By Lika Zakaryan, The Armenian Weekly
Azerbaijan continues to resort to provocations and “measure” the patience of Artsakh’s residents, this time blocking the only road connecting Artsakh to Armenia and the outside world. Artsakh has been under a total blockade since December 12. Residents call it “The Road of Life,” because Artsakh depends on Armenia as a child depends on his parents. It is from Armenia that all kinds of food reach Artsakh, from fresh fruits and vegetables to rice and sugar. Medicine and other necessities also enter the region through that route.
The people of Artsakh are very connected to mother Armenia and make frequent trips back and forth for doctor’s appointments, visits with relatives and sightseeing. By closing the road, Azerbaijan has also prevented many people who were on the “wrong side” of the road at the wrong time of the right to return home.
More than three months have passed since the first day of the blockade, and only two bodies have had the opportunity to use the road: the Russian peacekeeping mission located in the Lachin Corridor and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The latter is probably the only organization with a physical representation in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Artsakh. The activities of the ICRC in the region have been going on for 30 years.
In the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the ICRC’s work is aimed at responding to the needs related to the consequences of the conflict. The organization focuses on border residents and missing persons, which has been relevant since the 1990s and now again after the 2020 Artsakh War.
During the current blockade, the organization is trying to react as quickly as possible. They have always indicated that they are ready to provide support in humanitarian issues.
“Sometimes people think that if the Red Cross is an international organization and has the mandate to carry out humanitarian activities in the region, then all doors are open. Of course, in terms of the mandate, we are very happy that there is understanding and respect from the parties regarding our activities, and we hope that this will continue for the benefit of the people. But, naturally, each action has its own circumstances and details that must be agreed upon. We are constantly in touch with the authorities to understand the needs and the extent to offer our support,” says Zara Amatuni, ICRC communication and prevention manager in Yerevan.
Negotiations are confidential and ongoing with all parties: Artsakh authorities, Azerbaijan and Russian peacekeepers. Amatuni finds that it is precisely because of this approach that ICRC has never encountered any obstacles during transportation and everyone feels safe with them.
Negotiations have yielded some results, allowing the organization to transport critically ill patients. Since December 19, the ICRC has carried out at least 33 medical evacuations through the blockaded Lachin Corridor in its role as a neutral humanitarian intermediary and managed to ensure the passage of 184 patients together with their accompaniers, as well as the delivery of medicine for local health structures (as of March 14).
The ICRC is not in a position to share any information about the number of lives saved since its role is restricted to safe transport. Patients then go under the care of professional medical services in Armenia.
Eteri Musayelyan, the communication and prevention manager of Stepanakert’s ICRC office, reports that her team is helping in the transport of patients in need of urgent medical assistance to Armenia via the Lachin Corridor, reuniting families and providing humanitarian aid to various institutions and population groups.
The ICRC has also facilitated the reunion of almost 400 people with their families across the Lachin Corridor. Residents must register for the opportunity to travel to the other side and return home. The organization does not decide who should be transferred. Those issues are decided by the relevant bodies and the authorities of the country. ICRC employees welcome people, register and transfer their data to the authorities and help recruit people. Then the authorities, relevant ministry or healthcare department provide the information based on need and priority. ICRC does not possess such information, and it does not decide who has priority on the list.
“Indeed, we register people, but only those people who have been separated from their family members due to the situation (e.g. if someone went to Armenia for a medical examination and stayed there, while the rest of the family is on this side of the Lachin Corridor or someone from Armenia left Nagorno-Karabakh and stayed here.) To make it clear, we do not register those people who just want to go to Armenia or Nagorno-Karabakh,” elaborated Musayelyan.
Ramella Ghazaryan is back home with her husband and young son in Artsakh with the help of the ICRC. She left for Yerevan on December 9 to help her mother recover from cancer surgery.
“One day I read a post on Facebook, where it was said that the people left on this side of the road will gather in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross to appeal for support,” recalled Ghazaryan. “I also joined them, because by then I was hopeless that it would be possible to return home before the road is unblocked, and it was necessary to find other ways. We were greeted kindly by the Red Cross employees; they explained that not everything depends on them, and they assured us that they are doing everything to reunite the families.”
The ICRC staff registered the data of the visitors, but representatives warned that there was no transportation agreement yet. The organization started the process to prepare for potential clearance and immediate action. After waiting for nearly a month, Ghazaryan received a call at the end of January. She was told that it was their turn to go home.
“We reached home safely. On the way, Azerbaijanis filmed us in cars when we were passing by, which was very unpleasant. When I arrived in Stepanakert and got out of the car, I saw my son and my husband. Imagine, the child didn’t recognize me from the beginning and put his hand on my face to understand if I was real or not. But he realized that it was indeed his mother. Until today, he hasn’t left me for a minute. He missed me so much. My son slept only on my pillow, as if surrounded by my scent. My mother came home from medical supervision to a cold house; the gas and electricity are constantly cut off by Azerbaijanis. There is not much food or vitamins, but still, we are so happy to be back home,” described Ghazaryan.
On several occasions, ICRC trucks have transported medicine, baby food and appropriate medical care to Artsakh institutions. In January, the ICRC donated food packages and hygiene items to eight hospital canteens, a childcare boarding school, a physical rehabilitation center and over 300 single elderly care facilities for further distribution. Since January, they have started providing the same assistance to more than 700 pregnant women.
“We are here as much as needed, and we are ready to be next to the people. Our organization takes all the issues that concern people quite seriously. The ICRC is closely monitoring the situation and continues to discuss humanitarian needs with all relevant decision-makers as they arise,” concluded Musayelyan.
Lika (Anzhelika) Zakaryan is a freelance journalist from Stepanakert. She studied political science at Artsakh State University and holds a master’s degree. She then graduated from the Peace Work Institute organized by YMCA Europe with a non-formal education degree in two years, where she studied in-depth conflict management and peacebuilding methods. Lika worked in a rehabilitation center as a social worker, as well as in the Artsakh Ministry of Culture, Youth and Tourism as a project manager and social media manager. She’s also worked at a Montessori school in Würzburg, Germany, as a coach on conflicts and peacebuilding. At the same time, she received a year of training at the local Jubi Grenzenlos organization on conflicts and peacebuilding. She returned to Artsakh and took civic journalism courses for 10 months, during which time she started working for CivilNet. Lika is the author of the book 44 Days: Diary From An Invisible War.