The protests in Stepanakert

Awaiting New Year Under Blockade

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By Lida Asilyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

“Last year we didn’t have water for two or three weeks during the summer. Then we didn’t have gas…We are now being blockaded and this is slowly but steadily making everybody really exhausted,” shares Nina, an English teacher at a small village school in the Artsakh Republic (also known as Nagorno Karabakh).

The Armenian enclave has been under blockade since December 12, when a group of Azerbaijani gathered near the Berdzor (Lachin) corridor connecting Artsakh to Armenia, claiming to be environmental activists – a claim still under scrutiny.

Protests in Stepanakert

Nina has been hoping to put up a Christmas tree together with her sisters, as they usually do, but the latter are stuck in Yerevan and can’t make it home for the New Year celebration. It’s the first time for them to be separated on such a special occasion.

The Azerbaijani siege has left more than 120,000 people – including 30,000 children – completely cut off from the outside world and left with scarce food and medical resources. The fur-coated eco-activists, who display ethno-nationalistic slogans and symbols and appear to be part of Azerbaijani state institutions, “are pushing yet another agenda of President Aliyev, of depopulating Artsakh and taking it over,” stated former Armenian Deputy Minister of Territorial Administration and Development Lilia Shushanyan, in her online article at Hetq.

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As the winter gets colder, it gets harder to rely on the natural produce the residents used to get from their own gardens.

Protests in Stepanakert

“If this happened during summer or spring, it would not be a problem because we also grow a lot of things but during the winter we rely on greenhouse vegetables and fruits from Armenia – and now we don’t have them,” shares Nina.

Basic products like flour, sugar, eggs, and cooking oil have already been emptied from store shelves. The list goes on with cheese, sausages, and nearly everything else. Although Artsakh has its own produce, it is limited and cannot sustain the whole population.

Protests in Stepanakert

Nina teaches at a smaller village, where people at least have some home-grown products and livestock compared to the capital of Stepanakert. Nevertheless, the scarcity makes people be more cautious of consumption. “You have to take account of every single piece of bread that you have, of everything that you have,” says the young teacher.

It’s her first year teaching in that school, but she has already managed to build strong ties with her students, who gather with her for tea parties, go on hikes and walk. They recently were working on a theater performance, practicing at least three times a week.

“We had ‘A Christmas Carol’ for the first one and we’re planning on doing another performance for the new academic year. We want to go on big stages, go to Stepanakert, to Chartar, and perform on real theater stages,” says Nina.

They started practicing before the blockade, but performed after it started. Some of the invited guests couldn’t make it to Artsakh.

The children clearly know what’s happening and they express their desire for the road to be open. They know it because they hear about it on TV and from their parents, who try not to discuss everything with them. “They already do not have the best childhood. It is not the easiest childhood. So we just keep them away from this problem.”

After the 2020 Artsakh war, Stepanakert city lit a Christmas tree for the first time to make it more festive and bring joy to the children. This will be the first New Year for many families to celebrate without enjoying the unity of their families.

Nina says most of the families are planning to celebrate the New Year anyways and celebrate the best way possible even with the food shortage. On the search for a carrot and a potato to make Olivie salad, as Nina says, people of Artsakh want to make sure Azerbaijan doesn’t achieve its goal of making them feel hopeless.

“You can’t make us suffer because New Year is a sacred thing here. We will do it even if you put us in a blockade,” Nina says. The vacant cream cheese shelves give her hope that everybody will at least have their cakes for Christmas and will make sure to celebrate it.

Shortage Amid Long Winter

The situation in the Lachin Corridor was also on the agenda of the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on December 20. During the session, the immediate and unconditional reopening of the corridor was explicitly called for.

In an interview given to News.Am, Stepanakert Mayor Davit Sargsyan said the city has almost completely run out of basic necessities. “The stores are virtually empty. Groceries, [vegetable] oil, and sugar are left in few stores — and that only in small quantities. There are no fruits and vegetables left. There are cases when these products are not provided to people. We don’t have a flour and wheat problem as the bread factories are working as normal,” shared Sargsyan. He also stated that the cars now rely on natural gas as only five percent of the gasoline stock is left in Stepanakert.

Due to the blockade, three severely ill patients were under medical supervision at the Medical Center of Artsakh and were just transported to Armenia only on Friday, December 30, with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross also transported 10 tons of various drugs shipped from Armenia but “mostly got first-aid medication … The quantity is too low,” according to an Artsakh medical official’s interview to Azatutyun.am.

On the Other Side of the Road: Christmas without Family

Nina’s sisters and others stuck on the other side of the road wish they could be in Artsakh. Nina says there’s a clear understanding that it’s a lot better to be in the blockade than outside of it because it’s extra worrisome to imagine the situation from outside.

Out of more than a thousand who can’t cross the blockade are students who wanted to go back home after passing their exams or those traveling to Yerevan and abroad for other educational and work purposes. Sofi Abrahamyan is a senior at Artsakh State University, majoring in Translation Studies. She went to Yerevan days before the blockade to travel to Spain in the scope of the Erasmus + cultural youth exchange program.

Sofi Abrahamyan in Askeran, Artsakh Republic, 2021

While she was in Spain, she hoped the roads would open. They workshop was about “Digital Storytelling” and the participants from different countries worked on their short films. Sofi’s 3-minute film was about Armenia, the 2020 war, and unfortunately, the blockade was also added to the list.

“I urged my international friends not to stay silent because basic human rights are violated and they need to speak up,” Sofi shares.

Sofi’s studies and work are mired in uncertainty as the blockade enters the third week. Her capstone and exams, as well as her work in WikiMedia Armenia seem to be hanging in the air. She is in touch with her professors and colleagues, but it is not effective to work from distance when she needs to be there physically.

Her father is in Yerevan with her, while her mother, brother, and grandmother are in Stepanakert. “It’s an unbearable feeling to see my family divided and it is more unbearable that I can’t do anything about it. We’re in touch all the time but it’s not the same. We won’t be able to be together for this family holiday.”

While financial resources are running low, Sofi’s grandma is among those whose medicine is no longer available in the pharmacies and she’s using the last package of it.

Sofi’s friends from Italy were also present at the peaceful protests organized in Yerevan. By organizing and taking part in these demonstrations, Sofi and her friends try to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis people of Artsakh are facing.

We Are Our Mountains monument in Artsakh

When asked about hope, Sofi says the word ‘hope’ itself already makes her sad. She says dejectedly, “We are hoping the road will open, but we have not reached the end of the countdown. Instead we remain mired in uncertainty.”

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