Nagorno-Karabakh blockade: ‘In a couple of weeks there will be a mass famine’

The only road connecting Armenia to the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh – a breakaway region disputed for decades between Armenia and Azerbaijan – has been completely blocked by Azerbaijan since July. A resident describes the challenges the population faces in obtaining food and water, adding that some people have died from the effects of the blockade.

The residents of Stepanakert stand in line at night to obtain bread and water in Nagorno-Karabakh, since access to the region has been blocked by Azerbaijan. © Mary Asatryan

Since December 2022, the only route connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia – the Lachin corridor – has been gradually blockaded by Azerbaijan.

The region of Nagorno-Karabakh, predominantly inhabited by ethnic Armenians, has been at the centre of a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the fall of the Soviet Union, leading to two wars from 1991 to 1994 and then at the end of 2020. In the latest war, Azerbaijan managed to gain control over the majority of the region. According to a ceasefire established with the assistance of Russia, free movement through the Lachin corridor would be guaranteed.

© The Observers

In December 2022, Azerbaijani environmental protesters blocked the Lachin corridor, demonstrating against the alleged exploitation of natural resources in the region by Armenia. Yerevan accused them of being backed by Azerbaijan. The tensions at the border culminated with a clash between Azerbaijani and Armenian troops in March and April. Azerbaijan set up a checkpoint on the Lachin corridor on April 23, claiming that its purpose is "to prevent the illegal transportation of manpower, weapons, mines” from Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. Initially, Red Cross humanitarian vehicles were let through.

After months of restricted movement through this corridor, Azerbaijan announced on July 11 the suspension of all traffic. The flow of humanitarian aid from Armenia was subsequently completely halted on July 26. Since then, trucks carrying 400 tons of food and essential goods have been waiting at the checkpoint set up by Azerbaijan.

As a result of this blockade, the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh is critical. Stores are empty, people wait for hours in over 35 degrees Celsius to buy bread, and water resources are running low. Electricity and gas are also limited, as the supply usually comes through Azerbaijan.

‘The stores are completely empty’

Mary Asatryan works as an assistant to the Human Rights Defender (Ombudsman) of Nagorno-Karabakh in Stepanakert. For months, she has been documenting her daily life on Instagram, where she posts photos and videos of the queues in front of bakeries, the 20-kilometre journey she makes to fetch water bottles, and the locals helping each other.

The entire day consists of struggling with all the deprivations and the consequences of the blockade. So every day we have to check the schedule of the electricity blackouts, which are published either in the morning of that day or in the late evening of the previous day. Then we have to adapt to that schedule because the blackouts don't happen at the same time at my home, at my workplace, or at the shops. So you have to know where electricity is going to be working and manage your time accordingly.

Also, at the moment, you cannot buy anything at the stores anymore. The shops are completely empty. What we have left is a limited amount of bread, which is baked and sold at the bakeries. Why? Because there is no fuel left in the country to deliver the bread to the stores. So people have to walk by foot to the bakeries directly and queue there.

The bread queues can reach five or six hours, and most of the time people queue at night because during the day it's so hot that people can't stand. But there are, of course, people who queue during the day, but as I work at the office, I cannot afford that.

But I, for example, I'm getting exhausted physically standing in the queue sometimes. So some days I just even give up on bread. Last time I was standing in the queue, there were 500 people registered. So it's really endless.

People stand in line to buy bread at night for several hours to avoid the heatwave in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh. In the photo on the right, Marie Asatryan marked her place in the queue on her hand. © Mary Asatryan

There are some rare farmers coming from the nearby villages and selling their locally produced seasonal vegetables and fruits. So basically they sell what they have harvested in their yard. But to do this, imagine that some people have to walk tens of kilometres to sell something. So if you are lucky enough to catch a farmer on the street or, you know, find someone who sells locally produced fruit, then you have a meal for the day. But most of the time, it's the bread that people rely on. 

So a couple of weeks more and there is going to be a mass famine.

People have to walk for kilometres to retrieve water bottles in Nagorno-Karabakh. © Mary Asatryan

'In the long term, there will be more deaths'

On August 15, the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh stated that a 40-year-old man had died due to hunger. However, Asatryan says that he is not the only case, and if the blockade does not stop, there will certainly be more deaths due to famine and lack of medication.

There was a very tragic story of two kids who died one month ago. So what happened is that their mother left their home in the village [of Aghabekalanj] and she walked tens of kilometres to reach the nearby city, Martakert, to find something to eat. The kids were sleeping at that time. Then they woke up. They didn't find their mother. They decided to walk to find her. They walked for a while and then they got tired because they were, of course, hungry and exhausted. So they found a car, they entered and they fell asleep. But it was so hot that they basically, unfortunately, died because of the heat and exhaustion. They died because of the whole situation. And this was one of the most shocking stories of the whole blockade.

The numbers of miscarriages among pregnant women are rising. Women are under a lot of stress. They have to walk all the time. It's very hot. They don't get nutritious, vitamin- rich food. So they lose their unborn children. 

There was a story, for example, of a woman from the village Haterk who started to bleed and there was no car to take her to the hospital. So she was brought to hospital too late and she had already lost her child. I think the most challenging consequences are in the healthcare system, because we have a lot of patients who are not receiving enough medication, they're not undergoing their planned surgeries now. And in the long term, of course, there will be more deaths.

On August 16, the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting at the request of Armenia to discuss the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. Many countries called on Azerbaijan to reopen the Lachin corridor.