For the four years of his existence, Ruben Akopyan* has only called one place his home: a picturesque, mountain-lined region of the Caucuses called Nagorno-Karabakh (or Artsakh to Armenians). Geographically nestled within the predominantly Muslim nation of Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh’s population consists of 120,000 Christian Armenians who have a distinct history to that of mainland Armenia. With its Armenian majority settled inside the larger geographic framework of Azerbaijan, disputes over who should control the region have been ongoing since the fall of the Soviet Union. Armenia has generally supported Nagorno-Karabakh’s right to self-determination; Azerbaijan, however, believes that it should be absorbed into Azerbaijan.
Two catastrophic wars have been fought over this issue: the first in 1988 and the second in 2020.
The First Karabakh War resulted in an Armenian win and a 1994 Russian-brokered ceasefire which gave Nagorno-Karabakh de facto independence and a self-proclaimed government in its Capital, Stepanakert. It also resulted in 30,000 total deaths.
The Second Karabakh War was launched in 2020 by Azerbaijan after it began a military operation against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by Turkey and Israel. Using high-tech military systems including drones, Azerbaijan destroyed the Armenian hold over Nagorno-Karabakh in just 44 days. 70% of Nagorno-Karabakh was taken by Azerbaijan and the Russians brokered yet another ceasefire which saw the deployment of Russian peacekeepers to Nagorno-Karabakh where they guarded the only remaining road linking the enclave with Armenia: the Lachin Corridor.
Ruben’s father, Artak, age 27, was one of an estimated 4,000 Armenians killed in that Second Karabakh War. Fighting for what remains of Nagorno-Karabakh is the reason that Artak was taken from Ruben and now this small enclave, his home, is being taken away too.
Since December 12th, 2022 Nagorno-Karabakh has become an open-air prison. Azerbaijan has set up an illegal military check-point at the Lachin Corridor, violating the 2020 ceasefire. Today, nothing and no one – not even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – can enter or exit the region, as Azerbaijan seeks to ethnically cleanse the Armenians who call it home and declare Nagorno-Karabakh 100% Azeri once and for all. In a report published Tuesday, August 8, 2023, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICJ) Luis Moreno Ocampo wrote: “There is a reasonable basis to believe that a genocide is being committed.”The illegal Azerbaijani military checkpoint at the Lachin Corridor. Image via [Gegham Stepanyan, Twitter]
Speaking to Trinity News, Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University Christina Maranci explained Azerbaijan’s wider goals: “If one follows the rhetoric that has come out for years now from the government of Azerbaijan – including the postage stamps celebrating the “extermination” of Armenians from the region, the propaganda of a “western Azerbaijan” in place of the Republics of Armenia and Artsakh, and the erasure of Armenian cultural heritage in now-captured lands – it follows that the goal is complete elimination of Armenian presence in the region, as human rights organizations including Genocide Watch began to signal already last year.”Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev is part of a family that has ruled Azerbaijan since 1993 and their core strategy for retaining power is bolstering Azeri nationalism through a systemic hatred of Armenians, often citing Azerbaijani losses during the First Karabakh War. Children are taught about the supposed parasitic nature of the Armenian people and are brainwashed to celebrate the killing of thousands of Armenians during the 2020 war.
Aliyev is ensuring that the outside world does not know about his current attempt at a second Armenian genocide. He is not carrying out murder en masse, as this would alarm the international community. Instead, he is slowly starving and sickening the people of Nagorno-Karabakh by making access to daily necessities a near impossibility.
The timing of the blockade seems to be part of Aliyev’s strategy as well. The invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, and with the West now consumed by the war in Ukraine, he knows it is unlikely that his position in Nagorno-Karabakh will be challenged. Furthermore, with Russia’s military capabilities deflated, the small number of Russian peacekeepers present at the Corridor stand no chance of fending off Azerbaijani incursions. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh are effectively on their own.
Aliyev’s attempts to minimise global awareness of his actions were on show from the very beginning of the blockade in December, when instead of deploying military personnel to blockade the Corridor, he sent secret agents disguised as environmental activists.
Furthermore, in July 2023, President Aliyev announced during a trilateral meeting with the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan and President of the European Council Charles Michel, that Azerbaijan would send aid to the people of Nagorno-Karabakh via the Azerbaijani controlled city of Agdam.
Activists on social media retaliated by arguing that Azerbaijan has no right to aid a humanitarian crisis that it is responsible for. Furthermore, by exclusively allowing aid through Agdam, Azerbaijan would be forcing the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to become entirely dependent on Azerbaijan for life-sustaining necessities.
According to statistics provided to Trinity News by the Adviser to the Artsakh President as of July 18, 2023, “Azerbaijan has completely or partially interrupted the sole gas supply into Artsakh for a total of 152 days.” The people of the region are in a perpetual state of fear as the Azeris turn their gas off and on randomly every single day.
“The entire region is currently without electricity for six to eight hours a day”
Moreover, as the Azerbaijanis have cut the electrical line going through the Lachin Corridor that normally powers Nagorno-Karabakh’s grid, the entire region is currently without electricity for six to eight hours a day; during the winter, when heating was most needed, blackouts would last up to 12 hours for conservation reasons.
The shelves of even the largest grocery store in Stepanakert sit empty and with fuel supplies so limited and unpredictable, bakers are forced to work 24/7 with inadequate supplies to produce something for even just a few people to eat. But often, most people walk away with little to nothing.
Gev Iskajyan, an Armenian-American who moved to Nagorno-Karabakh just before the blockade, has been recording the worsening humanitarian crisis on the ground and spoke with Trinity News about what he has been seeing.
“They find themselves burning through their savings, and everything that they have to spend an incredible amount of time going and buying basic necessities. To buy bread, usually you walk down and go to your local baker, that doesn’t exist anymore. And today, if your local baker does have bread, you wait in queues for two or three hours. There’s two or three places in the entire city where you can find that and you can’t take the bus or drive anymore so you spend hours upon hours walking. Recently, the bread lines have been so long that people have been fainting in line due to exhaustion and malnutrition […] Things that used to take 5/10 minutes, to just be able to make sure that your family is fed and taken care of, today take hours upon hours,” Iskajyan said.
While many families are doing their best to stay afloat by growing their own food, the Azerbaijani army has made it their mission to stop this as well. “They fire every day.. Artsakh is not just blockaded because of the road being blocked, but it’s completely surrounded by Azerbaijani troops. So all our border villages experience daily shootings into civilian areas, into agricultural areas […] they try to make it as difficult as possible for us to agriculturally produce anything here,” Iskajyan said.
“In the first six months of this year, three times as many pregnant mothers have lost their children than all of last year”
Since the ICRC was officially banned from entering the region at the beginning of July, access to medicine has dropped significantly and with the extreme shortages of gas, few ambulances are operating at this point. Fatalities caused by cancer have increased by 15.9% from January to July 2023 and new cases of strokes have surged by 26% in this period as well. “In the first six months of this year, three times as many pregnant mothers have lost their children than all of last year and 90% of those in hospital are showing signs of anemia due to malnutrition,” Iskajyan said.
For the 30,000 children of Nagorno-Karabakh, the blockade has taken a considerable toll.
Trinity News spoke with Nagorno-Karabakh middle school teacher Heghinar Grigoryan about what she has been observing. “Many students wonder why they can’t lead the same lives as other children around the world. The effects of the war and now this blockade can be difficult for anyone to deal with — especially children — who have dealt with this reality for years now […] because of the lack of gas and electricity many students were denied access to schooling for months at a time, which leaves a lot of them falling behind in their curriculum. The teachers have done everything possible to make sure students can keep up with their education, offering extra classes and often working on the weekends. […] We understand the sacrifice many have made so that we can live proudly on this land, with dignity, and it is with that mindset that we move forward everyday.”
Meanwhile, negotiations between the two heads of state have made little progress. Speaking to Trinity News, Professor Emeritus of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy at Columbia University Dr. Robert Legvold explained the stalemate he observed while visiting Armenia and Georgia in July.
“The mood in Armenia among experts directly involved in the negotiations is not optimistic. […] each session ends by […] stressing the complexity of the issues involved and the failure to achieve a breakthrough on a key issue, such as guarantees for the security and welfare of Armenians remaining in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Legvold said.
Legvold added that the blockade of the Lachin Corridor is not even part of formal negotiations for a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, yet it “hangs like an Albatross around the neck of the negotiators […] At some point, the blockade will be lifted, but what the human toll will be at that point–it is already severe–is difficult to estimate,” Legvold said.
With current negotiations at an impasse, increased mediation from other world leaders may be needed. In an interview with Trinity News, Dr. Ronald Suny, Emeritus Professor of History and Political Science at the University of Michigan and University of Chicago explained why this matter should be of importance to the international community: “If the United States and other NATO powers and EU powers, etc, are genuinely interested in protecting democracy against autocracy, and authoritarian state, then they have a vested interest in defending and protecting Armenia, against authoritarian, autocratic Azerbaijan.”
After visiting Armenia in July, however, Suny is not optimistic about the prospect of any substantive Western intervention: “the American ambassador told us in Yerevan that basically, Americans aren’t going to do much, because they’re busy elsewhere too, in Ukraine, in the South China Sea, protecting Taiwan […] I mean, it’s [Nagorno-Karabakh] incidental to them.”
According to Iskajyan, the people of Artsakh are also deeply disappointed with the Armenian administration’s seemingly passive role in the negotiation process. Many feel that Prime Minister Pashinyan is taking the easy way out by considering the concession of Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan, ignoring Aliyev’s larger plans to remove Armenians from the region altogether.
When asked to describe how the people of Nagorno Karabakh generally feel about the Pashinyan administration, Iskajyan explained that the Armenian government is “doing all this political wrangling […] but the situation here is just getting worse. […] There’s a betrayal that people feel and then after that they feel there’s a sense of severe incompetence on behalf of the Armenian government. And then there is this abandonment […] few Armenians are asking the Armenian government to fly a plane in with humanitarian goods; we’re asking the US to do it, we’re asking other people to take that risk but it’s not even a thought that the Armenian government would do that.”
The humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh worsens every single day. On July 21st, a pregnant woman collapsed while standing in a food line due to hunger. During the week of July 24th alone, Azerbaijan blocked 400 tons of aid from entering. On July 25th all public transportation was halted due to fuel shortages. On July 29th, a 68 year old man was kidnapped at the Lachin corridor while attempting to receive transport into Armenia for life-saving medical treatment by the few ICRC personnel who had managed to enter.
Yet despite all of this tragedy, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have not given up.
“We’ve been through so much throughout our history […] there’s this generational path that you can trace. Many of these folks that fought in the 2020 war, their fathers and their grandfathers fought in the 90s War. Many of their fathers and friends and brothers and uncles and relatives died in the 90s and just as many of them died in 2020. So it’s not the common line of thinking: why do you continue to live here? Just go to Armenia, it shouldn’t be that hard. It’s like, well, my father gave his life so I can live here, my friend gave his life so I can live here; so there is a sense of duty to stay,” Iskajyan said.
Since the very start of the blockade, huge rallies of people – sometimes numbering up to 50,000 according to Iskajyan – have gathered in the centre of Stepanakert to protest, coming together to fight back.Some pioneering families are setting up initiatives on the ground to support the population, like this one which is accepting donations to build and install solar panels in hopes of increasing the region’s independent energy capabilities.
Outside of Nagorno-Karabakh, a few diasporan Armenians have set up initiatives like Ser Artsakh which sends materials such as diapers, clothes, toys, and more into the region for newborns. To donate click here.However, the reality is that the 120,000 people of Nagorno-Karabakh will not survive this if the outside world remains ignorant.
UK House of Lords member Baroness Caroline Cox explained the importance of wider advocacy efforts to Trinity News: “Anyone who is concerned about the situation needs to do everything possible to call Azerbaijan to account for well documented crimes against humanity and to ensure a peaceful solution to the current crises – to enable the Armenians of Artsakh again to live in freedom in their historic lands.”
Iskajyan’s parting words are stark: “No matter how resilient these people are, no matter how much hardship they’ve been through, they shouldn’t have to live like this, nobody should have to live like this.”
*Ruben’s last name has been changed for his safety.