There is an image of a man with his infant son on his shoulders. His wife is by their side, sitting on a horse. You might casually glance at the photo while scrolling, you might even pause and take a closer look at them, their smiling faces and think to yourself what a lovely family. I would have done the same a few months ago, perhaps even a few weeks ago. But when I look at that photo today, I see another story. One that isn’t being told or heard or written about. All I can focus on is the little boy on his father’s shoulders, looking off into the distance unaware and oblivious to the impending calamity. But you can see it in the father’s eyes.
For the past seven months, Azerbaijan has kept the population of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh Republic) under a crippling siege. As Baku ruthlessly imposes collective punishment on 120,000 people, a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in real time, before the eyes of the world. Basic necessities such as food, medicine and fuel have become scarce commodities, leaving innocent civilians in dire conditions and the most vulnerable in a state of despair. There are daily violations of the ceasefire, including the constant targeting of farmers and agricultural work, with the precise objective of denying the Armenians the opportunity to be self-sufficient. An entire population is being slowly but methodically starved.
In the face of this stark reality, it’s impossible not to think of the family in the image and realize that their lives hang in the balance. They are at the mercy of an authoritarian, repressive and predatory regime, whose objective is to obliterate any trace of an Armenian existence. For the Armenian nation, it is an ominous and traumatic echo spanning generations of survivors of the Genocide.
Following the end of the 2020 Artsakh War, the only lifeline Artsakh had to Armenia and the rest of the world was through the Lachin Corridor. On December 12, 2022, a group of so-called Azerbaijani eco-activists blocked the Corridor under the spurious pretext of environmental concerns. This happened under the watchful eye of Russian peacekeepers who were deployed to Nagorno-Karabakh to protect the population following the war and to ensure safe and secure passage through Lachin. For several months, civilian traffic has been shuttered and only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Russian peacekeeping troops were allowed to pass to provide humanitarian assistance and transport critically ill patients from Artsakh to Armenia. However, on April 23, Azerbaijani forces installed an illegal checkpoint on the Hakari Bridge at the entrance of the Lachin Corridor, further aggravating the situation. Baku justified the move by saying that the road passed through their territory and claiming that the Armenian side was transporting military equipment. Later, on June 15, Azerbaijani forces set up a concrete barrier and attempted to plant the Azerbaijani flag on the other side of the bridge, on Armenian territory, in a move that was nothing short of a provocation.
Then, on July 9, Azerbaijan’s State Border Service issued a press release claiming that the ICRC had been smuggling “various types of goods” into Artsakh that included mobile phones, cigarettes and gasoline. They announced that a criminal case was launched and the movement of ICRC vehicles suspended. Russian peacekeepers had already been refused access to deliver much needed supplies to the population.
Baku’s motive is very straightforward: the complete subjugation of the Armenians of Artsakh to its will. While it promises to grant “rights” to the Armenians if they acquiesce to its demands (the same rights it bestows on its own citizens), it keeps them in a blockade that is nothing short of barbaric. In a letter to the heads of all UN Security Council member states, the UN Secretary-General, OSCE Chairperson-in Office, President of the European Council and others, Artsakh’s President Arayik Harutyunyan presented the situation in Artsakh, saying that it is quickly evolving into a “full-blown disaster”. The food shortage is critical, lack of fuel has severely impacted farming communities, civilian transportation is almost at a standstill, public transportation has been reduced by half, more than 60% of the workforce is unemployed. Lack of medicine and medical supplies “poses an increasing threat to people’s lives and well-being” and due to the lack of “essential food and vitamins, about 2,000 pregnant women and around 30,000 children are struggling to survive under conditions of malnutrition.” In this nightmare, Baku has and continues to cut electricity and gas lines coming from Armenia, and systematically obliterates any trace of an Armenian existence in territories it retook during the war by destroying cemeteries, churches and monuments. In simple terms, Baku is attempting to turn Artsakh into Yemen. And now, following a meeting with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan, facilitated by President Charles Michel of the European Council on July 15, Baku, mocking the suffering of the Artsakh people, expressed a “willingness” to provide humanitarian supplies to the people of Artsakh via Aghdam. The abuser is role-playing as the savior. The irony is not lost on anyone.
There are conflicts happening all over the world – from atrocities against minorities, civil wars, and insurgencies, to all out warfare. Authoritarian governments oppress their own citizens, silence human rights defenders and commit horrific crimes. Contemporary cases include the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Tigray region of Ethiopia that was denied humanitarian access by army forces and armed groups from Eritrea and Ethiopian provinces neighboring Tigray. Two million Palestinians living in Gaza, coined as the largest open-air prison, have been living under sweeping and inhuman restrictions by Israel since 2007. Historical cases include the Soviet blockade of West Berlin after the Second World War, and the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s after the Soviet Politburo enacted a series of decisions that included blacklisting towns that were prevented from receiving food, deepening the famine in Ukraine’s countryside.
Today, in Artsakh, supermarkets are empty. People are bartering for necessities online, and sometimes going to extreme measures. Last week, two children, aged 3 and 6, died in the village of Aghabekalanj after their single mother left them alone at home while they were sleeping to walk 5 kilometers to the nearby town of Martakert to get food. Due to the lack of fuel under Baku’s blockade, basic necessities are not accessible in remote areas. While their mother was away, the children woke up and began searching for her, but after becoming tired, they sat inside an abandoned car parked by the road and fell asleep. Their lifeless bodies were found on the morning of July 8; they had died of heat exhaustion. The harrowing death of these children is emblematic of what the Aliyev regime is doing to an entire people.
Baku does not want to end the humanitarian catastrophe it precipitated by blockading the Lachin Corridor. If it hasn’t been clearly communicated by now, let me break it down for you. Azerbaijan’s intent is not to protect or provide rights to the people of Artsakh; it is to ethnically cleanse Artsakh of its indigenous Armenian population that has lived and flourished on that land for millennia. How many people must die because they were not able to get medical attention? How many children must perish of malnutrition until Azerbaijan is called to task on its brutal siege of the Republic of Artsakh? And what of the family in the photo? What will be their fate if the international community does not step in? For the Aliyev regime, cruelty is a virtue, and the mass suffering of Armenians a demented badge of honor. Either the international community puts an end to this madness, or must answer a very simple question: How long can it normalize and be indifferent to the pogrom of an entire society?