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‘We are starving to death:’ Residents of Nagorno-Karabakh fear for future under blockade

Ani Kirakosyani found out she was pregnant a month after the blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh began.

Kirakosyani is one of the 120,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh – known as the Republic of Artsakh by locals – a disputed territory home to a majority ethnic Armenian population that is internationally recognized as being a part of Azerbaijan. The region has been blockaded since December 2022, when the only road connecting the landlocked region to the outside world, the Lachin corridor, was blocked by “eco-activists” backed by the Azerbaijani government, which has since installed a military checkpoint along the corridor. This prompted the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) to warn of the risk of genocide against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Six months into her pregnancy, Kirakosyani felt a pain in her abdomen and was taken to the hospital. On the way, the ambulance had to stop and collect six other patients, as the driver had to ration its fuel. When Kirakosyani finally arrived in hospital, she was told her pregnancy was in jeopardy and she would have to give birth three months early.

Her husband was away working with the military, and he could not get fuel to make the 100-mile car ride to support her in the hospital. She was alone when the doctors told her she had had a stillbirth brought on by malnutrition and stress, she said.

International media have been refused entry into the territory since the blockade was imposed.

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan US congressional body, scheduled a Wednesday hearing on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

‘The road of life’

The Lachin corridor is known locally as “the road of life,” as 90% of the food consumed in Nagorno-Karabakh previously came into the region from Armenia via that route, according to figures provided by the elected president of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was previously the only NGO allowed to bring humanitarian aid across the Lachin corridor, last delivered desperately needed food supplies to the region on June 14, according to an ICRC press release from August 18.

In August, UN experts urged Azerbaijan to end “the dire humanitarian crisis” in the enclave by lifting the blockade, while former International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo said there was “reasonable basis to believe that genocide is being committed against Armenians.”

Responding to Ocampo’s comments, a lawyer hired by Azerbaijan called the claim of genocide “a groundless and very dangerous allegation.”

As food, medicine, water and fuel are prevented from entering the territory, local supplies are dwindling. According to the administration for the Artsakh Republic, dairy products, cereal, fish, chicken, cooking oil, sugar, salt, fruit and vegetables, as well as fuel and hygiene products, are unavailable inside the territory.

Outside his shop, queues for bread meander through the unkempt streets. Garbage collections are regularly postponed due to fuel shortages, while in the local pharmacy, supplies are rapidly diminishing.

The fuel shortages also mean electricity is rationed, with power cuts for eight hours each day, and drinking water is no longer treated, leading to a spike in related illnesses, according to Stepanyan.

According to the enclave’s administration, 95% of residents are suffering from malnutrition and hidden hunger, a term referring to a lack of essential vitamins and minerals.

As winter beckons and the harvest season approaches without fuel to collect the crops, those trapped in Nagorno-Karabakh fear their cries are being ignored.

‘Ethnic cleansing’

Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in a tug of war over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This power vacuum was filled by nationalism, and violence against ethnic minorities quickly followed. Both Armenians in Azerbaijan and Azeris in Armenia claim they were ethnically cleansed, leaving sectarian scars on the minds of generations – on either side of their disputed border.

In the early 1990s, Armenian forces took control of large swaths of territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan, backed by Turkey, in turn seized control over large parts of those territories during a six-week war in 2020 that claimed thousands of lives.

The separatist territory was left with the main city of Stepanakert and a few surrounding towns, as well as a population still reeling from the losses of the bloody 2020 conflict, which was followed by sporadic skirmishes along the border. Amid the latest flare-up of tensions, Baku claims it will fully retake and integrate the territory into Azerbaijan – while ethnic Armenians refuse to be uprooted from a region they claim is their homeland.

“Rather than use direct violence, which would incite opposition from abroad… Baku is determined to make the Armenians’ lives impossible, starve them out, and pressure them to leave,” he said.

To make matters more complicated, Azerbaijan – a one-party state headed by President Ilham Aliyev for the past two decades – has offered to supply the breakaway region via a crossing at the nearby Azerbaijani city of Aghdam.

“Instead of feigning attempts to deliver humanitarian assistance, Azerbaijan must unblock the Lachin corridor,” he said.

In its statement, the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry said the Aghdam route would allow humanitarian aid to be supplied by third parties such as the ICRC and accused Armenia of stepping back at the last moment from agreements it said had been reached in August on transportation through the Aghdam and Lachin routes. It also pointed to comments from European Council President Charles Michel in July, following talks with Aliyev and Pashinyan, in which Michel called for the Lachin corridor to be opened but said both options were “important.”

“These reasons include energy reliance on Azerbaijan,” he added.

According to Reuters, the European Union agreed in July 2022 to double gas imports from Azerbaijan by 2027.

Meanwhile Russia, which brokered the ceasefire in 2020, has peacekeepers along the Lachin corridor but has refrained from intervening further.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a briefing on August 2 that Russia dismissed any claim of inaction against the Russian peacekeepers “as counterproductive and non-reflective of their real contribution to the effort to stabilize the situation on the ground.”

‘Running out of hope’

As co-ordinated international action to end the blockade appears unlikely anytime soon, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh are left focusing on short-term solutions: gathering firewood, collecting water and foraging for food.

Next week was meant to be her five-year-old son’s first day of school. Instead, she is wondering how he will survive the winter.

At a UN Security Council meeting in August, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Armenia, Vahe Gevorgyan, warned that Azerbaijan’s blockade “has impacted 2,000 pregnant women, around 30,000 children, 20,000 older persons, and 9,000 persons with disabilities.”

“If the blockade does not end soon – more people will starve. I cannot sleep thinking about how I will feed my three sons,” Gharaghazaryan said. “We are all running out of hope. How many more people will have to die before the world takes notice?”

This story has been updated with comment from the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry.

This post appeared first on cnn.com

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