One night on Tumanyan Street in Stepanakert, as a long queue forms outside of a bakery, a man’s voice can be heard, announcing his position as the 445th in line to buy bread.
Such scenes have become common in blockaded Artsakh. During the day the situation is even worse, as people have to wait in extreme heat conditions. Cases of fainting, especially among children and the elderly, have become frequent. In the morning, without having eaten breakfast, people stand in line under the sun for hours to take home a piece of bread. In the last 10 days, lines for bread have dramatically increased. There is a shortage of bread not only in Stepanakert, but across the regions.
In an interview with Artsakh Public Television, Artsakh President Arayik Harutyunyan, while discussing the challenges arising from the inhuman blockade by Azerbaijan, said, “To put it simply, Artsakh is a large concentration camp where Azerbaijan is carrying out genocide.”
The blockade of Artsakh by Azerbaijan has been ongoing for nearly eight months. Starting on December 12, 2022, the Berdzor (Lachin) Corridor, the sole road connecting Artsakh to Armenia was closed by a group of Azerbaijanis under the guise of eco-activists. As a result, 120,000 citizens of Artsakh, including 30,000 children, have been left without essential goods and services, including food, medicine and fuel. The situation became more dire on June 15, when Azerbaijan closed the lifeline road to Red Cross and Russian peacekeeping vehicles delivering humanitarian aid.
For Armenians, bread is a basic staple, based on traditions going back centuries and a lack of other food options. It is no coincidence that in Armenian, like in the Lord’s Prayer, “to eat bread” means to have food or consume a meal. “Seated/stuck on bread” refers to food or income. A good person is often described as “a human with bread.”
The Armenian people even have a “national” Armenian bread, the flatbread called lavash, which is traditionally prepared according to a special protocol. The lavash kneader makes a cross on the dough, invoking Christianity, which Armenians were first to adopt as the national religion in the early fourth century. Per tradition, the dough is kneaded by the eldest woman of the house, the grandmother, who is assisted by the eldest daughter-in-law and neighboring women. Lavash is baked early in the morning, and the fire is lit at sunrise. The bakers praise the sun, a pre-Christian tradition, and offer good wishes. Negative and curse words are prohibited during lavash making. According to the ritual, no adult man should be near the clay oven, the tonir, otherwise the bread will fall apart. It’s the enduring ancient Armenian version of, “Men don’t belong in the kitchen.”
Lavash has another important use – it can be stored for a long time. Stockpiling lavash has been a way to fight hunger. The famous local food jingalov hats carries that meaning. When there was nothing to eat, people made this flatbread stuffed with local greens.
Yet the humanitarian disaster in Artsakh has challenged gender roles. As the traditional breadwinners living under blockade, men have little means of making money, let alone buying anything with it. All grocery stores are empty, and bakeries have become the hottest spots in town, generating hours of lines. Standing in line is a struggle, but also a luxury, that not everyone can afford. Single, elderly, the sick or people with small children cannot stand in line for hours.
According to official data, the volume of bread production will decrease for another two-three days. Flour mills are producing flour from the harvested wheat, yet due to the rainfall and high humidity levels, the flour production process has slowed down and additional drying is necessary.
The long queues for bread are also caused by the fuel shortage. Since July 25, due to the lack of fuel stemming from Azerbaijan’s tightened blockade, city and inter-community transport has stopped operating. Bakers cannot deliver the bread to the shops, and people stand in queues in certain limited locations.
The stress is not only on the buyers, but also the bakers and the resellers. 44-year-old Gayane Tadevosyan has her own shop. Since the beginning of the blockade, she has worked hard to ensure that there is no shortage of bread in the store. She is not giving up easily. Since there is no fuel, she has decided to deliver the bread from the bakery to the store with a makeshift cart standing in the yard.
Every night, Gayane stands in line for several hours in front of the bakery, so that when the neighbors come in the morning, there will be bread in the store. There used to be a note stuck on the wall of the shop, “There is always bread.” She has torn up that note. For three days now, Gayane has been going to the bakery on her own, standing in line and coming back empty-handed.
“I don’t get tired of working. I’m ready to stay up all night and bring bread, so that I can provide bread even to sick people and families with children,” says Gayane. She knows the residents of the neighborhood well and takes it seriously when those living in the neighborhood come and see the store empty.
Like all Armenian women, Gayane used to have sweets for the guests, which she gave only to the children who entered the store. Today, its supply has also been exhausted. There are leftovers of non-essential economic goods on candy shelves. “The most difficult thing is rejecting children. I cry several times a day when a parent enters the store holding a child, and I can’t offer at least a piece of candy,” she says. Gayane says empty adult stomachs are not as bad as unfulfilled wishes of children. “You are powerless when you cannot fulfill even their smallest wishes,” she said.
Samvel Tadevosyan, Gayane’s husband, was wounded during the first Artsakh war, and their daughter’s husband was killed in the 2020 war. Her three-year-old granddaughter does not have a father. Now Gayane has not seen her granddaughter for eight months. She is in Vanadzor, Armenia, unable to return home. Although she misses her a lot, Gayane says she is happy that her granddaughter is at least in a safe place and doesn’t feel a craving for candy, let alone actual food.
Together with her husband, sister-in-law and son, Gayane and her family cultivate a vegetable garden and engage in rabbit breeding. Gayane also does cleaning. Her only son, Tatul, is now preparing to marry. They will not have a wedding, only a church ceremony and a small table offering what they have at home in their yard. Gayane considers marriage an important mission. “We don’t know how long we will live like this. The war is not over. The blockade is the continuation of the war. But life goes on, and that’s how we have to face this disaster,” says Gayane.
During the Weekly’s conversation with Gayane, people constantly entered the store hoping to find bread. One of them was seven-year-old Tatevik. She already entered three grocery stores but did not find bread. When asked, “What is the blockade,” she answered directly: “The blockade is when there is no bread in the shops.” Tatevik did not say what she especially missed that her parents cannot find in stores. She only said that she wants bread to take home, so that her little brother does not go hungry. That’s her only dream these days.
“Youth Club Alliance” and “Artsakh Security and Development Front” implemented a volunteer initiative to deliver bread to the most needy. They recruited a group of volunteers, and with 10-15 volunteers a day, ages 14-20, they deliver black bread (specifically for diabetic patients) from bakeries on foot to stores where diabetic patients living in the neighborhood can have their daily bread, both in Stepanakert and on the outskirts of the city.
“In the last few days, when there was a shortage of bread, even this initiative stopped, but I hope that as soon as the shortage ends, we will continue to take bread to stores and to the needy, while the fuel problem is not solved and bread is not delivered to stores as it was before,” Gayane Sargsyan, one of the organizers of this initiative, told the Weekly.
Recently the Artsakh leadership declared a state of emergency, hoping that the international community would provide humanitarian assistance, as is done in the case of a natural disaster.
Armenia was the first to respond to this declaration, sending a convoy of vehicles carrying humanitarian aid. The trucks were stopped at the Hakari bridge, as Azerbaijan prohibits the import of essential goods into Artsakh. Trucks loaded with 400 tons of long-awaited flour, vital medicines, baby food and other essentials have been stuck for two weeks in Kornidzor, the last town in Armenia at the entrance to the Berdzor Corridor.
While Russian peacekeepers are unable to lift the blockade, observers from Western countries and international organizations simply record this fact through statements. Meanwhile the queues in Stepanakert and the regions in front of bakeries stretch endlessly. As the blockade persists, the Armenians of Artsakh are left to fend for themselves, struggling to access basic necessities. Even the daily bread is becoming a wish that one can only pray for in Artsakh.