It has been more than a month since Azerbaijan started the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh. In a unique photo report, the local journalist Marut Vanyan shows what the isolation means to people.
Av Blankspot 20 januari, 2023
Photo and text by Marut Vanyan. Marut is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Nagorno-Karabakh has been under siege for more than a month. People live in transition from one reality to another. The conflict that has been going on for thirty years has not been resolved. During that time, two bloody wars took place, in the early 90s and the 44-day war of 2020, which took thousands of lives and continues to leave its consequences.
With this photo report I want to show what isolation under a blockade looks like.
In the first days of the blockade, the supply of gas to Nagorno Karabakh was stopped, because an “accident” occurred with the gas pipeline in the part that passes territory under the control of the Azerbaijanis. People lined up at gas stations to fill up the cans so the women could cook. Gas supply was later restored, but diesel fuel cannot be imported until today, that’s why transport is not fully operational.
Stepanakert main market. A week after the blockade, the central market of Stepanakert, which supplies the capital Stepanakert with a population of about 60,000, was completely emptied. All fruit and vegetable shops in the city were closed. “We can survive without fruits and vegetables, but children need vitamins,” says adults. Today, only dry tea and greens can be seen in the market, and that is very rare.
For every day we were missing something else. First we saved the fresh oranges as long as we could. It became a ritual to share the last fruit with your friend or a neighbour. Then we ran out of potatoes. Even beets. Grandmothers could no longer feed their granchildren with borscht, beet soup.
On December 24, a group of activists from Nagorno Karabakh decided to meet the Russian peacekeepers and try to understand who and why blocked their road of life.
They marched up to the checkpoint of the Russian peacekeepers located near the city of Shushi, eight kilometers from the capital Stepanakert, and demanded a meeting with them. “We came here with our women and children to open this road.”
However, the Russian peacekeepers have already blocked the road with armor vehicles and barbed wire & “hedgehog”, arguing that they did it for the safety of the Armenians, because there are armed Azerbaijanis on the other side and they cannot open the road for Karabakh Armenians safety.
Tigran Petrosyan, organizer of the march:
“We were greeted by the undersecretary of Volkov. We talked with him about the violations of the November 9 agreement, both by the Azerbaijanis and the Russians. He said that they really cannot remove the Azerbaijanis from there and they have no right to use force.
He said that there is nothing left but to be patient. I told him that when you came to Karabakh first, 99% of our population believed in you, and now there is a lot of distrust towards you. We don’t want to be used as a coin, if this continues, there will be a mass exodus of the Karabakh population or we will take out our women and children and fight to the end.
He said it wouldn’t come to that, stay calm. Wait two days, everything will be ok. There will be a meeting at the level of presidents on December 26, and the road should be open. An Azerbaijani checkpoint will not be installed there.
I told the Russian officer that we are not ready to travel on that road, even if civilian Azerbaijanis will stand there. He assured me that such a thing will not happen, it will be the same as before closing.
The mother of a fallen soldier was also present at this meeting, who said that her other son is not getting married because he does not know what fate and future will be in Karabakh. However, we told the Russians that if the road is not opened, we will go to the Stepanakert airport, where the Russian base is located, and we will decide whether to block the entrance or take other actions.“
The next day, a multi-thousand-strong rally took place in Stepanakert’s Revival Square.
UN Security Council. There was a discussion about the situation around the Lachin Corridor, after which people in Karabakh hoped that the road would be opened, but it was never opened.
On 27 of December activists marched to the airport where the Russian military base is located holding posters with slogans “Putin keep your words”, “We trusted you”, “Do not violate the November 9 agreement”.
On December 28, news spread that Volkov is in the Karabakh Parliament building and negotiations are taking place with the local authorities. People spontaneously gathered in front of the Parliament, trying to understand what was happening, but there were no clarifications about this meeting, local television did not show a report.
Parallel to these events, the crisis related to food and medicine has started to deepen.
Mothers brought their children to the headquaters of the ICRC, International Red Cross, to protest. Together with the Russian peacekeepers trucks, the ICRC cars are the only ones being allowed to pass the blockade.
Children hospitals are filled with sick children and there is a huge lack of nutrious food. Since January the Russians peacekeepers have started to bring vegetables to prioritized families, but not all of them are able to get hold of the aid. ICRC is bringing medicine – but it’s far from enough to meet the whole need.
Armenians celebrate the New Year on December 31. This year they celebrated in a very unusual and strange way. Relatives of many families couldn’t return from Armenia due to the road closure and they congratulated each other online. Festive tables were poor, without fruits and vegetables, and people were not in a happy mood.
On that day, the Clergy organized a procession with candles to the Karabakh War Memorial and prayed there. Despite this difficult situation, the authorities and the church are trying to reassure people.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed., priest Nerses Garegin Asryan, who led the procession, quotes from the Bible.
On January 6 and 7 we celebrate the Armenian christmas. Normally there are plenty of candles. This year we had less.
On Christmas eve there was a march through the streets of Stepanakert. People gathered to rejoice.
This is how Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, entered 2023.
The holidays made the city even emptier. The streets were completely empty. Urban transport is rare on the street due to lack of fuel. Due to the holidays, there are even fewer sweets from the supermarkets, we can say that they have completely run out. Only alcohol can be seen on the shelves.
The one who is looking to fill his fridge can only dream. These days, when we enter the shop, we ask “what do you have”, rather than asking “can I find…”.
The local authorities say that there will be enough food for several months and that they will start to distribute some from the storages to the shops. We have not seen much of it yet.
The other night I had a chocolate bar for dinner. The cigarettes are out and these days we can’t even find aspirin. The pills are sold per single pill instead of per package.
Every day the people from the villages come with what they have to sell in Stepanakert.
Simultaneously, since the siege started, we have seen an increase of unemployment by 17 % and people are running out of money. We try to help eachother. We’re getting used to it.
First they turned off the gas. When the international community started to react they turned it on again. However, since then, the gas has been turned off again. Likewise the electricity. They say the electricity lines are damaged and our repair workers are not allowed to travel to the place, where they are damaged.
Likewise was the fiber cables damaged at the place where the so-called “environmental activists are”. After a few days, those were repaired though.
As for now we have neither gas nor functioning electricity. There are some power generators functioning 4 hours at a time.
For those who try to leave the city these days you are met, right outside of Stepanakert, by the local police. They won’t anyone pass to walk towards the blockade a few hours up the hills.
Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, said in his interview the other day that every Armenian of Nagorno-Karabakh has a one way ticket to leave. Not a single person left.
On the contrary 19 teenage children, that were stuck on the other side of the blockade, finally made it back home, with the help of the Russian contigent. However, they stopped by the Azerbaijani blockade and 10-15 people entered with cameras. Soon they were exposed on Azerbaijani state television. One of the children fainted.
This is our life at the moment. We’re stuck at what is probably the world’s most isolated place. We read the news of condemnations against Azerbaijan. The EU, USA, France, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch – even Finland reacted.
But what will it change?
Yesterday they turned off the gas again. It’s cold and we’re hungry.
Note from the editorial board: Besides articles and reports Blankspot also publishes texts by individuals – from all corners of the world to provide insights for our readers. Marut’s text is one of them. He is a freelance journalist based in Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh.