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Living in limbo The Lachin Corridor blockade has upended daily life in Nagorno-Karabakh — and there’s no end in sight

Source: Meduza
Armenian soldiers on the line of contact in the Lachin Corridor. February 2, 2023.
Gilles Bader / Le Pictorium Agency / ZUMA Press / Scanpix / LETA

Story by Lilia Yapparova for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

Located within Azerbaijan and home to a predominantly Armenian population, the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has just one lifeline connecting it to the outside world — a mountain pass known as the Lachin Corridor. Demonstrators claiming to be environmental activists, but seemingly acting with Baku’s official support, set up camp along the road in mid-December 2022, and it has been closed to regular traffic ever since. More than two months on, human rights groups warn that the roadblock is putting thousands of lives at risk, as stranded residents are left with severely limited access to essential goods and services. Russian peacekeepers, who have guarded the Lachin Corridor since Moscow brokered an end to the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, have been unable to clear the pass. And the humanitarian aid they and the International Committee of the Red Cross do manage to deliver to the region continues to fall short of demand.

Meanwhile, the Azerbaijani authorities deny any responsibility for the blockade and have roundly rejected Yerevan’s assertion that the crisis is meant to pave the way for “ethnic cleansing” (meanwhile, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev said in January that Karabakh Armenians are free to leave the region). The U.N.’s top court recently ordered Baku to unblock the route, but the ruling hasn’t yet had any practical effect. In a dispatch for The Beet, Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova reports on how the ongoing blockade has upended daily life in Nagorno-Karabakh. 

This article first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Meduza is presenting it again as part of the background on Azerbaijan’s military strike on Nagorno-Karabakh, launched on September 19, 2023. Sign up here to get the next issue of The Beet delivered directly to your inbox.

One night late last December, Narine Danilyan woke to the sound of sobs coming from behind the wall in her apartment in Stepanakert, Nagorno-Karabakh’s de facto capital. Narine rushed into the next room, which was dark and cold — the result of yet another electricity blackout — and found her mother, Zara, weeping softly in her bed. 

Narine’s nine-year-old son, Garo, was thrashing around in the next bed. The child’s body convulsed in epileptic spasms so brutal it looked like he was trying to shoot up from the bed, she recalled. “He couldn’t control his body. And I could hear him wheezing. He was suffocating, and I didn’t know how to help him,” Narine tells The Beet.

Garo suffers from epilepsy and cystic fibrosis. He is at risk of dying without his medication, but there’s no way for his family to get the pills as Azerbaijan-backed protesters have blocked the only road in and out of Nagorno-Karabakh. Thousands of families in the disputed territory, located within Azerbaijan, are suffering due to a decades-old conflict they once hoped would be resolved through Russia’s mediation. But while Moscow remains preoccupied with its stalling invasion of Ukraine and Azerbaijan presses on with the blockade in the hopes of gaining full control of the area, Nagorno-Karabakh is descending into a full-fledged humanitarian crisis

Over the years of her son’s illness, Narine has learned how to relieve at least some of the seizures’ terrifying effects: turn on the lights and open a window to air out the room. Even these simple remedies are now impossible, however. Baku periodically cuts off electricity and gas supplies to the enclave, forcing Narine to live with an impossible dilemma of exposing her family to frigid temperatures or easing her son’s seizures. “There’s mostly no heating or light in my home,” she says. “If I open the windows, I’ll freeze the apartment completely. We’re shivering as it is.”

Garo Danilyan
Narine Danilyan’s personal archive

The near-total blockade of the six-kilometer (four-mile) mountain pass leading to Nagorno-Karabakh, known as the Lachin Corridor, has been cutting off families like the Danilyans from the rest of the world for almost three months now. Azerbaijani protesters claiming to be eco-activists first blocked the route on December 12, 2022. The group began a round-the-clock sit-in, preventing nearly all movement on the road, and later set up tents. The self-described environmentalists claim to be protesting what Azerbaijan says is illegal mining in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The blockade has marked a new escalation in the decades-old dispute over a region internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but home to around 120,000 ethnic Armenians. Governed by the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, it has been de facto independent since the early 1990s. Baku and Yerevan have fought two wars to gain control of Nagorno-Karabakh — one from 1988–1994 and another in 2020 — that have claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides. 

Azerbaijan’s government denies any blockade but has endorsed the protests, which Armenia says Baku orchestrated. In the meantime, the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh are cut off from food, fuel, and medicine supplies.

For the Danilyans, the medicine shortages are the most acute problem. Pharmacies in Stepanakert lack basic necessities, let alone remedies for seizures, and Narine has to scour local Facebook messageboards in hopes that some of her neighbors may have the pills. So far, this only yielded some vitamins and a carrot.

Empty shelves in a Stepanakert pharmacy
Nana Martirosyan’s personal archive

“There’s an ongoing epidemic of chicken pox and flu, and I can’t even provide my customers with suprastin [an antihistamine] and antiseptics,” Nana Martirosyan, a Stepanakert pharmacy owner, tells The Beet. “When someone asks for throat lozenges, I have to advise them to gargle with apple cider vinegar. When people come to buy mustard plasters, I explain how to make them yourself from parchment greased with a mix of sunflower oil and pepper.”

Garo requires a daily cocktail of up to 13 different anti-epileptic, anti-convulsant, respiratory, and antibacterial medications to subdue his seizures and cystic-fibrosis symptoms. And he’s out of all of them, except for some vitamins and salbutamol (a drug used to alleviate breathing problems). Without the meds, thick, sticky mucus clogs Garo’s airways, and his body “turns blue from oxygen deprivation,” Narine explains. Her son’s seizures (three bouts since the start of the blockade, all at night) cause him to black out while his body convulses.

“I don't look into his eyes when he spasms,” Narine says. “When I try, I feel sick. He has terrible eyes in these moments: glassy, neither open nor closed. He is just staring, completely unaware of his surroundings. It’s as if there’s an inanimate object instead of my kid.”

‘The world has abandoned us’

In mid-January, after yet another electricity shutdown, Nellie Melkumyan (name changed) went out to buy candles — but the supermarket shelves were empty. 

“Then I tried the church store. The shopkeeper knows me: I normally take one big prayer candle so that I can light it and present my requests to God all at the same time. And now, out of the blue, I approach the counter and ask for three big candles at once!” Nellie recalls. “I used all of them for making coffee in a pot and illuminating my apartment — not for appealing to the Lord. It was like cheating! I felt really awkward about the whole thing, but I assuaged my guilt by telling myself that God wouldn’t want me to suffer without electricity.” 

A market in Stepanakert. December 23, 2022.
Davit Ghahramanyan / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

To keep warm, Nellie runs and does squats in her winter clothes (it doesn’t really help, she admits). Today’s Stepanakert is increasingly reminiscent of her Soviet youth, with its deficits of basic goods and food stamps, which the Nagorno-Karabakh authorities rolled out in January. “I saw a scuffle between women in line for eggs. There are occasional deliveries of peas or coffee, and, once word gets out, it’s a race,” Nellie says. “People spend hours hunting for food. Every other young salesgirl’s face now is marked with this blunt and fierce hostility I remember from my youth.”

But what really takes Nellie back to Soviet times is the sight of the Azerbaijani roadblocks. “I already lived through that in the 1990s, during the First Karabakh War. The blockade lasted four years — from 1988 to 1992,” Nellie tells The Beet. “I don’t care if the Azerbaijanis are intent on starving us out — I fear they’re going to try and enter Stepanakert next. We fear being slaughtered.”

During the Soviet period, when the mainly ethnic Armenian enclave was part of the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, the two ethnicities coexisted despite lingering tensions. But old feuds reignited as the USSR unraveled. In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian majority sought independence from Azerbaijan and campaigned to join Armenia. Unrest exploded into pogroms and the pogroms turned into a full-on war, resulting in thousands of deaths on both sides. The conflict ended with a 1994 ceasefire, with Armenia claiming control of not just Nagorno-Karabakh but also seven surrounding districts that were legally part of Azerbaijan. 

Half a million Azerbaijanis were forced to flee the area.

The armistice lasted for a quarter century, but hostilities broke out again in 2020. This time around, Azerbaijan’s firepower proved superior, with the country’s oil wealth funding a fleet of sophisticated drones. The six-week war saw Azerbaijan recapture much of the territory it had lost in the 1990s, leaving Karabakh Armenians in control of just their de facto capital, Stepanakert, and the surrounding area. Now, inhabitants of these territories, trapped by the blockade, are at an increasing risk of famine.

“A cancer patient from our area craves bananas, but there’s no way of getting them. This might be his last wish. What’s it like for his loved ones to not be able to indulge him in such a trivial thing?” asks Anahit Petrosyan, an advisor to the head of the breakaway region’s Askeran Province.

During their last FaceTime call, Gegham Asryan learned from his wife that she had managed to procure a tangerine. The blockade has kept Gegham, a dentist, separated from his family in Stepanakert, leaving his wife Lucine to care for their six-year-old daughter Beatrice alone. Beatrice — or Betty as her father fondly calls her — sends him dozens of voice messages, in which she mostly cries without uttering a word.

Gegham Asryan on a video call with his wife and children
Gegham Asryan’s personal archive

“I can barely eat now,” Gegham tells the Beet. “Every time I’m peeling an orange, all I can think of is Betty and the food just gets stuck in my throat. The world has abandoned us. It’s blind and deaf to our suffering. And I hate it.”

Without access to fruits and vegetables, children are getting sick more often, said Stepanakert’s only pediatric ENT doctor Christina Agadzhanyan. “Their immunity has already gone down. My sons, who are four and six, haven’t seen fruit for a month. What sort of an environmental activist denies a child access to food?” she says. “The blockade’s participants hold up signs reading. ‘Artsakh people pollute the environment.’ Perhaps they mean the air that passes through our lungs? That even our breathing is contaminated?”

The protesters allege that Karabakh Armenians have been using the Lachin Corridor to export illegally-mined gold and are damaging the environment in the process. But observers have been quick to point out that few of the protesters have any prior record of eco-campaigning, and the ones who chant slogans the loudest are former Azerbaijani soldiers, members of President Ilham Aliyev’s ruling party, Azerbaijani pro-government activists, and employees at state companies.

“We did not see any of those people when the [Azerbaijani] Ecology and Natural Resources Ministry put up for sale whole forests and national parks,” said Cavid Qara, the head of Ecofront, a prominent Azerbaijani environmental organization.

Aliyev’s government is quick to crack down on grassroots protests at home, which makes it all the more remarkable that the blockade appears to have his government’s full backing: Aliyev has praised the activists, calling them “our pride,” and Azerbaijan’s Emergency Situations Ministry helped them to set up camp.

Armenia claims that Baku sent in the activists in order to ratchet up pressure on Karabakh Armenians and to force Yerevan into new concessions (allegations that Azerbaijan denies). Since the ceasefire in 2020, the two countries have been negotiating a peace treaty, but the talks have yet to yield a resolution, leaving the enclave in a legal limbo. Analysts say Azerbaijan is now pushing for a deal that would complete its military victory and cement its control over all of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The border between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Lachin Corridor. December 26, 2022.
Alexander Patrin / TASS

‘We had to bury mom in Yerevan’

Khalisa Avetyan (surname changed) made her own funeral plans exactly 31 years ago, when she buried her son. Since that day in 1992, the Avetyans have had a family plot at the Stepanakert cemetery. On December 24, 2022, two weeks into the blockade, 90-year-old Khalisa died at her daughter’s home in Yerevan. But her family couldn’t take the body to Stepanakert; the crowd of protesters wouldn’t allow civilian cars through. 

“The space on the tombstone next to my brother’s and father’s names will have to remain blank,”Khalisa’s daughter Karina tells The Beet. “We had to bury mom in Yerevan. We’d kept her in the morgue long enough already, waiting for the road to open. It kept me awake at night: I kept thinking how she’s there, in the freezer, instead of in the ground, as it should be. Mom came to me in my dreams to say how we’ve failed her, leaving her alone in a fridge.”

People trying to leave Stepanakert face the same problem: the Russian peacekeeping convoys and a small number of Red Cross (ICRC) relief vehicles are the only ones that are able to pass, Nagorno-Karabakh officials say. In the first days of the blockade, even the evacuation of critically ill patients was impossible, and people died because they couldn’t reach Yerevan for procedures like chemotherapy and hemodialysis. By the time Red Cross ambulances found a way to take people to Armenia, at least 10 people were dead, the now ex-state minister of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Ruben Vardanyan, told Meduza in January.

One such victim was Norayr Mailyan, a herder from northeastern Karabakh who was “good at singing, dancing, and could make a joke about anything,” his sister Narine Sarkisyan recalls. Residents of Khanapat, the Mailyans’ ancestral village, called him “Jimmy” — a nickname borrowed from the 1982 Bollywood movie Disco Dancer, which became a sensation in the USSR right around the time Norayr was born.

At 26, Norayr suffered dual kidney failure. That meant lifelong hemodialysis. “After this, he was not the same Norayr, but he still loved dancing,” Narine tells The Beet. “Even if my eldest son had to support him by the shoulders, he kept dancing. Even when my brother couldn’t stand up at all and had just to sit on the couch, he kept waving his arms to the rhythm.”

In December 2022, Norayr became septic; his hemodialysis catheter, constantly connected to his arm, was the source of the infection and had to be removed. To start a new line, Norayr needed to reach doctors in Yerevan. He had an appointment scheduled for December 12 — the same day Azerbaijani protesters blocked the road out of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Norayr Mailyan with his niece
Narine Sarkisyan’s personal archive

Norayr never reached Yerevan. Unable to pass through the blockade, he fell into a coma and died on December 19. His wake (including a memorial meal of “green-pea salad and traditional kurkut porridge with sausages”) was held in Khanapat.

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry denies that the Lachin Corridor’s closure has created a humanitarian crisis, and the protesters insist that they’re moving aside for any medical vehicles. “I don't know which blockade you’re talking about. If you were fair, you probably wouldn't be using such a phrase. Indeed, the bias in the questions of such a beautiful and young journalist is not suitable for professional activity,” Ilqar Orucov, one of the protest’s organizers, told The Beet’s correspondent.

“Norayr died at 42!” exclaims Narine. “The Azerbaijanis won’t be sleeping peacefully, I promise you. We’ll haunt their dreams.”

‘Putin, keep your word’

In one of his pencil drawings, Garo Danilyan sketched three human silhouettes under a crudely drawn sun. Upon taking a closer look, it’s clear that the figures are wearing military uniforms, and the squiggles between the soldiers represent barbed wire and border fencing.

Just like in Garo’s drawing, the Armenian and Azerbaijani militaries face each other along the still undemarcated border between the two countries. But one element is missing from the sketch: ever since the 2020 war ended in an armistice brokered by Vladimir Putin, heavily armed Russian peacekeepers moved in to enforce the shaky truce. Nearly 2,000 Russian troops were deployed to protect Armenians remaining in the enclave and to ensure that the Lachin Corridor remained open. But the peacekeepers failed to prevent the blockade — and seem powerless to break it.

On December 27, Garo and Narine — along with dozens of other men, women, and children — marched to the gates of the Russian peacekeeping headquarters to demand answers. “[Garo] was coughing and barely breathing, but he made me come with him to this rally,” Narine says, a touch of pride in her voice.  

One young woman carried a sign with the words: “We trusted you.” Another read, “Putin, keep your word.” Moscow and Yerevan have been allies for years, and Karabakh Armenians largely welcomed the arrival of peacekeepers two years ago. Now, anger is building as Russia appears reluctant to force the road’s reopening. 

During the December 27 rally, Garo and the rest of the crowd kept yelling at the headquarters until the guards came outside, says Narine. The protesters demanded to see Major General Andrey Volkov, but the peacekeepers were unable to get hold of their commander. Demonstrators waited until dawn, but Volkov never showed. 

Moscow has been distracted by its own flagging war in Ukraine and hasn’t intervented in Nagorno-Karabakh, despite Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s direct pleas to Putin. “It’s unacceptable for us that the Russian peacekeepers are becoming a silent witness to the depopulation of Nagorno-Karabakh,” Pashinyan said two weeks into the blockade.

Russian peacekeepers man a roadblock near Stepanakert. December 24, 2022.
Davit Ghahramanyan / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

The Kremlin is tiptoeing around the situation in Karabakh because it can’t risk getting entangled in another fight — this time with Azerbaijan, analysts believe. Baku, meanwhile, leaped at the chance to defy Russia’s presence in the region. “Moscow’s quest to increase its influence has left it a diminished and less formidable power in the South Caucasus,” Jade McGlynn, a researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, told Time magazine.

Russian peacekeepers’ vehicles — heavy trucks or passenger cars with a telltale blue line running across the side, some of them emblazoned with the letter “Z” — can be seen in every other Armenian town on the road to Nagorno-Karabakh. Some of the soldiers’ families live in Tegh, the last settlement before crossing the border of the unrecognized republic. It looks like an eerie ghost town. A chilly mountain fog fills every crevice and descends on the Lachin Corridor. About 800 cars once passed through it every day, but road traffic has declined tenfold since the blockade.

Except for the occasional villager, soldiers are now the main customers at Tegh’s Sara Supermarket. The shop also serves as a duty free store for Russian peacekeepers rotating through Nagorno-Karabakh’s border: giant bottles of whiskey in the shape of a crucifix are kept under the counter just for Russian soldiers returning home from duty, Esmine Ghazaryan, a supermarket employee (whose name has been changed), tells The Beet. 

One peacekeeper — a gaunt man with a layer of grime on his camouflage uniform — walks inside to buy a screwdriver. Overhearing our correspondent’s question about the blockade, he holds her gaze for a moment, then fixes his eyes on the counter. “Of course I know there are children [isolated] in Stepanakert. But that road is blocked off. I'm a driver, come and look at my KamAZ truck full of water waiting outside. Even I got stuck here! They won’t let me through,” the soldier says. “The decision-makers are up there. Only they can give us the right to clear the road. We’re not responsible.”

The peacekeeper rushes back to his truck, leaving his change on the counter. “The blockade’s going on right under their noses. Yet they’re doing nothing,” says Esmine. “Another peacekeeper I know says he ‘received no order to ban the Azeris.’ I think he’s embarrassed they’re so powerless now.”

The road to Stepanakert. January 21, 2023.
Lilia Yapparova / Meduza

From Tegh, it’s just three kilometers (two miles) of highland switchbacks to the border. The serpentine road leading to Nagorno-Karabakh is covered with ice and shrouded in impenetrable fog, hiding the expanse of mountains. Flocks of sheep bleat hungrily in the invisible chasm. 

An Armenian military police officer mans the first checkpoint at the border. He casts a melancholic and somewhat compassionate look at The Beet’s correspondent. “Sorry, can’t let you in,” he says. “I’m from Stepanakert myself. [I’ve] got a family there. I honestly don’t know what to tell you about the blockade. [When it ends] I think we’ll be the last to know.”

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Story by Lilia Yapparova for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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