A school closed due to gas supply disruption (Photo Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Artsakh)

Blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh Obstructs Education for 20,000 Students

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By Sona Hovsepyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

STEPANAKERT — Narine Yakhshibekyan, a 20-year-old student at Mesrop Mashtots University, is unable to go from Martuni town to the city of Stepanakert due to the lack of fuel and regular transportation. The blockade of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) is having a direct impact on around 20,000 students struggling to go back to class, as reported by the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Artsakh.

As Yakhshibekyan stated, she sometimes participates in class activities online despite power outages. However, it’s challenging to organize lessons in a remote mode.

“The Internet is terribly unstable. You rarely hear anything. Joining online guarantees only your presence. I can’t listen to anything or participate in lessons,” Yakhshibekyan told the Mirror-Spectator over the phone.

On December 12, dozens of Azerbaijani “eco-activists” blocked the Lachin corridor, which is the only road connecting Armenia to Karabakh. However, Azerbaijan halted the “eco-protest” after establishing a checkpoint on the Lachin corridor. This causes humanitarian problems including power, food, education, internet access, as well as other humanitarian issues. The 120,000 residents, including about 30,000 children, are isolated from the world due to this situation. Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has referred to it as genocide.

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The International Committee of the Red Cross delivered humanitarian aid to Nagorno-Karabakh via Lachin Corridor and Akna (Aghdam) road on Monday, September 18. Trucks from Armenia carrying 23 tons of flour reached Stepanakert. Medical and hygiene items of Russian and Swiss manufacture have also been delivered to Stepanakert via the Akna road from Azerbaijan.

Yakhshibekyan’s younger sister, Nare, who is in the 5th grade, and her older sister, Nushik, who is in the 9th grade, walk two kilometers to school every day and take the same route back. Furthermore, as Narine points out, there are no school supplies or uniforms available in the stores. Narine and her sisters use last year’s stationery.

Food presents yet another challenge for residents, in addition to problems of stationery and transportation.

People are forced to cook food on wood stoves (Photo Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Artsakh)

“My mother has been crying as she is unable to satisfy my younger sister’s needs. Most parents can’t bear it when their child craves something as simple as candy or sweet tea in the morning but there is no sugar or even bread. We only have half a loaf for each person and flour is in extremely short supply,” said Narine.

Empty store in Nagorno-Karabakh (Photo Information Center of Nagorno-Karabakh)

Rima Zargaryan from Aknaberd village of Shahumyan region, who studies at Grigor Narekatsi University in Stepanakert, also has a problem with transportation.

“We return to the village on weekends if there’s a bus available, but on days when there’s no transportation, we can’t attend classes. The unpredictability of power outages in both Stepanakert and the countryside makes it impossible for the university to conduct online classes,” she said during a phone conversation.

The acute fuel shortage in Nagorno-Karabakh, that started on July 25 this year, has left the entire 120,000 population without public transportation. As reported by the Ombudsman of the Republic of Artsakh Gegham Stepanyan, the absence of transportation means that many students will be physically unable to attend their classes in regular mode. The students who reside outside of Stepanakert and commute to the capital for their studies will no longer be able to do so.

Zakaryan’s four younger siblings, all of school age, have found leftover pens and notebooks from the previous school year. The school, according to her, also has a shortage of books. The only advantage is that the school is very close, enabling Zakaryan’s siblings to walk there.

Her brothers, on the other hand, couldn’t go to the nearby village for karate and boxing training due to transportation difficulties.

Children aren’t only deprived of their regular education but also of access to other extracurricular activities. Students and pupils cannot attend music schools, art schools, sports schools, chess schools, language schools, or dance classes, all of which are essential for their comprehensive development as reported by Ombudsman Stepanyan.

The teaching staff face these issues too.

Russian language and literature lecturer Yelena Grigoryan, who has worked at Grigor Narekatsi University for 10 years, said that approximately 50 percent of students don’t attend classes. Most live outside of Stepanakert.

“We are trying to give equal opportunity to everyone as much as we can. If necessary, we try to send lectures via the internet, but of course, the internet is also a problem, ” said Grigoryan. “In any case, face-to-face contact with students is more valuable than the internet,” she added.

Grigoryan shared the plight of her sister’s family, stating, “My sister’s children lack the essential vitamins they need, and sometimes they can’t even afford to have breakfast.”

Despite that, Yelena Grigoryan, who has lived in Artsakh and has taught for 10 years, doesn’t have any plans to leave.

“I had the opportunity to leave Artsakh, but I think Armenians should live in their land — not leave but stay, work, and create,” said the lecturer.

Nare Nikoghosyan, the head of the Information Department at the Artsakh Ministry of Education, told the Mirror-Spectator that school attendance is not as great a problem despite transportation.

“Absence has affected more students who commute to Stepanakert from outlying regions. The absenteeism rate ranges from twenty to twenty-five percent. It’s worth noting that the number was higher in the first week, but now students are making every effort to reach Stepanakert using any available means,” said Nikoghosyan.

Last month 41 citizens of Russia and Nagorno-Karabakh were transferred from Karabakh to Armenia by Russian peacekeepers. They included Nagorno-Karabakh citizens who have enrolled in universities in Armenia and abroad.

One of these students is 17-year-old Maria (the name has been changed for her own safety). She moved to Armenia to start her academic year at the Armenian State Pedagogical University.

Earlier during the blockade, she faced a difficult decision: whether to move to Yerevan. Maria shared her struggle, saying, “I felt like a traitor for leaving 120,000 people who are starving. When you remember that your family and friends are in such a situation, returning to normal life has a psychological influence on you,” said the student.

She crossed the Azerbaijan checkpoint with the last group of students and witnessed the arrest of three Armenian students by Azerbaijani border guards.

The Azerbaijani General Prosecutor’s Office issued a statement declaring that the men were arrested for insulting state symbols. Azerbaijani media claimed the men are featured in a 2021 social media video that appears to show a group of amateur football players from the town of Martuni stepping on the Azerbaijani flag. However, Baku ended up releasing the three Armenian university students.

As Maria mentioned, the Azerbaijani border guard put psychological pressure on the remaining students.

“They asked us where we are registered, and when we said Stepanakert, they insisted that we use the Azerbaijani name Khankendi,” Maria told the Mirror-Spectator.

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