On the ground

Thousands of Armenians trapped in Nagorno-Karabakh face humanitarian crisis

Armenian protesters march to a Russian peacekeepers' checkpoint outside Stepanakert on December 27, 2022.
Armenian protesters march to a Russian peacekeepers' checkpoint outside Stepanakert on December 27, 2022. ? Ani Balayan, AFP

The Lachin corridor, the lifeline road connecting the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, has been blocked by Azerbaijiani protesters since December 12, trapping its 120,000 Armenian residents in an increasingly precarious situation. FRANCE 24’s Armenia correspondent Taline Oundjian reports.

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For the past 40 days, Azerbaijani protesters wielding placards and flags have blocked the Lachin corridor, a 32-kilometre mountainous road that connects Armenia with the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus.

Day and night, Azerbaijiani protesters?demonstrate against the exploitation of natural resources in the region, blocking access to Nagorno-Karabakh and cutting off food, medicine and supplies for its 120,000 Armenian residents.

The tiny, mountainous enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh became a self-proclaimed and independent republic during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but its population is predominantly Armenian.

The blockade risks scuppering the fragile peace process between the two countries, which have fought two wars in the past three decades.

Armenia accuses Azerbaijan of being behind the protests, saying the demonstrators are government agitators and that they are sparking an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. But Baku has denied the accusations, saying that Russian peacekeepers closed the road, and that the protesters are concerned about illegal Armenian mining in the area.

Russian peacekeepers control the Lachin corridor, while Azerbaijan is obliged to guarantee safe passage, in both directions, for civilians, vehicles and cargo, under the terms of the November 2020 ceasefire agreement.

For Yana, a young teacher trapped in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto capital, life has become one ordeal after another.

“We’ve got used to electricity, gas and water cuts over the past two years,” she says in a quavering voice. “But this blockade, and the fear of being close to starvation, has disrupted life like never before,” she says. ??

Risk of famine

For more than a month, some 15,000 tonnes of food and medicine have been blocked from reaching the enclave.

“The internet connection is getting slower and slower and the electricity is partly cut off. We feel completely isolated, like we’re stuck in a desert that everyone’s forgotten about.”

“People are thinking about the dark days of the past, and having nightmares about the future,” says Yana.

Ruben Vardanyan, head of the breakaway region's government, has set up a crisis unit to deal with the situation. Power cuts in the enclave currently last for four hours a day, most schools have closed and businesses have been unable to operate normally since the crisis began. More than 700 have closed and 3,400 people have lost their jobs.

Access to gas supply has become a matter of survival in a region where temperatures can drop to -10 degrees.

But the only gas supply pipeline runs under a district controlled by Azerbaijan. Authorities in Stepanakert accused Baku of cutting the gas supply on December 13. However, the gas supply was restored after three days amid international pressure on Azerbaijan.

The situation came as no surprise to Gegham Stepanyan, the human rights ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh, also known as the Republic of Artsakh. ?

“It was obvious that Azerbaijan was going to use this tactic (gas supply) to intimidate people, particularly in winter,” explains Stepanyan.

“And there’s no reason why they wouldn’t continue to use this tactic, given the critical state of our infrastructure,” he says.

Nina, 22, is also trapped in Stepanakert. She said Azerbaijan was using the blockade to put the people of Nagorno-Karabakh in a state of “psychological terror”.

“It’s inhuman,” she says. “They’re trying to provoke us – to pressure our treacherous leaders into giving them more land in exchange for opening the road. But we are hanging in there.

Most of our parents lived here during the first war [from 1998 to 1994] when the situation was much worse. We would just like to have some vegetables. At the moment we only eat pasta and grain-based products,” she says. ?

Orthodox Christmas celebrations in Armenia.
Orthodox Christmas celebrations in Armenia. ? FRANCE 24

Supermarket shelves in the region are empty. On January 18, local authorities began issuing food coupons so that locals can access basic foodstuffs such as pasta, rice, sugar and sunflower oil.

Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh have set up bartering systems to deal with the shortages. “In the villages, people are trying to exchange eggs and potatoes for fuel. And the men will trade anything for cigarettes,” says Yana.

The population is anxious but calm, the young women say. “That’s because the famine isn’t here yet,” says Nina.

International response

Only the International Red Cross (ICRC) has been able to access the enclave. Thirty-six patients in critical condition have been taken to hospitals in Armenia, over a total of 12 trips, between December 19 and January 18, Zara Amatuni, head of communications for the ICRC, tells FRANCE 24.

"We are ready to facilitate other humanitarian operations like this and other operations, in our role as a neutral intermediary," Amatuni adds.

The crisis has drawn international attention with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch calling for freedom of movement in the Lachin corridor.

In a December 21 report, HRW said that “prolonged blocking of the road” could lead to “dire humanitarian consequences”.

“The longer the disruption to essential goods and services, the greater the risk to civilians,” the report added.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a similar plea while The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention regularly warns of the threat of ethnic cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The European Parliament passed a resolution on January 19, condemning the road blockage and calling on Azerbaijan “to reopen it immediately”.

The resolution stressed that the area needed to be accessible to international organisations, along with a “UN or OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) fact-finding mission.

MEPs also blame “the inaction of Russian peacekeepers”, suggesting they be replaced with “international OSCE peacekeepers”.

Armenia has also accused its longstanding ally Russia of being too distracted by the war in Ukraine to properly secure the road and prevent it from being blocked. Indeed, Armenia is feeling increasingly rejected by and bitter towards Russia.

Nonetheless, Armenians have welcomed the international response to the blockade, even though there is disappointment at the lack of sanctions against Azerbaijan.

"Our supplies are finished. To avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, we need the UN," says Stepanyan.

His plea for UN intervention came as Vardanyan slammed the European Union’s ambivalent response to the crisis in an interview with FRANCE 24 on Wednesday.

"Azerbaijan signed a big gas contract recently [with the European Union],” he said. “The players that continue their commercial activity with Azerbaijan – Europe for example – are accepting an autocratic regime who is trying to destroy the democratic case of Artsakh," he said.

But Azerbaijan continues to deny that the road is blocked, and a stalemate has set in. Last autumn, the fragile outline of a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan was beginning to take shape. But the ongoing blockade risks scuppering it.

Azerbaijan has made its position on Nagorno-Karabakh clear, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently stated: “Karabakh is an integral part of Azerbaijan, and the rights and security of the Armenian population living in this region will be ensured in accordance with the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan.??

But Nina in Stepanakert does not take the “security” in these statements seriously.

"When you see the way they treat us, how could we trust them and want to live with them? I am sure we would never survive."

This article has been translated from the?original?in French

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