Besieged Artsakh and Mental Health

My early morning coffee on my balcony in front of the Artsakh Foreign Office exposes sunlit green laces of acacia, chirping birds and aquamarine mountain ranges soaring to the gray of the sky on the horizon. But my small delight is unsettled with the first sip that pricks the split corners of my mouth and itchy nettle rash all over my cheeks. This is – as my doctor puts it – a vitamin deficiency induced by the blockade. 

The blockade has completely cut off our enclave from the rest of the world, already isolated by protracted conflict and recent defeat in war. This show of force of Azeri “environmentalists” has been the most “successful eco-friendly” action in the Caucasus with the most aggravated humanitarian outcomes. It not only managed to stop the exploitation of the mine, but to deprive 120,000 people from meeting their basic needs and fundamental rights.

Visible Impact of the Blockade

The edibles have disappeared from food stalls, leaving grains, local dairy and canned food on the rows, next to lonely-standing luxurious Armenian cognacs. Over months, I developed an instinct of buying almost any edible I saw without much discretion, rejoicing over every purchased bit of food like over a trophy. This eventually seemed to me degrading and humiliating. I quit foraging for food to develop an itchy and festering vitamin-deficient rash on my face and limbs.

The blockade has impeded the right to move freely. The Red Cross transports only the severely ill, those in need of medical intervention and children separated from parents. One may be stuck in Yerevan for months, like a student of mine, Sofi Abrahamyan. Many students from Artsakh, around 200, studying in Yerevan cannot come here to see their parents. Left high and dry in Yerevan are also people traveling back to Artsakh from abroad.

Artsakh students, who have now graduated, were having a hard time getting to university from different regions, due to haphazardly disconnected gas supply that fuels public transport. Their studies were further disrupted by regular rolling blackouts at home and university. 

The blockade has crippled big and small businesses due to lack of import of raw materials and goods. People are tending to their own vegetable gardens and cultivating every patch of land. The land, which is giving us all this trouble, is supplying us with fresh vitamins in the form of greens, mostly wild ones. Lavishly growing on slopes, they are generously sold at local bazaars. They are traditionally cooked as soup, with garlic, baked within thin sheets of dough. Over the course of history, sieges like this have taught us to make practical, healthy and creative use of nature.  

The positive sides of the blockade are that fuel shortages force drivers to exercise by walking to their destinations. Plastic is no longer thrown away, but carefully stored and reused. All in all, people have simplified their eating and attire. They are often delighted with a handful of pasta and a warm cup of tea. I, for one, have lost weight without much effort, which I could have hardly achieved by sticking to diets in the good old days.

My current experience incites a comparison with my first blockade, experienced as a 10 year old. The blockade of Artsakh in the ‘90s preceded the war. Now the blockaded people are exhausted by 30 post-war years of protracted conflict; people in the late 80s had a greater sense of security and greater vigor. The refugees of the ‘90s from Baku and Shahumyan were neglected by authorities, while IDPs from Hadrut and Shushi are now treated better. The ‘90s saw densely-populated and better off Artsakh villages, with little exposure to malnutrition and bombardment, as opposed to Stepanakert.

Comparison of Two Blockades

I can recall the start of bombardment in November 1991. We had just moved into a spacious and newly-renovated apartment. The classical dining room furniture sparkled. The bathrooms were beaming. The bedrooms were spacious. 

At a birthday party, town intelligentsia played chess, and women discussed Anna Akhmatova, while the children devoured creamy tarts. The next night, our family woke up to roaring blasts of multiple-launch rockets from an adjacent town. My mother told me that we were not going to school, which I was happy about, but also scared by all the racket. Neighboring families were clamorously sprinting into the basement under the building with infants, blankets and cots. The missiles designed to deliver anti-personnel devastation in an open battlefield were bludgeoning the civilian population, already blockaded and cut from all the land communications with Armenia since 1989, signaling the collapse of the Soviet empire. The next six months were turning the settlement into a ghost town. The buildings cut in half were leering at you with blackened holes and bathrooms. The roads were cramped with rooftops, and hearths on the streets reminded of once apartment stocks. In her book Modern Saints and Martyrs, Caroline Cox, a deputy speaker of the House of Lords, recalls, “I used to count 400 Grad missiles every day pounding in on Stepanakert.”  

When the water supply was cut, my mum had to fetch water in buckets from the outskirts of town under cover of the night so as not to be easily targeted by snipers. One evening, we were supping with natural yogurt sent from our relatives from the village (the main supplier of groceries then), when distant blasts were rhythmically and increasingly growing closer and louder. Clobbered and horrified, my siblings and I were instructed to line up along the corridor wall in the center. Then came the ringing of the shattering glass and screams of our neighbors. The rocket, intended for our flat, sprawled back into a perennial linden tree in front; its scattering fragments flickered the walls and crashed into kitchen equipment. Our neighbor Mrs. Anja threw herself onto the bed, covered herself with a blanket and froze. Another lady was trembling so much that I thought she was rocking a baby. Then the news came that this salvo of rockets chopped our neighbor’s head at the entrance of a nearby house.

My classmate, struggling with cancer, having lost her leg at age 11 when her home was shelled in 1991 (Photo: Areg Balayan)

My parents were scared for us, and I was scared for my toddler sister, who had just started walking. I wanted all this to come to an end. The blockade of our town was lifted six months later, when the town of the impregnable medieval fortress, Shushi, fell.

Pressure on Mental Health and Ways to Nourish it

The biggest upshot of blockade is the grave pressure on mental health, its aptness to kill the soul and hopes of people, every third of whom is either displaced or bereaved. Stepanakert psychologists record high anxiety, depression, PTSD, increased fear and unexplainable stomach pains in children, aggression that is stronger among war veterans, trauma, often intergenerational, victimization and powerlessness. To nourish mental health, Natalia Bekhtereva, an eminent neurophysiologist and Leningrad blockade survivor, advises patients to counterweight negative emotions with positive ones (emotion vs. emotion principle) and to drive off oppressive thoughts by exercise (emotion vs. movement). 

The theatrical play, “While She Was Dying,” transforms the desolation and frenzy of the people and engulfs them into the story of a mother and daughter who take solace in their shabby neighborhood by cozy chats and reading Charles Dickens aloud to each other. One day, there’s an unexpected knock on the door. It is a gentleman with a fresh bouquet. The subsequent suspense delivered me from harsh reality for three hours in line with the emotion versus emotion principle. I went with a colleague, who was not captured by the play. Maybe she was too young and better spared from the calamities of life to feel empathy with the lonely lady. However, the performance was appealing to most, since it inferred that even though we may think the opportunity of life had passed, there may be greater chances that could open up.

Theatrical performance in blockaded town, December 2022

People are also cherishing their mental health by the emotion versus motion principle. They attend fitness ballet and barre workouts. A ballroom hosts ladies of various ages and backgrounds, assiduously performing a trainer’s instructions. This routs out their oppressive thoughts. But this blissful state is cut short when a gentle young lady with beautiful big eyes and luxurious hair, performing port de bras next to me, disrupted the flow of exercise: “My uncle, who was receiving intervention in the bigger capital, died. His family is here and doesn’t know what to do.” The rest of the ladies stood motionless for a while, then went on with gymnastics.

A most robust psychotherapeutic tool, according to Viktor Frankl, a Nazi camp survivor, is finding meaning in life. He states that human life, even in suffering and privation, never ceases to have a meaning, and even if we have nothing more to expect from life, life is still expecting something from us. One must not lose hope, but keep the courage that the hopelessness of our struggle does not distract us from the dignity of life and its meaning. The meaning of life may be “someone you look down to – a, friend, a wife, someone alive or dead, or God – and He would not expect us to disappoint him”[1], or else it may be a task to be fulfilled or a grip of some future purpose or actions.   

The blockade has tried to steal our meaning in life, our hopes and values, depriving us of human dignity, finding refuge in the past or simply waiting for the future. On the other hand, it has opened people to search for meaning and made them more receptive to it. Some find it in the growing fidelity to homeland and consider the blockade a sacrifice in its name. Others reconceptualize personal relations, attach significance to teaching or writing as therapy. Many find meaning in religion.

Voices in the Church

The deranged mental health of people drives them into the graceful tufa cathedral. The church counterbalances their pain and torment into joy, consolation and hope. At church, you hear voices of desperation, stories of loss and of miraculous salvation. The desperate voice belongs to a man kneeling in front of the altar, whose son was kidnapped from the military position two weeks ago. He is conversing with the universe: “Bring back my son. He is the reason I live.” The rear seats are taken by a gentleman and a young lady, who share their stories of loss and salvation and how they found meaning in life. One of them is my schoolmate, who lost her leg in the first war, when a Grad missile ‘entered’ her house. “God saved me from bowel cancer when my boy was three. God heard my cry, and I heard how my boy was praying for me.”

The other, Samvel, says that God preserved only him, unscathed out of 42 combatants in the squad. “Upon the defeat, we were retreating through a long road of dead bodies. I was praying for everyone – for friends and foes, dead and alive. Prayer has kept me sound in mind, and God has preserved my body unscathed, because I still have to serve people for His glory.”

The blockades are bludgeoning generations. Members of the elder generation are reactivating their coping mechanisms with decreasing strength. The younger have vigor, but no experienced scenarios of surviving the siege. Like hobbits, we are at the intersection of interests of too many powers and have assumed a mission too big for us to fulfill, our adventures being underway.


[1] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 104

Lusine Vanyan

Lusine Vanyan

Lusine Vanyan is a writer from Artsakh who started her career as a scholar, lecturer and translator. Her writing increasingly includes feature and fiction styles to reflect the flamboyant and war-torn human stories in Artsakh that may otherwise sink into oblivion.
Lusine Vanyan

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