‘Forgotten by All’: The Ordeal of Armenian Victims of Azerbaijan’s Blockade in Nagorno-Karabakh
The looming humanitarian disaster in the Armenian enclave, which has been under blockade for several months, revives the specter of ethnic and religious cleansing in this predominantly Christian region.
The people of Armenia, the world’s oldest Christian kingdom, are fighting once again for their survival. Nearly three years after the end of the latest war with its neighbor and historic enemy Azerbaijan, following which it was forced to cede the long-disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the situation of the 120,000 or so people left in that region is now critical.
Since December 2022, the “Lachin” corridor, the only road geographically linking the ethnic enclave to Armenia, has been the object of a series of blockades provoked by the Azeri government, plunging it into a serious humanitarian crisis that has so far elicited little reaction from an international community whose eyes are riveted instead on the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Experts who spoke with the Register on the ground believe that these hostile acts conceal a broader plan for ethnic-religious cleansing in the region. Indeed, Armenia’s geographical position, caught between Azerbaijan and Turkey, represents an obstacle to the pan-Turkic ambitions of its Turkic-speaking, Muslim-majority neighbors. Regular incursions by Azeri forces on Armenia’s borders since September 2022 are reinforcing fears of a resurgence of conflict in the region.
Continuing War by Other Means
The war between the two countries for control of Nagorno-Karabakh — known as “Artsakh” in Armenian — from September to November 2020 resulted in the deaths of more than 6,500 people. It followed an earlier conflict in the region in the early 1990s. This conflict, in which Armenia emerged victorious, claimed some 30,000 victims.
But the origins of the dispute go back to the 1920s, when Russian Soviet leader Joseph Stalin arbitrarily separated the enclave, which was more than 90% Armenian, from its mother country, placing it under Azerbaijani Soviet administration.
Armenia’s recent defeat by Azerbaijan — massively backed by Turkey — resulted in the loss of almost all the territory, leaving its citizens in the region in a state of deep uncertainty as to their future. Without offering them any integration plan, Azerbaijani President Ilhan Aliev’s government left them with the choice of “either living under the Azerbaijani flag or leave.”
“The Azerbaijani authorities have made a habit of simulating Armenian provocations to tighten the screws, toughen their coercive measures and push the local population to leave,” Aram Kayayan, supervisor of the French organization SOS Chrétiens d'Orient (SOS Eastern Christians) for Artsakh and the nearby Syunik region of Armenia, told the Register. He noted that he and his organization have not been able to access Artsakh and bring aid to the population since the end of 2022.
On Dec. 12, several dozen “environmental activists” recruited by the Azerbaijani regime stationed themselves at the entrance to the Lachin corridor near the town of Shushi, blocking all vehicle traffic, to protest against the “illegal exploitation of minerals” by Karabakh Armenians.
Placed under Russian trusteeship under the cease-fire agreements of Nov. 10, 2020, the corridor, which stretches some 40 miles and is around 3 miles wide, had operated normally until the end of 2022.
The blockade has been official since July 11, with Azerbaijan citing “smuggling attempts” by Armenian Red Cross vehicles. The organization denied these accusations.
After more than 250 days of blockade, which also involves a ban on civilian entry and exit, the humanitarian crisis has already taken hold over the region. This reality was communicated by Gev Iskajyan, head of the Artsakh branch of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), an advocacy organization for the Armenian community in the U.S., in a telephone interview with the Register. Trapped on the territory himself, he reported numerous shortages of food, medicine and fuel, accompanied by cuts in electricity, gas and fiber-optic access to the internet.
“I know of a pregnant mother who recently had a miscarriage because we couldn’t get her to the hospital in time, since we couldn’t find fuel for the ambulance,” Iskajyan said, confirming to have seen with his own eyes an upsurge in deaths due to malnutrition or lack of access to health care.
“You can see people that stand in lines for two, three hours a day just to get a piece of bread,” he continued, adding that in these conditions, it’s very difficult to expect more than one meal a day.
Born in California to Armenian parents, Iskajyan moved back to Nagorno-Karabakh after the 2020 war to open an ANCA branch there, in order to better support the local population and raise awareness in the U.S. of the fate of this Christian homeland in the Caucasus.
According to him, although American authorities have called for the corridor to be reopened, no tangible action on behalf of the persecuted Armenians has so far been undertaken.
“One cannot on the one hand denounce Russia’s weaponization of food against Ukraine and then condone the same weaponization in Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said, adding that a prolonged lack of action by the international community would reveal the “hypocrisy” of its current leaders.
Between Pan-Turkic Ideology and International Opportunism
Against the backdrop of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, Azerbaijan has established itself as a privileged partner for gas supplies to this strategic region, especially for European Union countries wishing to do without Russian gas to give greater weight to their economic sanctions against the country.
Azerbaijan, for its part, wants to force Armenia to give up the so-called “Meghri” corridor, linking the Azerbaijani capital of Baku to the exclave of Nakhchivan, which is wedged between Armenian territory and Iran and connected to Turkey at its northern end.
To date, this has been its main demand to Armenia in exchange for the reopening of the Lachin corridor.
“Alas, I'm afraid that both Europe and the Russians have a vested interest in the opening of this extraterritorial corridor through Armenia for the supply of gas and the transfer of goods to Europe via Turkey,” said Aram Kayayan, who is currently based in the Syunik region bordering Artsakh. “It’s also a way for Russia to reach Turkey via Azerbaijan, and thus bypass Georgia, its main rival in the Caucasus.”
Kayayan expressed concern that Azerbaijan might take advantage of the international context and the mobilization of Russia, the party responsible for enforcing the 2020 cease-fire agreements in the region, on the Ukrainian front to engage in ethnic cleansing similar to that of the 1915 Armenian genocide.
The mass extermination of the Armenians at that time was intended to fulfill the Pan-Turkic dream of uniting the Turkic-speaking Muslim countries of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan under the Turkish banner.
“This is their basic ideology; their ambitions remain the same as in the last century, and, to this day, Armenia is the only country that stands between Turkey and Azerbaijan and cuts off this desire for territorial union,” Vladimir Khojabekyan, spokesman for SOS Chrétiens d’Orient in Armenia, told the Register, warning that Azerbaijani media commentators sometimes even allege that Erevan, the Armenian capital, is part of Azerbaijan or Turkey.
“This blockade and the border attacks are designed to intimidate and terrorize the inhabitants of the region, to make them flee,” concluded Khojabekyan.
On Aug. 12, faced with the stalemate and worsening humanitarian crisis in Artsakh, Armenia appealed to the U.N. Security Council, which called for the corridor to be reopened, adding that it was unable to “independently verify information on the movement of people and goods along the corridor, or on the well-being of civilians in areas where Russian peacekeepers have been deployed.”
Warning for the West
According to Kayayan, the international community’s relative indifference towards Armenia can also be explained by a loss of religious sentiment in most historically Christian Western countries. His organization, SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, is one of the few foreign associations with a permanent presence in the country, along with Solidarité Arménie, both of which were founded in France — a country with a large Armenian diaspora, as in the U.S.
“Apart from these associations or personalities from the diaspora, nobody really cares about Armenia, which is the last real Christian fortress at the gates of the East,” Kayayan said, pointing out that Artsakh and Syunik — the region targeted by the Meghri corridor project — have so far seen very few historical exoduses and consequently remain populated by thousand-year-old Christian communities.
“These regions have always been particularly combative and resilient, fostering a continuity of population that has made possible for some people to have family trees going back five or six centuries,” he continued.
In his view, Armenia’s ordeal over the past century should give pause to Christian communities in Western countries, whose own historical roots are increasingly threatened by a loss of religious feeling among their elites and by the importation of new religions due to migratory movements.
“Unlike the Armenians, and many of our Christian brothers in the East, Westerners don’t know what it’s like to lose a homeland, a land, a village, and to see one’s culture wiped out by intrinsically hostile forces,” Kayayan concluded. “Yet I think that, unfortunately, if the wait-and-see attitude and blindness continue, this 21st century will perhaps make it necessary to create an ‘SOS Western Christians.’”