Psychologists say that when a person jokes about their illness, they are trying to make it seem less serious. By extension, we might say that joking about dangerous situations can make them appear less dramatic, thus helping people through the ordeal. Humour, in other words, can be therapeutic, and joking can be seen as a means of survival.
For almost ten months from 12 December 2022, Nagorno-Karabakh was in a total blockade. The final few months were virtually a siege, as people struggled to survive without lights or gas. The shops were completely empty. To obtain one’s rations of two hundred grams of bread, one had to queue all night, then go straight to work in the morning, and even so, one was not certain to get it. Queuing together one saw old and young people, men and women, even pets. Public transport had ceased to work.
This was clearly a deliberate attempt to kill people off with hunger, cold, unpredictability, and information manipulation. Yet somehow, miraculously, the people survived. And one thing that helped them to do this was humour.
Life Under Blockade
During the first Karabakh war of 1992-1994, the first leader of the unrecognised country, Artur Mkrtchyan, made a truly symptomatic statement: “War, unfortunately, has become our everyday reality. And our everyday reality has turned into war.”
Whilst dreaming of freedom, over the last thirty years the people of Nagorno-Karabakh have had to endure a further three wars: the four-day war of 2016, the forty-four-day war of 2020, and the one-day war of 2023. The entire final period of their history from December 2022 was virtually unbearable. The lack of food was exacerbated by the international community’s failure to react or even pay attention to the catastrophic situation. One thing that helped, though, was humour. Humour helped assuage hunger and soften trauma. It helped people to retain their humanity even in truly inhuman conditions. Here are some of the humorous Facebook posts put out by people from Nagorno-Karabakh during that time.
“A potato sees a gold nugget across the street. ‘Ugh, so cheap!’
“A man is said to have taken his wife to court for peeling the potatoes ‘too deeply’.”
“Two men stand chatting outside the enlistment office. ‘You know,’ says one, ‘if we make it through this time, we’ll be the laughing stock. This is our fourth war. If we survive, people will laugh at us, we’ll be ashamed of looking anyone in the eye.”
“The lawyers of Artsakh have put forward some draft legislation. The new law would mean that curses uttered by people whilst queuing for bread would no longer be valid after the queue.”
“The Artsakh version of the well-known Mafia game. ‘It’s night. Everyone closes their eyes. Players from Artsakh open their eyes, put their names down for the bread queue, and close their eyes again.”
“A memory exercise. The banana is an edible fruit of the cultivated banana plant (Musa). From a botanical perspective, the banana is a berry with numerous seeds and a thick skin. The cultivated form often lacks seeds, which are unnecessary with vegetative reproduction. The fruit is between six and thirty centimetres long, with a diameter of two to five centimetres. Each infructescence can have up to three hundred fruits and weigh up to fifty or sixty kilos.”
“The UN lists the world’s conflict zones: 1. Syria; 2. Ukraine; 3. Yemen; 4. Radik’s vegetable stall“
“The only people with any sugar in Artsakh are diabetics.”
“The coffee fortune tellers say people who drink coffee from fried peas are just sectarians.”
“Don’t even ask what I think of the latest political developments. These days I try to just lie back and enjoy it.”
“I’m so tired of the blockade. Could we perhaps get a hundred and twenty thousand people from Armenia or the Armenian diaspora to swap with us, even just for a month?”
“You can fool all people some of the time and some people all the time. But you can never fool all people all the time – Abraham Lincoln. The late Lincoln had never met us.”
A frequent topic is the Russian peacekeeping troops, who claimed their lack of action was due to not having the proper mandate.
“The UN cannot deploy peacekeeping troops in the vegetable shops of Stepanakert. ‘Even if scuffles erupt in the queues, our peacekeepers would not be able to step in as they do not have a mandate to intervene in battles for mandarins,” the UN representative said.”
“The OSCE Minsk Group calls on Stepanakert shops stocking chocolate to put a stop to the armed clashes. ‘We have been closely monitoring the military action taking place in the queues, and must express serious concern. We call on the sides to come to the negotiating table immediately, and to resolve these issues through dialogue,” says the statement.
During the blockade, various international organisations called on Azerbaijan to immediately open a corridor between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia and the wider world. Naturally, these futile appeals did not go unnoticed in Stepanakert.
“WE CALL on those MAKING THESE CALLS to just STOP CALLING.”
In the final months of the blockade, there was absolutely nothing in the shops. No one had any money. Cash was in short supply, with long queues forming at the cash machines. Even with cash, there was not much one could buy. The only functioning system was barter, and of course, people began to joke about this, too.
“Will trade my greedy children for kids who don’t eat much.”
“Will trade love and delight for a litre of sunflower oil.”
“Exchanging Merci chocolates is prohibited – this is a French word, which the Russians might not like.”
“Anyone exchanging soap should first establish the political orientation of the person receiving it. Once this is known, it will be clearer whether or not the person actually needs soap, or not.”
“Will trade two ‘nothings’ for a packet of tea. I have ‘nothing’. It is not for sale. I will not sell it, I am only interested in an exchange.”
“I feel ashamed when I go to work, I feel guilty when I see the stray cats and dogs, I don’t have anything left to give them. I can’t walk around with a saucepan of soup, after all.”
News of people leaving the country for health reasons tended to provoke a negative reaction. The only people who had the right to cross the border were Red Cross workers – they were able to transport the seriously ill to Armenia for treatment. For everyone else, the corridor was closed. One could obtain the necessary papers from the Health Ministry, and some managed to do this by roundabout means. Such “deserters” would try to justify their actions, claiming they were not leaving forever, but would be back before long. All this gave rise to jokes such as this:
“The Artsakh Union of Birds has issued a statement. ‘Dear people of Artsakh! As our migration has given rise to a number of rumours, we would like to assure you that we are not leaving Artsakh forever, merely going for medical treatment, and will be back for sure.”
In this regard, we found an article by Nune Arakelyan in the Analyticon journal to be most revealing.
“On my way home, I pass a number of meat shops. These days, one often sees people begging the vendors for leftover scraps of meat. The butchers know them all by sight: they are dog-owners. After all, the four-legged inhabitants of Artsakh are having to deal with the blockade, too. I don’t have a dog, but along with other people from our town I volunteer to help the first shelter for strays, which was opened just before the blockade. Thanks to financial assistance from our friends in the diaspora, and not just the diaspora, the shelter is still open, thank God. Many people fail to understand why we do what we do. They say that in such difficult times, we should be thinking about people, not dogs… How does one explain to them that we are thinking about people, we’re trying to make sure that people remain human, even in these times.”
These people will need their sense of humour
Yes, humour helped people to survive and get through the blockade. Yet this story did not have a happy ending. In the end, no apples fell from the sky, but bombs and shells, instead. On 19 September 2023, Azerbaijan started a new war, which would become the last. It lasted just one day. Exhausted by hunger and cold, the people lasted only twenty four hours before capitulating. The Armenians left Nagorno-Karabakh. By 1 October, more than a hundred thousand people had fled to Armenia.
Now they are facing new conditions, and new problems. Their compatriots have been warm and welcoming, yet the problems are many. In order to overcome these, people will, once again, need to resort to humour. After all, humour can help to smooth over difficult transitions and find hope for the future, even when the future is uncertain…
Photo Credits: Lead ‘The best blockade bouquet’, Karina Petrosova
Spider man – Edgar Kamalyan (photo), Lusine Araghyan (text manipulation)
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