The Nagorno-Karabakh blockade hurts families – even leaders’ families
As Azerbaijan continues its blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh for the 68th day, children must endure the grown-ups’ stalemate
“Why don’t the Azerbaijanis understand that we want you to come home so we can hug you?” four-year-old Nane asked her father.
Little Nane is in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically Armenian region of Azerbaijan of about 120,000 people within the Karabakh mountain range. Her father is stuck in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, which is Azerbaijan's neighbour. And since 12 December, he has been unable to return home. Azerbaijanis who claim to be eco-activists have, with the support of their government, blocked the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia and the world beyond.
Azerbaijan has also attacked local infrastructure, cutting off electricity and gas. This has left the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, including 30,000 children, under siege. Shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies are deepening.
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But Nane's father is no ordinary citizen. Artak Beglaryan is an advisor to the State Minister of Artsakh Republic, the self-proclaimed state of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is not formally recognised by other countries.
Beglaryan travelled to Yerevan in early December with the intention of returning home a few days later. But the blockade, now in its third month, has kept him separated from his family, leaving his wife to care for their two young daughters alone.
Lack of supplies
In their small apartment in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armine Vardanyan, Beglaryan’s wife, rushes to finish the laundry and other household chores before the electricity is cut, all while trying to get her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Arpi, to sleep.
In the first days of the blockade, Vardanyan criticised mothers who were panic-buying baby food and diapers. Now, she says, as she nears the end of her diaper supply, she realises they acted wisely. She is breastfeeding Arpi, but struggles to find essential food for Nane.
[My daughter] remembers me from that time only on the internet
Every day, Nane asks for yoghurt, but her mum can’t find it in stores. “Of course, it’s upsetting when you can't find the simplest thing your child wants,” Vardanyan said.
Nane, like 5,500 other children in the region, is also no longer able to attend kindergarten. Schools and kindergartens have shut because of the worsening shortage of food and unreliable heating and electricity.
Beglaryan estimates more than 3,000 people – including 400 children – were separated from their families at the beginning of 2023.
For children who remember the 2020 war, thousands of whom lost parents or close relatives, the blockade has reignited fears that the attacks will start again. Nane was two-and-a-half during the last war. What she remembers most is being separated from her parents when she was sent to stay with her grandmother in Yerevan to escape the bombardments.
“It was quite hard for her,” Beglaryan recalls. “She remembers me from that time only on the internet, from a distance.” Beglaryan said this “digital kinship” is also a problem for children who are separated from their families for long periods of time. “It changes the relationship between parents and children.”
We’re passing our responsibility towards the motherland to future generations
“Depending on their age, children may experience confusion, anxiety, fear, and the lack of a basic sense of security,” Ruzanna Mkrtchyan, a psychologist in Stepanakert, explained. “[Younger children] may struggle to interpret the sudden absence of a parent. They can go as far as blaming themselves and thinking they did something terribly wrong, which made their parents not want to see them any more.”
During the 2020 war, Beglaryan, who at the time served as the Human Rights Ombudsman of Artsakh Republic, played an active role in raising awareness and calling for accountability against war crimes, often appearing on the international news.
“My wife told me that, one day, Nane saw me on TV and started to cry, saying: ‘Dad, stop talking to others, look at me!’” he said.
Now that they are separated again, the two have returned to video calls, though Beglaryan is visually impaired. When he was six, he was playing outside with his friends when one found an unexploded mine and detonated it with a hammer, causing him to lose his eyesight.
“Sometimes Nane boycotts me,” Beglaryan said. “She doesn’t want to talk to me, and then an hour later she calls back. ‘How come Santa Claus can come on New Year’s but not you?’, she asked. Again, it was hard to explain.”
Returning to family and the homeland
On 17 January, Russian peacekeepers helped to escort a group of teenagers back to Nagorno-Karabakh. The teenagers had travelled to Yerevan for the Junior Eurovision contest, only to be separated from their families by the blockade. At a roadblock, Azerbaijani agents boarded their bus and began to shout at them and harass them, causing one child to faint. The Russian peacekeepers eventually removed the Azerbaijanis.
“We prioritise the reunification of parents with minor children and people with disabilities and special needs. So far we have transported over 200 people for this purpose,” Eteri Musayelyan, spokesperson of the Red Cross in Nagorno-Karabakh, told openDemocracy.
The crisis has gained little attention in the international media. Although the US, the EU and international bodies such as the UN have called for Azerbaijan to reopen the Lachin Corridor – the one road that connects Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh – no real progress has been made.
Beglaryan staged a round-the-clock sit-in outside the UN office in Yerevan for a week, and presented his demands and proposals to UN officials.
But Vardanyan is sceptical. “If there is no action, the appeals have no value,” she said. “Why is it possible to apply sanctions against Russia, but not against Azerbaijan?”
Despite the difficulties and the uncertainty ahead, the couple are determined to remain in Nagorno-Karabakh. At the end of the war in 2020, after the loss of so many young soldiers and existing uncertainties, they decided to have a second child.
“I always say that my children are my legacy. We’re passing our responsibility towards the motherland to future generations”, Vardanyan said. “This is my way of fighting,’’ she added.
“It is our homeland,” said Beglaryan, who finds strength in his responsibility to past generations. He was Nane’s age when he lost his father in the first war with Azerbaijan, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. One thing that hit him particularly hard during the blockade was not being able to visit his father’s grave on the anniversary of his death.
When Nane last asked him why the Azerbaijanis were stopping her from hugging him, he told her not to worry, that they would find a solution so that he could return home soon to hug both his children.
“I try to show my children that I am not lying to them. I am doing my best, together with others,” he said.
He finds strength in the memory of his father. “I am sure that my father, among many others who were killed, was fighting in order to give me and thousands of other children a chance to live, and that he would love to see the next generation happy. I am doing my best for my children and others’ children, for that purpose, too.”
Update, 18 February 2023: We have amended the headline and standfirst of this article to better reflect its subject. We have also edited the text to explain more clearly the current situation of Nagorno-Karabakh and Artsakh Republic.
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