It has been more than two months that the only road of life connecting Artsakh to the rest of the world remains closed. Since December 12, 2022, a group of Azerbaijanis claiming to be eco-activists has kept the humanitarian corridor of Lachin closed with signs and environmentalist appeals depriving the 120,000 citizens of Artsakh of their fundamental right to freedom of movement. Evidently, it is not a real grassroots environmentalist protest. Instead, it is funded and controlled by Ilham Aliyev’s regime. It is beyond any doubt that the actions of the so-called protesters serve as a consistent tool for Azerbaijan’s hybrid warfare tactics and systematic policy of ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Artsakh.
The situation remains unresolved on diplomatic platforms. Azerbaijan is defying calls by the international community to unblock the road. Today, the crisis of the Lachin Corridor swims in a pool of uncertainty and devastation. If not stopped immediately, it would leave long-term and irreversible consequences, not only to the future of Artsakh but also to the peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Cut off from the outside world, the 120,000-strong population of Artsakh is inching closer to an inevitable humanitarian catastrophe every single day. There are extreme shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities. There is a lack of proper heating in harsh winter conditions. All energy infrastructures are located on the Lachin Corridor, hence, under the control of Azerbaijanis. They cut the gas supply whenever they desire. Electricity is provided through a small hydropower plant in Artsakh’s Sarsang reservoir. To prevent an overload, scheduled power outages occur several times a day. Children are deprived of their right to an education because it is impossible to provide heating. Kindergartens are closed for the same reason. The population also experiences periodic cuts to the internet and communication with the outside world, again manipulated by the enemy.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has helped transport around 90 critically ill patients from Artsakh to Armenia to continue their treatment. ICRC also organized the transportation of several groups of people (including children) who were stuck in Armenia, unable to reunite with their families in Artsakh for weeks. Around 1,000 citizens of Artsakh still wait for their turn to return home.
“My biggest wish is peace for my homeland.”
Among those is Marine Hyusnunts, an accountant from the Martakert region of Artsakh. On December 1, 2022, Hyusnunts traveled to Yerevan with her family because of some health issues. The family learned that the road had closed on their way back home. Since then, they have been living in Goris. The Armenian government has provided her family with accommodations, but Hyusnunts is still in a tough psychological state. She says she is trying hard to stay strong. “I do not know. It is an uncertain situation, and it is quite possible that it will not end soon because our government will fight until the end in order not to make any concessions,” she says. “Nevertheless, I see a bright future for Artsakh despite the obstacles. In the end, it will be good for us. We will live freely and independently in Artsakh. My biggest wish is peace for my homeland.” Hyusnunts is also unsure whether she will still have a job after returning to Artsakh.
Yerazik Harutyunyan, a historian and a journalist, also came to Yerevan in early December with health issues. She needed surgery and has been stuck in Armenia’s capital ever since. Harutyunyan is now living with relatives in Yerevan, as her husband and two children wait for her homecoming. She is originally from the Martuni region of Artsakh, but for the past several years, she has been living in Stepanakert and working with the Water Committee of Artsakh.
We met with Harutyunyan at a café in Yerevan. Barely holding back her emotions, Harutyunyan shared how painful it is to be away from family and to eat, knowing that her children, her loved ones and thousands of other compatriots are facing hunger and frostbite. “This disaster is taking place right in front of the eyes of the civilized world and will undoubtedly become a big stigma on humanity,” she said. “Azerbaijan seeks to discourage us and depopulate Artsakh. The blockade of the Lachin corridor, as well as many other preceding aggressive actions of Azerbaijan, once again prove that Artsakh cannot be a part of Azerbaijan. Artsakh is our historical homeland. So much blood has been spilled on this land. We have such deep roots there that we will not simply leave. Artsakh has the right of self-determination, and it is non-negotiable!”
Harutyunyan believes that a peaceful coexistence as part of Azerbaijan is impossible right now, and the best proof is the blockade itself. “The two nations have witnessed a great tragedy due to this war, which will not be forgotten for a long time. If our older generation has at least some experience of coexistence with Azerbaijanis, it is absolutely unimaginable for the new generation. Many of them grew up in families where a father or brother either was killed or went missing during the war. So how can one convince them to live in Azerbaijan?”
Harutyunyan worked as a journalist for 20 years in Artsakh and is knowledgeable of the region’s domestic affairs. “The population’s nutritional needs are met with great difficulty,” she explains. “Because of the recent war, we lost the lion’s share of our agricultural lands. What has been left is almost impossible to cultivate as the Armed Forces of Azerbaijan target the farmers in the fields. In this situation, the Artsakh government has shown excellent self-organization, and the state reserves have been coordinated and provided to the population through a coupon system.”
Harutyunyan has applied to ICRC and cannot wait to return home to her family. She says that one of the employees of the Red Cross, who previously carried out humanitarian missions throughout the world, noticed with surprise that people usually request ICRC to help them move from a bad place to a good one. “However, in the case of Artsakh, it is the complete opposite…”.
Harutyunyan, whose first name Yerazik means “dream” in Armenian, says that her dream is to see her homeland free and independent so that the Armenians of Artsakh can preserve their national heritage. “I see my future only in Artsakh and have raised my children in the same spirit. Each of us owes a debt of gratitude to that holy land and the thousands of martyrs,” she emphasized. “The blockade has only fortified the willpower of our people.” Harutyunyan says it’s unfortunate that the world is guided by selective humanism. “The enthusiasm and support that Ukraine gets today in its war against Russia, unfortunately, is not there for Artsakh. It seems that Europe prioritizes the gas contract with Azerbaijan over the fate of 120,000 citizens of Artsakh.”
For members of the older generation, this is Artsakh’s second blockade in 30 years. Lida Aghabekyan currently lives in Stepanakert and works as a nurse in a military hospital. Before the blockade, she frequently traveled to Yerevan to visit her relatives. She hasn’t been to Yerevan since last fall. Her mother-in-law recently passed away, but she could not attend the funeral because of the blockade.
Aghabekyan says the biggest challenge has been complications caused by gas and electricity cuts. She often cannot find a car to go to work in the morning because there is no gas. Sometimes strangers give her a lift. Every summer, Aghabekyan’s family collects and stores winter food supplies. They typically do not stay hungry, but there is a shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables now. She tells her relatives in Yerevan that they are staying in Artsakh so that the Armenian government does not have to make any territorial or other concessions in favor of Azerbaijan.
Aghabekyan has a 17-year-old son, a senior in high school. Due to the lack of heating, like many other children of Artsakh, he is deprived of his right to education. Aghabekyan’s son helps the family to take care of household needs. Sometimes he gets food from here and there, and it makes him happy. Aghabekyan says her son plans to study at a university in Yerevan. However, after graduation, he intends to return to Artsakh, serve in the army and build his own family there. All his friends feel the same way. “I love Stepanakert. Everyone loves it very much. It looks like heaven. No one I know is going to leave Artsakh after the blockade ends. I know some people from Yerevan who work here. Even they want to continue living in Artsakh,” says Aghabekyan. She firmly believes that the only way out of this uneasy situation is to put aside political views and unite. “If we are not united, they will break us like a broom. There should be consolidation in the family, at the workplace and in the state apparatus. Jealousy should disappear, and people should become more willing to share what they have.” Aghabekyan also believes that safe and peaceful coexistence within Azerbaijan is impossible. “My wish is for Artsakh to gain a status, to be independent and self-sufficient. To achieve that, we have to use all the levers. Perhaps a third-party intervention is also needed because the Armenian government alone cannot solve this conflict. Will it be Russia or another country? I want peace in all parts of the world, from Ukraine to Africa. The money used in the weapon industry should be directed to developing medicine. Yesterday there was an earthquake in Syria, but today Turkey is bombing it. The world has gone crazy.”
The crisis of the Lachin Corridor is alarming for its list of long-term impacts. If Azerbaijan achieves its ultimate goal and succeeds in establishing control over the mines in Artsakh, the Armenian population will lose its primary source of revenue. This is, however, the worst-case scenario, as controlling the mines means controlling Artsakh as a whole.
The Armenian population of Artsakh is already experiencing malnutrition because of the food shortage. If there are no changes in the status quo soon, it will be life-threatening for many. The chances of survival are almost zero without critical medicine, especially for people with chronic diseases.
The electricity situation is also critical. Sarsang hydropower plant, which serves as the main source of electricity, decreases its water by a significant amount daily. It means that very soon Artsakh will enter total darkness.
Thousands of people have lost their jobs as a result. Mass unemployment negatively affects the local economy by preventing cash flow and creating a serious financial crisis.
Ironically, the blockade imposed by Azerbaijani pseudo-environmentalists will soon create a real ecological disaster that threatens to affect the whole region. Because of the gas and electricity shortage, many citizens of Artsakh have to switch to wood stoves and cut local forests as a source.
This is an urgent matter for the international community to review its peacekeeping mechanisms making them more practical in order to prevent another humanitarian catastrophe. However impossible it may seem, all possible leverages should be exercised to achieve reconciliation and build a secure, guaranteed environment for the Armenian population in Artsakh where they will be able to perform their fundamental rights and freedoms.