- SEE also: Democracy Now 29/09/23 Fears of Ethnic Reuters investigation with photos, 28/09/23 and Daily Beast, 28/09/23 First Look Inside the Historic Mass Exodus
Journalist Siranush Sargsyan describes surviving three conflicts and an ongoing blockade in the disputed territory of her homeland, September 22, 2023
Every day, a number is written in the palm of my hand. Yesterday I was 425; the day before, I was 212. This is how we wait in line for bread. As I type these words, I am exhausted from standing for three hours for just one loaf — our source of primary nutrition these days. It’s already been a long time since we formed lines in actual stores — there is nothing left there, not even medicine. We only have bakeries and vegetable stalls. Strangers share their experience of cooking without the necessary ingredients. A woman behind me says, “This is the line if you want to live.”
I thought journalists could travel. But in the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh, known to the outside world as Nagorno-Karabakh, I can only travel far in my thoughts: After Azerbaijan closed the Lachin Corridor, the only highway linking us to Armenia, we have been under siege — it’s been nine months, and counting. When I first learned that the corridor was closed, my immediate reaction was relief. Even though we were besieged, the thought of being on the other side — cut off from my motherland — was unbearable.
For the last nine months, we have been deprived of everything: First, we lost the gas supply; a month later it was the electricity; our phone lines come and go and the internet works sparingly. We spent the harsh winter wearing coats inside our homes, shivering. My cupboards are empty — there is no shampoo, hair dye, shower gel, sanitary pads or even toilet paper. The last time I could find any hygiene product was about four months ago.
On Jan. 26, on the eve of my 39th birthday, my friend Armine brought me a few spoonfuls of coffee — she had kept it as a precious gift for me, knowing the outsized role the drink plays in my life. I miss its aroma the most. Another friend, Sarine, had called from Yerevan the day before and asked if I at least had a small cake. I reassured her that having coffee was enough. The next morning, the doorbell woke me up: There stood Sarine’s sister, with a small homemade gata, a traditional Armenian sweet bread, baked by their mother. I allowed myself one candle for my besieged birthday, and placed it on top of the gata. A birthday candle is a luxury, since they are now our only evening light.
We even celebrated Orthodox Christmas (Armenians celebrate it on Jan. 6) in the church without candles. There was no Santa Claus. We told the children that he couldn’t break through the blockade, even with his reindeer. For Valentine’s Day, men gave women vegetables, which are more prized and sought after than any flower. When spring came, we ate the green beans that grow in the fields. For a while, it was our only food; we ate so many beans that some started to joke, “When I see a beanpole, I have the urge to hug it.”
I feel like I’m in a prison, but even prisoners are given food. Every new day brings a new test, new hardships, and it seems that people sitting somewhere far away are watching the game to see how much we can endure. When you live under siege, you miss how it feels to live, to be a woman. Your daily routine is suspended, as if the normal rules of time do not apply. We are just waiting for our lives to begin again. Most importantly, we have been cut off from freedom, the right to movement. All our roads now begin and end at the same point where we live, in our small state in the South Caucasus.
This is not my first blockade, or even my first conflict. I have already experienced three wars in Nagorno-Karabakh. The first started when I was a child, with the collapse of the Soviet Union: As constituent republics started to become independent, we in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region, then part of Soviet Azerbaijan, decided we wanted the same, but what we really wanted was to reunite with Armenia. The war lasted a long time, from 1988 to 1994, taking six years from my childhood, and the lives of many more children on both sides.
Our landlocked, mountainous region has been disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan since before the Soviet Union came into existence a century ago. During the first war, in 1992, Azerbaijan put our territory under siege for the first time. The only way for us to connect with Armenia and save ourselves from the blockade was the Lachin Corridor, which we call “the road of life.” The war ended with a ceasefire two years later, with Armenia in full control of our region and other surrounding areas of Azerbaijan’s territory.
The first war is seared in my childhood memory. Fighting was intense and it became too dangerous to stay in our village. My father and his brother decided to take us to their sister’s house, some 18 miles away in another village. My father carried my little sister, who was 2 at the time. My uncle carried his 1-year-old son. His wife was pregnant with their second child. After walking for around 30 miles, I was exhausted.
My uncle, whom I adored, knew my weakness: I really wanted to shoot a gun, but my father always refused, saying that a gun was not a child’s toy (as if we had other toys). My uncle said, “Whoever reaches the top of the opposite mountain first can shoot my gun.” I mustered the last of my strength and nearly ran to the top of the hill. When they arrived, my uncle gave me his weapon and, pointing to the open plain in front of me, said, “Shoot.” That was the last time I saw him. He died on the battlefield. When his wife gave birth months later, she named her son Seroja after him. My aunt’s husband also died in the war, and my father was the only man left in our large family.
Azerbaijan attacked Nagorno-Karabakh for the second time in 2016. We had casualties and small territorial losses, but the war lasted only four days. Those four days shattered my hope for peace in my country. Almost every family here has lost someone to this never-ending war.
In 2020, backed by Turkey, Azerbaijan started a new war using Syrian mercenaries and Israeli drones, and captured 75% of our territory. In 44 days, we had almost as many victims as in the four years of the first war. Most of them were young men, conscripts aged between 18 and 20. My older sister’s husband was killed too.
In Nagorno-Karabakh, we live in the pauses between wars — we have had skirmishes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces for decades. But the 2020 ceasefire didn’t even bring the usual shaky peace.
The current blockade is not an active war; instead, the Azerbaijanis have weaponized food. On Dec. 12 of last year, Azerbaijan again closed the Lachin Corridor under the pretext of environmental concerns, which the United Nations has called “fake.” So-called “eco-activists” were sent by a state whose economy is completely dependent on oil and gas to protest ore-mining operations — and starved us in return. In April, the Azerbaijanis installed a checkpoint, but they have still not allowed anything to enter, even medical supplies.
Elderly women in the lines remind me of my mother. Maybe this comes from a suffocating longing. At the end of last year, right before the blockade, she went to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and now can’t return. I actually think it’s good that she is in Yerevan, where there is no problem with bread. She calls me every evening and cries, ashamed that they have food and we don’t. I don’t know when, or if, I will see her again.
The older generation remembers how they found solutions during the first war, when they were also under siege and “wrung water from a stone,” as they like to say. Today, older women around me show off their skills, creating tasty treats from almost nothing. Gata and candies are traditionally made from a combination of flour, walnut and sugar. But since there is zero sugar in besieged Nagorno-Karabakh, the wartime recipe replaces sugar with mulberry molasses. For me, the bittersweet smell of molasses is that of war, of the blockade, of survival.
The siege brings constant memories of my childhood back to me. The school year has just started, and parents are worried about how they will send their children to school without stationery, rucksacks, clothes or even food. When I was a schoolgirl, we also didn’t have notebooks, so we bound sheets of paper together. In the winter, each student was tasked with bringing a log to heat the school stove so we could have our lessons.
Just as in the first war, for three months now we haven’t been able to find any candy in the shops. Chocolate is almost impossible to locate.
My friend’s sister’s 7-year-old daughter found some chocolate on one of the back shelves of their house. She was happy for a few seconds, then refused to eat it. She said that she forgot the taste of chocolate, and if she eats it now, it will only be more difficult later, when there is none left.
During the first war, when I was 9 years old, I fell ill with severe kidney disease. The village doctor said I wouldn’t make it — she talked about death so easily, perhaps from seeing death daily. During the day we were bombarded and the streets were empty of cars. One night my father sent me and my mother from our village to the children’s hospital in the capital, Stepanakert, in a truck. I felt guilty for getting sick: My 14-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother had to take care of my 3-year-old sister alone, and my father was on the front line. We didn’t have a regular army yet, and men took turns at the front. A visiting relative gave me two bars of chocolate as a gift, and I kept them under my hospital bed pillow. Each night, I took them out and smelled them. I didn’t dare eat them: I felt too guilty, and the chocolate was too precious.
My father was often away fighting. He would come spend any free time back home, with my siblings, as my mother was looking after me in the hospital. Like almost all Armenians, my father is a keen chess player, and championships were organized between different military units. But my father told his commander he wouldn’t participate as he needed to go home to look after the family. The commander wasn’t having any of it — he promised him that if he took part, and brought victory to the team, he would be given leave and sent to Stepanakert to visit me. My father did just that: When he entered the hospital, I felt like the happiest person in the world. He appeared before me even bigger than Kasparov or Botvinnik, or any other chess champion. He gave me chewing gum, and I distributed it to my friends at the hospital, and introduced him to everyone.
I then gave him the expired chocolates and asked him to take them home to my siblings, assuaging my guilt for becoming deathly ill, and taking my father’s time away from them.
When the third war broke out in 2020, I helped out where I was most needed: with baking bread in a Stepanakert bakery. We called it the bread of peace and sent it to soldiers on the border. In the second week of the war, when Stepanakert was completely bombarded, that bakery was also destroyed. It was not even possible to walk freely in the city, so I decided to go to Yerevan.
The world seemed oblivious to what was happening in Nagorno-Karabakh. Together with other women from the region, we organized protests in front of the embassies of the U.N., EU, U.S., Russia, France and other countries. I invited the ambassadors, but they said that they could not go past Kornidzor, the last Armenian settlement before our region — it was as if we did not exist for them. When explosions rocked Vardenis in Armenia, or Ganja in Azerbaijan, U.N. representatives of both countries visited the scene, where they would express concern. But children in Nagorno-Karabakh who were killed were not talked about. I decided to help foreign journalists tell the world what was happening in my land, hoping it might help stop the bloody war. Initially, we had plenty of foreign journalists in Nagorno-Karabakh. I volunteered as a fixer for English-speaking journalists working here.
I have only one memory of life before the first war. It is captured in a faded photograph, though my memory is of the dangerous ride before the photo was taken: We travelled to Taghavard, our ancestral village, to visit my grandparents on my father’s Soviet motorcycle. I was in my mother’s arms on the motorcycle, my brother was in front of my father and my sister was on the back, with the wind whistling. We ran along the edges of fields, listening to wheat ears’ whispers. Those fields seem endless to me. In my mind there are no blockades, no closed roads, no war. To some, a dangerous ride may sound like a nightmare. But that was my escape.
As a child, all I wanted was to grow up and become a journalist, to travel to foreign lands and share stories of my country. That wish became reality. But now, each night, I have the same dream — I am safe, and I am not a war journalist. Then I wake up, to what has become my nightmare.
This First Person essay is reproduced courtesy of New Lines magazine, whose editor notes: The essay was written before Azerbaijan’s Sept. 19, 2023, assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, which led to the latter’s surrender. As Azerbaijan attacked the region, the author wrote on social media: “After nine months of enduring hunger, we are now in a bomb shelter — sleeping with kids who yesterday dreamed of bread & today dream of waking up tomorrow. I don’t know if we will wake up but I hope you will remember us for resisting this genocide with honour. #NagornoKarabakh.”
- CNN 18/09/23 Azerbaijani President’s decree – “from January 2024 Nagorno-Karabkh will cease to exist”
- Reuters, 28/09/23 Investigation and photos of mass-exodus
- AEJ Armenia 26/09/23 Agonised letter from our Section
- Guardian, London 26/09/23 Appeal from executive editor.
- Washington Post 26/09/23 Spectre of ethnic cleansing, Nagorno Karabakh
- Reuters 25/09/23: international protest over mass-exodus of Armenians