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Left at home with dwindling food supplies, Roza Sayadyan struggles to figure out how she will feed her children over the coming days. Roza lives in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Azerbaijan that is home to 120,000 Armenian Christians. Since December 12, the main road into the region has been blocked by protesters supported by the Azerbaijan government, choking the normal transit of food, medicine, and other vital supplies and risking a humanitarian catastrophe for Roza and thousands of families like hers.

“We try to create an environment such that the children won’t see what's happening or at least not realize the gravity of the situation,” she told us in a phone interview, but added that celebrating Christmas (observed on January 6 in the Armenian Church) with any sense of normalcy was off the table.

Like many Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a deep Christian faith has helped strengthen Roza during the crisis. Her local parish tries to look after the community’s needs and meets every night for prayers at the church. “Faith is what is keeping the people together,” she said.

In the nearby town of Martuni, Fr. Hovhan Hovhannisian is straining to care for his community. Attendance is up 40 percent at his church as parishioners seek fellowship in hard times. Without access to gasoline, cars cannot move, and his parish is feeling the shortage of food. Every day, he has to make difficult decisions on how to distribute the little they have.

“We try to be by the side of the people,” he said. “Families are coming to the church and bringing their leftovers—extra flour, cooking oil—and the church is getting it to the families that need the food the most, which of course are difficult decisions.” He is praying for a humanitarian airlift to transport supplies and evacuate people in need of medical care.

For the moment there is only a faint path forward to resolving the crisis. The U.S., E.U., and other countries have called on Azerbaijan to lift the blockade and reopen the Lachin Corridor. U.S. officials have warned of a “significant humanitarian crisis” if it remains shut. Pope Francis expressed his concerns for the “precarious humanitarian conditions of the people, which are in further danger of deteriorating during the winter season.”

But so far, Azerbaijan has maintained the blockade. Alongside the immediate impact on human lives, there are profound implications for long-term stability as the blockade dampens prospects for reconciliation. There had been hopes for a breakthrough peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan before the end of 2022, but those hopes sank when Azerbaijan launched the blockade in December.

The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh date back to antiquity; their ancient monasteries and manuscripts tell the story of how their culture and Christianity intertwine. The liturgical and canonical history of the Armenian Church is intimately tied to the region, which is home to ancient scriptoria and pilgrimage sites. Amaras Monastery, one of the most cherished holy sites, was founded by the patron saint of the Armenian Church, St. Gregory the Illuminator, in the fourth century. The churches of the region reflect an architectural history that developed over centuries, including the distinctive ornamented cross-stones, known in Armenian as “khachkars,” that are erected on occasions of deep prayer and devotion.

The people of the region feel as etched into the landscape as the churches themselves, tied to the land by generations of living faith and memory. Siranush Sargsyan, whose family has lived in Nagorno-Karabakh for centuries, says that people are afraid of the insecurity and deprivation of the present moment, but still do not want to leave. The conflict is tangible and visible: Armenian farmers tend their fields within firing distance of Azeri soldiers, and Russian peacekeepers have had to interfere when cows cross over the line of control. “The fear is there, but there is nothing to be done about it. If we are to die, we will die here,” Sargsyan said.

Biayna Sukhudyan, a doctor and mother of two, has been watching critical medical supplies dwindle since the start of the blockade. She has been separated from her family since the road closure began and now needs to manage treatment for chronic diseases and find anti-seizure medication in the midst of the crisis. “People are attached to this land, and only want peace but are unable to live peacefully,” she said. 

During the Soviet period, Armenians and Azerbaijanis lived side by side, generally without incident. The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh were given a high degree of cultural and administrative autonomy. It was part of a strategy by Josef Stalin, then the U.S.S.R. Commissar of Nationality Affairs: Place a majority Armenian region within the boundaries of Soviet Azerbaijan in order to keep both ethnic groups on the back foot. In 1991, before the fall of the Soviet Union, the population of Nagorno-Karabakh held a referendum and voted overwhelmingly for independence. They went on to build a self-proclaimed republic, with an elected government and a range of public sector institutions. But no foreign country recognized it as an independent state. 

The region remains officially within the borders of Azerbaijan. How to reconcile Azerbaijan’s national sovereignty with the self-determination of Armenians has been an unresolved question since the fall of the Soviet Union. The genocide of Armenians by Turkey in 1915 and subsequent massacres at the hands of Azeris have left a deep fear of ethnic cleansing in the hearts of Armenians.

Now that the Azeri blockade has limited access to food, fuel, and supplies, the population feels their long-held fears were justified. “There is a chronic stress upon the people here,” said Sukhudyan. “There is [a] weight sitting on top of the people . . . they are reminded when they see the food is running out.”

Amid scarcity and fear, it is faith that sustains Armenian Christians. Fr. Hovhan sees this as an engrained response. “Armenian people throughout history have realized that God is their savior in the difficult times and have turned to God in those times, as they are now,” he said. His prayer is that the world will know their plight and act before their suffering and the crisis results in irreversible damage.

Jack Baghumian is a journalist and writer currently based in Yerevan, Armenia.

Lara Setrakian is a journalist and the president of the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia. 

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Image by Yale International Relations Association licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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