11 September 2023Armenia

Inside the Siege of Nagorno-Karabakh

Struggle for Freedom in the Shadow of Starvation

by Arpi Bekaryn
© Har Toum

Since December 2022, the only road connecting the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region and Armenia has remained blocked by Azerbaijan, with the tacit approval of Russian peacekeepers. For several months now, the residents of Karabakh have been enduring severe shortages of food and medicine, as well as frequent disruptions in electricity and complete cut-off of the gas supply. Despite appeals from leaders of various countries and numerous calls from human rights organizations, Azerbaijani authorities persist in upholding the blockade on Karabakh's Armenian population. The situation has now reached a critical juncture, due to hunger and a lack of essential medical care.

The Azerbaijani authorities refuse to let through international humanitarian aid from Armenia. Russian peacekeepers seem to not interfere. But on September 9 they attempted to drive trucks with Russian humanitarian aid via Azerbaijan thus ignoring the reluctance of Karabakh Armenians to accept food from Baku.

Journalist Arpi Bekaryan sheds light on the dire circumstances in Karabakh, while the voices of those affected by the blockade underscore the catastrophic nature of this crisis.

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Nariko Karapetyan would wake up to the sounds of birds chirping on the trees near her window every morning. Over the past few months, though, another voice came to change the sound of the “alarm clock”. She started to wake up, even earlier than the birds, from the voices of people who were standing in a long queue under those trees. Just outside Nariko’s window is the milk factory of Stepanakert, which would start operating in the mornings. But people would have to stand in line much earlier to be able to go back home with a bottle of milk. “It is psychologically difficult to wake up to those noises,” said Nariko.

Little did she know that in just a few days the milk factory too was going to close down and she would once again wake up from the noise of the birds … but in a world where one cannot get a bottle of milk even after standing in line all night.

It has been nine months since the Lachin Corridor, the only road connecting the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia and the rest of the world, has been closed.

This has put the estimated 120.000 ethnic Armenian population of the region under the Azerbaijani-imposed blockade since December 12. In the spring, the gas supply to Nagorno-Karabakh was cut off, the electricity has been intermittent, the traffic is frozen due to the lack of fuel, and humanitarian aid hasn’t entered the region since mid-June.

In late April, Azerbaijan established a checkpoint at the Lachin corridor, allowing individuals to exit for either urgent medical purposes with the support of the Red Cross or for educational purposes with the support of Russian peacekeepers.

However, the passage doesn’t guarantee that residents of Nagorno-Karabakh will end up in Armenia. Azerbaijani border guards have detained four residents of Nagorno-Karabakh since the checkpoint was installed: an elderly man who needed urgent medical care in Armenia and three male students who were going to Armenia to continue their education. In ten days the students were returned by Azerbaijan to Armenia.

Although Azerbaijani border guards permit local Armenians to leave the region in certain cases, some families remain divided due to the blockade. Entering the region, whether alive or dead, is prohibited. For instance, the family of 21-year-old Helen Dadaian from Nagorno-Karabakh, who on August 14 tragically lost her life in a car accident in Armenia, is still waiting to lay their daughter to rest. Helen's remains are currently in Armenia, held at the border in a freezer, awaiting a solution.

Nariko says the situation reached a critical point after June 15, and then stops for a second: “Well, I say ‘critical’, but I am saying it with fear, because it can yet become even more critical.”

The first thing the 38-year old woman thinks about when she wakes up in the morning is what to cook for her children. She says the hardest part is that it doesn’t depend on her. “We don't know what can be found in a store that day, or if anything can be found at all. Depending on the circumstances of the day, we organize our lives accordingly, counting on the supplies, which are already drying up,” she says.

Even if one finds something to buy e.g. half a kilogram of tomatoes or a watermelon, the prices are so high that in a region where unemployment is rising, most of the families cannot afford such commodities. Nariko and her husband work in the public sector. She says they are lucky not to have lost their jobs. She confesses though that in the current circumstances it is very challenging to be productive: one lives in constant uncertainty, reading bad news on a daily basis, and dealing with electricity cut-offs six hours a day.

In fact, even those who still have jobs must walk to the workplace every day despite the heat as the transportation in the city has been out of action due to the lack of fuel in the whole region. In the mornings it takes Nariko and her husband a forty minutes walk to reach the workplace. During the lunch break they walk back home to cook something for their children and to eat together. Then they walk back down the same road.

Nariko’s children, 12 year old Mari and 9 year old Levon, are both fond of sweets but have slowly adapted to the shortage of chocolate. It’s Mari’s birthday in September and the 12-year old understands quite well that this year she won’t have a cake on her birthday. The wishes and priorities of the children have changed during the nine months of siege. “Now what they want is for Azerbaijan not to shoot at the harvesting machines so that we at least have bread and they are not forced to go and stand in line at night to have bread in the morning,” says Nariko.

For Nariko this seems like a deja-vu from her childhood back in the 1990's [during the first Nagorno-Karabakh war] that she doesn’t want to go back to. “I still haven't adapted to these power outages. Much of my childhood was also spent in the dark, now when the house is plunged into darkness it is a very unpleasant feeling. We lie down in the evening and just wait for the electricity to be back. When the time approaches for the electricity to return, children start counting down the seconds and they get excited every time the lights go back on.”

When the electricity went off.When the electricity went off.© Nariko Karapetyan

Back in December 2022, when the blockade just started, Goga Baghdasaryan, like many people in Nagorno-Karabakh didn’t think it would last this long. “From the first days that the blockade started we didn’t take it very seriously, we thought it would last for a few days as happened before. My friends and I were joking about people emptying the stores. We didn’t buy much, we didn’t think it would last this long and that there would be a food deficit,” says a 30 year old music teacher and Opera singer based in Stepanakert.

Goga remembers the talk and gossip in the air during the first weeks of the blockade: “The road will open in two days.” “It will open on Monday.” “It will definitely open the first day of the month.” etc. But time passed by and the road did not open, instead the talk gradually faded away.

Goga felt the consequences of the blockade on himself very quickly. A few weeks after the blockade, the greengroceries of Stepanakert were almost empty with no fruits and vegetables left. “I have been a vegetarian all my life and it is very hard for me to convince myself to eat meat. I feel the lack of [vegetal] nutrition within myself very heavily. I do eat some things that grow here but it’s not a varied source of nutrition and you feel your organism lacks vitamins.” Though it has been nine months now with almost, or completely, empty greengroceries, Goga hasn’t started eating meat yet: “I still fight,” he laughs.

There are actual foods, like bananas, that they already joke about in Nagorno-Karabakh as if they’ve forgotten what they really look like.

“People lose their consciousness in the long queues for bread.” Goga says, “The last weeks have been the most tense since the beginning of the blockade”

Morning queue in front of the bakery in Stepanakert.Morning queue in front of the bakery in Stepanakert.© Nariko Karapetyan

On August 15 the authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh reported on the first death from starvation in the region. In a statement, the Human Rights Defence Office said a 40-year old man had died of ‘chronic malnutrition’ and ‘protein and energy deficiency’.

The Human Rights Defence Office blamed Azerbaijan for the death of the man, calling it one of the ‘catastrophic consequences’ of the ongoing blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh by Azerbaijan.

According to the statement, the impact of the blockade on the public health sector ‘primarily affects the health situation of the most vulnerable groups of society – children, pregnant women, people with chronic diseases, people with disabilities and the elderly.’

As humanitarian aid didn’t enter the region for over three months, many pharmacies started closing down. One such is Aza Petrosyan’s pharmacy in Stepanakert that had to close down on September 1. “The most harsh consequence was the absence of pills for pain or fever, pills for people with diabetes, medicine for children and general hygiene aids,” Aza says. “When the blockade started on December 12, the pharmacy emptied out in a few weeks but then, starting from December 27, we would get necessary medication through the Red Cross. We would get those supplies two or three times a month,” she remembers. But later, starting from June 15, humanitarian aid stopped entering Nagorno-Karabakh. “Almost every day mothers would come in asking hopelessly if there was any chance we would get baby formula and I had to say no. The same for the elderly who were coming in the hope of finding the medicine they needed,” Aza says.

Despite the nightlong queues for bread and the lack of essential foods and medicine, the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh say the conflict should not be raised to the level of ‘humanitarian crisis’.

“We see that even with the absence of nutrition and being in this critical situation, people do not agree on getting aid from Aghdam [Azerbaijani city 26 km from Stepanakert]. They say we will survive. The most important question is the question of our freedom,” says Goga Baghdasaryan. “You cannot kidnap people from the checkpoint and at the same time tell them, “We will give you food from Aghdam.”

Azerbaijani authorities suggest Aghdam-Stepanakert road as an alternative to the Lachin corridor to bring humanitarian aid to Nagorno-Karabakh through Azerbaijan.

Nagorno-Karabakh officials have rejected the aid coming from Aghdam road, stating that they would only accept humanitarian aid sent through the Lachin Corridor.

On July 26, Armenia sent a convoy of lorries loaded with 400 tonnes of aid. The convoy has been stuck at the entrance of Lachin Corridor since then, with Azerbaijani border guards refusing to allow it to enter Nagorno-Karabakh. On August 30, another convoy made up of ten lorries was sent by the Paris municipality and a number of humanitarian organizations, joining other convoys sent by Armenia and France at the Azerbaijani checkpoint. Azerbaijan had blocked access to a French humanitarian convoy as well attempting to send its own through Azerbaijani controlled territory.

Armenians from Askeran came together in a demonstration against the arrival of the Azerbaijani convoy. On both sides of the contact line, tents have been set up by the Azerbaijani Red Crescent and local Armenians.

“If any authorities want coexistence, they cannot terrorize you for nine months and then say: we have to live together. If they have that goal, they should create prerequisites for that to be possible,” says Goga Baghdasaryan.

Goga’s work as an opera singer as well as his education was also affected by the blockade. He had planned a trip to Spain in January, a concert in Yerevan in the spring and an internship in Germany in May. “These kinds of things make you understand deeply that this is a restriction of basic human rights, human freedom. If in my case it affected my work, for someone else it affected their medical treatment … the lack of freedom has a bad effect on everyone’s psychology.”

He still gives singing classes to the children. He says many kids come to classes to learn singing as a type of therapy, to get rid of the constant stress. This is something that psychologists suggested for the children. “But many of the kids are from the regions and because of the lack of fuel they are not able to get to Stepanakert for their classes anymore,” Goga adds.

To distract himself from reality, Goga does sports and rides a bike every day. “I try to stay busy so as not to think too much,” he laughs.

While new statements, political decisions, power changes are happening in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, and the negotiations are held behind closed doors, Goga says they are now in a situation where they don’t pay attention anymore to what politicians say or plan. “They can sign whatever they want, the fact is that we are here, we are not planning to go anywhere, we fight [for the right to stay in NK], we do everything to stay in our homeland.”

Nariko Karapetyan says no one in Nagorno-Karabakh could imagine the crisis would have lasted this long and that their struggle would have evolved into “a bread problem” and that Nagorno-Karabakh would have become a “humanitarian disaster zone”.

“The international community talks about solving the issue from the perspective of a humanitarian disaster yet in reality the problem relates to international law and the protection of fundamental human rights. Our struggle, which was initially for the right to self-determination, has been brought to the level of solving a humanitarian problem. There might be a feeling that because we are starving here, we don’t have any other pre-existing demands while we are starving, because Azerbaijan uses starvation as a weapon against us to organize an ethnic cleansing. We survive the struggle of starvation to show the world what kind of disaster we are fighting against at the expense of our lives.”

Nariko says she misses her freedom. “I want to hug my relatives in Armenia, I want to see my friends. The children want to see their grandparents.” As she dreams about the days after the blockade, she makes some plans for the future. “I would like to travel, to go to Portugal again. I was there with my friend before COVID, before the war.” Now, they have decided to go again once their lives return to normal.

“Two days ago, I was talking to my colleague. I said that it would be very interesting if an outsider entered Nagorno-Karabakh and observed us from their perspective. Would they find something common in all of us? We don’t notice the changes in each other, we don’t see what we were and what we are now. But I believe such things could be noticed by an outsider because our moods gradually changed, each stage [of the blockade] brought something new,” she says. “Now I can't say how the blockade affects me, because I'm overstressed. Life will show how the blockade affected all of us.”

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