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When Mary Asatryan walked past an open grocery shop one evening in Stepanakert, the sight was a shock to her. “I thought, wow, they are all closed for a while, and I was interested as to why it was open.” But when she went inside, she saw that just like all other shops in the capital city of the breakaway state that Armenians call Artsakh, the shelves were completely bare. She said the vendor told her “No I don’t have anything, I’m just so bored at home I decided to come and see my store’.”
As she went to leave, the owner stopped her and said “Wait, I can’t let you go empty-handed!” He went into a back room and returned with a packet of chewing gum, the last remaining item he had for sale. “I know this is nothing, but perhaps it can make you a bit happy tonight.”
Inside Stepanakert, you can see the stars better than almost any other city on the planet. There is no light pollution, as most houses have no electricity at later hours. There is no smog from traffic, as almost no one has been able to drive a car since petrol and diesel stocks ran out a few months ago.
In some photos the place looks bucolic and medieval- photos from the city show horses and donkeys stabled in car parks. People live on a barter system where almost all food is locally grown fruit and vegetables, or recently slaughtered meat from the region’s farmland.
But inside their houses, people are beginning to starve.
Two weeks ago, the local authorities reported the death of a 40-year-old man from starvation. Several pregnant women are known to have miscarried because of stress and malnutrition. Food rationing has been introduced, with families reduced to queuing at bakeries for a maximum of one loaf of bread per family, per day.
Small acts of kindness, like that of the shopkeeper, are one of the few bright spots in an otherwise brutal life for the people of this city. “They manage to preserve their humanity in the most inhuman times, and this is what keeps us going,” Asatryan said in a video interview with Byline Times from her apartment in the blockaded region.
A Brutal Power Struggle
What is happening here is the latest round in an ugly and brutal struggle for power in the region. She and around 100-120,000 other Armenians live in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which they call after the name of an ancient Armenian kingdom, Artsakh.
The territory is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan since the Bolsheviks divided the territories in the early 1920s. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a brutal war over the territory, which saw Armenia capture Karabakh, and a large belt of Azerbaijani territory surrounding it in 1994.
In 2020, Azerbaijan mounted a major military operation that recaptured most of the territory it had lost, but a Russian-brokered peace deal left most of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh nominally in Armenian control. The fragile ceasefire was supposed to be guaranteed by a contingent of around 2,000 Russian peacekeepers. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upset the delicate balance of power in the region, weakening Russia’s international standing and emboldening Azerbaijan to exert maximum pressure on the region.
Nagorno-Karabakh is connected to the mainland of Armenia through a narrow strip of land called the Lachin corridor, which used to be a lifeline through which food, medicines and other essential supplies were transported. But since December last year, Azerbaijan blocked all traffic through the narrow mountainous pass, except for movements of the Red Cross and the Russian peacekeepers.
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Back then, the blockade was done unofficially – the government disguising its actions as a protest against environmental degradation by grassroots Azerbaijani eco-activists. A few months later, the Azerbaijani regime installed an official checkpoint, and then, after another brief round of shooting with Armenian troops in July, even the movements of the Red Cross have been curtailed. Some people have been allowed to leave for Armenia in recent days for medical treatment, but even this is dangerous. Several Armenian men have been arbitrarily arrested as they attempt to leave the territory.
The result is what locals refer to as an organised campaign of starvation, intended to force the Armenian population to either accede to Azerbaijani control or be forced out. “This is an attempted ethnic cleansing” Asatryan, who works as an assistant to the Artsakh Ombudsman, who collects data on human rights abuses in the region. “They want to finish what they started in 2020.”
Armenia is not blameless in the dispute – hundreds of thousands of Armenians and Azerbaijanis were driven from their homes by both sides of the war in the 1990s, and Armenia held on to undisputed Azerbaijani territory around Nagorno-Karabakh for years after the war.
But the weight of international expert opinion has been on Armenia’s side in this latest dispute. In February, the International Court of Justice called for unimpeded traffic to be resumed along the Lachin corridor. In August, the UN Secretary-General called for the implementation of the court’s directive. Azerbaijan says that it is willing to supply the region via an eastern road from its province Aghdam- the Karabakh population says accepting this is tantamount to accepting Azerbaijani control over the whole region and cutting their ties with Armenia.
Now, the territory is experiencing severe shortages of humanitarian supplies, as well as essential utilities. Shop shelves have been emptied for months, and the main hospitals, many of which suffered damage during the 2020 war, are critically low on essential medicines.
Memories of Genocide
Lilit Shahverdyan, a journalist from the region who now lives in Yerevan, said the local population could never accept Azerbaijani rule, no matter what guarantees they received of protection or individual rights.
“I will never live under a government that made my people suffer so much,” Lilit told Byline Times. She has personally been separated from her family, whom she has not been able to visit. “Armenians live in a democratic state, and Azerbaijan is now offering to integrate into their dictatorship where they will be deprived of any kind of human rights. Azeri citizens themselves are not privileged to enjoy human rights in their country, imagine what they would do with a minority… that their entire population hates and despises. Aliyev (the Azerbaijani dictator) does not want Armenians in Azerbaijan and is torturing them so that they will ‘voluntarily’ leave their homes.”
The population believe that they have good reason to fear an Azerbaijani takeover. After the 2020 war, several videos emerged of appalling torture and summary executions by Azerbaijani troops, including the beheading of elderly civilians, appeared in recently recaptured territory.
Armenians have also lost faith in Russia as a protecting power. While most post-Soviet states have swung away from the Russian orbit, especially after the catastrophe that has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Armenia remained a reluctant ally, as a small country in need of protection from hostile larger powers.
The genocide of 1915, where more than a million Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman Turks, still looms large in the country’s historical memory. Yet the inaction of the Russian troops in the face of Azerbaijan’s blockade has provoked anger. Armenia’s President Nicole Pashinyan has recently admitted that the country’s “dependence on Russia for security was a strategic mistake.” Shahverdyan says that “the Russian Federation is equally responsible for this blockade…At the beginning of the blockade in December they could have easily dispersed the protests within minutes… at first it was just 18–20-year-old students! Then the checkpoint that Azerbaijanis installed in April was next to a Russian base, and the Russians still did not do anything!”
Mild weather conditions and a reasonable harvest have allowed the people of Nagorno-Karabakh to mostly survive the summer. Going into winter, things could get much more dangerous, and there is little optimism in the region that Armenia or the rest of the international community can change the situation. On September 2nd, Nagorno-Karabakh celebrated the day it declared independence, with many knowing it could be the last.
“The future for Artsakh is very dangerous if things continue like this and my family is barely making ends meet,” Shahverdyan says. “If the weather gets colder, they will have no supplies.”