For the past nine months, the people of Nagorno Karabakh have been under siege, cut off from the rest of the world by the army of Azerbaijan. The humanitarian situation is becoming increasingly grave, local partner Vardan Tadevosyan told CSI in a video call.
Empty shelves in a food store in Nagorno Karabakh. Credit: Margarita Petrosyan, Artsakh Human Rights Ombudsman
In 2020, Azerbaijan and its ally Turkey launched a war of aggression to conquer Nagorno Karabakh – a tiny region in the Caucasus mountains that is home to 120,000 Armenian Christians. The war ended in defeat for the Armenians, and under the terms of a ceasefire agreement imposed by Russia it was forced to cede large amounts of territory to Azerbaijan. Nagorno Karabakh was almost completely surrounded by Azerbaijani military forces.
Then on December 12 last year, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin Corridor, the only road that connects Nagorno Karabakh to the rest of the world. Soon afterwards, it cut off the gas and the electricity.
For the first seven months of the blockade, a limited number of supplies could still come into the enclave thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Russian peacekeepers.
In June and July, the blockade became much worse. In June, Azerbaijan banned the Russians from using the Lachin Corridor to bring in supplies. In July, they did the same to the ICRC. Since July 14 Nagorno Karabakh has been under almost a complete siege. No food or medicine has come in.
According to CSI’s partner in Nagorno Karabakh, Vardan Tadevosyan, the humanitarian situation is getting steadily worse. For the past six months Tadevosyan has served as the Armenian enclave’s health minister.
“Day by day, the situation is worsening dramatically because there is no fuel,” says Tadevosyan. “We have huge difficulties in providing fuel to ambulances so they can respond to emergency calls. That means that fuel has become more of a priority than medicine. We are working with the Red Cross to bring in baby food and some medicine.”
For chronic patients who need dialysis, for example, we have organized medical evacuation to [the Armenian capital] Yerevan because we are no longer able to operate our own dialysis machines.”
The government is now rationing bread at 200 grams per day per person. Even then, many people stand in line all night waiting to receive their portion just to go home empty-handed in the end.
“The food situation is dramatic. There is no food in the stores, the shelves are literally bare,” says Tadevosyan.
“A few days ago, our president announced that there was no more flour. Now we have reached agreement with some farmers that they can sell corn and wheat to the state at a high price. So maybe next month it will be possible that the inhabitants of Nagorno Karabakh will get half a loaf of bread a day, 250 or 300 grams per person.
“But I am afraid that this small amount will not be enough – people are eating more bread because there is hardly anything else to eat.”
With the colder months of the year approaching, Tadevosyan expects that the food situation will only get worse.
“In the summer, everyone was busy with gardening. They planted vegetables, planted potatoes, and tried to produce much more than in previous years when a lot of food could be bought in Armenian markets, which is no longer possible because of the blockade.”
The situation is particularly difficult for children, the health minister says. “There was no baby food for a while. But, thank God, we were finally able to import baby food again. For pregnant women and nursing mothers, life is terrible. They don’t get the food they need.”
On September 1, the new school year started – an exciting time for many children. But this year it was a time of great anxiety for parents, Tadevosyan says. “Many parents cried and said, ‘How can we send our children to school when there is nothing for breakfast?’ I could never have imagined experiencing something like this!”
Everyone wants to escape this untenable situation, he says. But the only people who are able to leave are patients with life-threatening conditions and their caregivers who are evacuated by the ICRC. “All the others have to stay and hope for the day when the border opens so they can leave Nagorno Karabakh.”
As he points out, this exodus of Armenians is what Azerbaijan is trying to achieve. “The goal of the Azeris is to drive the Armenians out of Karabakh, so we have to do our best to stay as long as possible. But we don’t know how long we will be able to bare it under these circumstances. We go on, knowing that tomorrow will be worse than today.”
After concerned individuals asked what they could do to help, Tadevosyan says, “They can’t send us aid packages. But they can pray for us. And that’s the most important thing anyone can do for us, because that can really make a difference.”