Blockade: (re)creating collective trauma in Nagorno-Karabakh

At 5:30 am on August 2, people in Stepanakert were woken by the sound of gunfire. Everyone thought that it was the Azerbaijanis shooting. But it turned out that it was a local Armenian man who was drunk and had gone to Renaissance Square, where the President’s office is located and started shooting into the air with his hunting weapon, yelling, “Give me food for my child!”. At first, many residents were angry with him, indignant – how could he scare people like that, in what was already such a tense situation? But then they supported him, even expressed empathy, saying, “Imagine the state the person must have reached to come to this… Probably his child went to bed hungry …” “No, being unable to find food for his child doesn’t mean he’s a bad father. There is simply NO food.”

Nagorno-Karabakh has been under blockade since December 2022. Throughout this time, it has been getting tougher. Initially, at the start of the blockade, people there were quite positive. They said things like: “We cannot be broken!”, “We will survive!”, “We’ll get though, even without food!”. People tried to approach the situation with humour, and even began to look for pluses in the blockade, such as:

  • No cigarettes? Men don’t smoke. Healthy lifestyle!
  • No cars? The air is clean and people walk. Healthy lifestyle!
  • No sweets? No oil? Both fried and sweet are harmful!
  • We don’t throw away leftover bread but turn it into croutons for “bad days”!
  • We saw the true faces of “friends”.
  • Even all sorts of “rich” people were seen in queues for tomatoes and bread.

But complete isolation and the lack of everything that is considered basic for a person and for society to function changes things. Even though people are still determined to endure, they are mentally and physically exhausted. The blockade dominates every corner of their existence: their conversations, everyday life, thoughts, problems, even their dreams – everything is about the blockade. It’s as if people have become part of the blockade and don’t even remember what it was like when you could go to the store and buy everything you need and want. When you could “spoil” your child with a piece of chocolate, you could cook your family’s favourite dishes and not just what you can find. Children have forgotten the taste of sweets. There is not even any sugar. People have commented that even when they eat, they can’t seem to get full, as if their bones themselves are hungry. Perhaps it’s because they eat what is available, but they don’t get enough vitamins, or the body requires a lot more to stock up for even worse times.

According to doctors, the number of miscarriages in Karabakh has increased three-fold since before the blockade. They attribute this mainly to the lack of vitamins, and insufficient food in general, especially fruits and vegetables. Perhaps there are deep psychological factors that only a specialist can analyse.

Of course, many residents are already familiar with this situation, since they have gone through this before. But others have only heard about it, and are now encountering it for the first time, during this blockade.

“From childhood, I remember that my grandmother used to buy 2-3 bottles of sunflower oil, several kilograms of flour, and a sack of potatoes at one time. When I asked why she buys these items in such large quantities, when we don’t have enough money for so many other things, she replied that ‘we never know what’s in store for us’ and that ‘the war could start any day’. She recalled that during the first Karabakh war, Karabakh was blocked until the Lachin corridor was liberated. In those days, people shared a piece of bread with each other, and always paid tribute to flour, from which it was possible to bake bread at worst.” 

Today, people line up for bread from morning to night for two loaves of bread for the whole family and return home empty-handed. As a young father of two children writes: “To stand in line for bread until two in the morning, and not even get any – none left. Then to come back three hours later, to stand in line again from five to seven in the morning, and at 7am the electricity was cut, and so again to return home empty-handed. This is Stepanakert. Our days”.

Everything repeats itself, the devastation and famine of the 90s have become today’s reality in Karabakh. However, there are differences – today the residents of Karabakh use Facebook to survive – they post about what they have and offer to exchange it for food.

Since there is no fuel due to the blockade, taxis and public transport are not working, and people are forced to go on foot on a long journey in search of food. One single mother from a small village could not feed her children so she got up early in the morning to walk to the neighbouring village in the hope of finding something. The children woke up, waited a couple of hours for their mother, and decided to go look for her. After searching for her under the scorching sun for several hours, they got tired and decided to rest in a car which had been abandoned due to lack of fuel. The children fell asleep in the car, and there they died of dehydration and weakness in the overheated car…

Will exchange for one sunflower oil
Will exchange 1 kg of sugar for 1 sunflower oil

I don’t know who the children that survive this ordeal will become. Children living under blockade for 8 months have forgotten what normal life is – this has become the norm for them. Will they grow up just like our grandparents? Will they buy oil, flour and potatoes in reserve? Will they always be grateful for the opportunity to read in the evening with under the light, to bathe in hot water, to eat as much until they are full, to eat whatever they want? Every day they see the Russian peacekeepers’ helicopter flying overhead, full of food, but not for them… I don’t know if this will harden them, or make them better, more humane. And not only the children but also adults. How will each of them cope with these traumas and how will they continue to live with this burden of what they have endured?..

And neither do I know how those who are conducting this humiliating experiment on people will live.


Author: Lika Zakaryan

Photo: Ani Balayan, July 2023

This article is part of Indie Peace’s initiative on Collective Trauma, funded by the European Union. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of Indie Peace and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Toponyms used reflect the toponyms used by the subject of the article.