’s behind Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting

Wednesday’s gathering near the University of Utah ahead of VP debate (Photo credit: Toni Mikayelyan)

According to the Associated Press, tension has existed between the two nations for decades, particularly Christian Armenians and mostly Muslim Azeris. The open conflict broke out in 1988 when Nagorno-Karabakh, which had remained autonomous before then, made a bid to join Armenia. 

The conflict has escalated into a full-blown war before, after the USSR collapsed in 1991 and resulted in approximately 30,000 deaths and one million people displaced. The war ended with a cease fire in 1994 with Armenia holding Nagorno-Karabakh and seized substantial areas outside the territory’s borders.

Zaven Sargsian in a Zoom call with ABC4 News Wednesday afternoon

But Zaven Sargsian, a Utah attorney said a ceasefire did not mean lasting peace. International mediation has had little success and Armenia suffered badly from an economic blockade imposed by Azerbaijan and its ally, Turkey. Fights have periodically reemerged over the years, but the most recent one that started on Sept. 27 evolved into the biggest escalation they’ve seen since 1994.

Nagorno-Karabakh officials reported that about 220 soldiers and at least 21 civilians have died in the fighting. Azerbaijani authorities haven’t reported military casualties, but said 27 civilians have been killed. Both sides have accused each other of expanding the hostilities onto their territory beyond Nagorno-Karabakh.

Wednesday’s gathering near the University of Utah ahead of VP debate (Photo credit: Toni Mikayelyan)

Both Sarkissian and Sargsian still have extended family and friends who live in the area.

“I have friends who have been sent to the front lines. I have close people that I’ve heard about that are coming back with serious injuries and need amputations. Being here, you just feel sort of helpless,” said Sargsian.

Sarkissan said their biggest fear is that the conflict this time, could turn into genocide.

“This is a predominantly Armenian-populated area. 90 percent of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, Republic of Artsakh are Armenians. By refusing to have peace talks, they are declaring that their goal is genocide,” she said.

“In just recent days, the Azerbaijani government put out video, claiming they have liberated certain villages. But what does that mean? There’s no Armenians left in those villages because they’ve caused them to leave. That’s ethnic cleansing,” said Sargsian.

The United States, France, and Russia are the official sponsors of the long-stalled peace process under the auspices of the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The three countries have repeatedly called for cessation of hostilities and peace talks.

Narine Sarkissian in a Zoom call with ABC4 News Wednesday afternoon

But Sarkissian said there is growing frustration from the silence and international disengagement from the United States. There is also fear that the intense fighting could escalate into a full-scale war that could pull in major regional players, particularly Turkey and Russia. 

“We all remember the history. We all studied it. We know how WWI and WWII broke. Back then, the U.S. also thought it was just a local, regional conflict between Austria and Germany and then Poland and Germany. We stood and we watched until Pearl Harbor took place,” said Sarkissian.

She added, “The future of the United States also depends on worldwide peace, don’t you think? The leadership of this country needs to take on the scale of foreign policy too.

Sargsian said the timing of the escalated conflicts may have been calculated.

“This invasion appears to be specifically timed by Azerbaijan and Turkey during when the U.S. would be distracted with other things, such as COVID-19 and the election,” he said. “But what kind of precedence is the U.S. setting if we don’t stand up for that principle of peaceful settlement? That if you’ve got a dispute with your neighbor, go ahead and attack them and kill them? We’re making the world a more dangerous place.”

Wednesday’s gathering near the University of Utah ahead of VP debate (Photo credit: Toni Mikayelyan)

Wednesday afternoon’s gathering on the University of Utah campus ahead of the vice presidential debate is one way, Sarkissian and Sargsian said, they could bring attention to the conflict on a local level and urge Utahns to help push for peace.

“We are asking all of the constituents of this state to text the word, ‘PASSAGE’ to 52886,” said Sarkissian.

“We need our congresspeople and our senators to really stand up and not send some sort of stock response about the conflict. This resolution is really a great way for people in Utah to help with this cause. Call your representative. It just takes one phone call and it doesn’t take anything out of your pocket,” said Sargsian.

ABC4’s sister station, KTLA in Los Angeles reported that several elected officials such as California Rep. Adam Schiff gathered at L.A. City Hall Monday to demand U.S. action in halting Azerbaijan’s attacks against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The city is home to the largest Armenian population outside of the country itself.

“We have a strong bipartisan message for Turkey and Erdogan: You’re a member of NATO. Start acting like one,” Rep. Schiff said during the press conference. “And we have a message for Azerbaijan: Cease the hostilities or there will be consequences.”

Over the weekend, thousands of protestors came together, gathering outside the buildings of news outlets in Hollywood, including CNN and KTLA, in an emotional call for media coverage and recognition of the escalating violence in the region. Demonstrators carrying Armenian flags walked onto freeways, blocking traffic as a form of protest and a plea for a stop to bloodshed in the region.

“Americans should never tolerate the use of cluster bombs against civilian targets and other war crimes that carry with them the echoes of the Armenian Genocide,” L.A. City Councilman Paul Krekorian said Monday. “Americans should never tolerate fascist Turkish expansionism in this part of the world.”

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