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Border dispute in the Caucasus leaves Christians hungry


WORLD Radio - Border dispute in the Caucasus leaves Christians hungry

Azerbaijan blocks Armenian access to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, compounding a humanitarian crisis

A bridge and a checkpoint are seen on a road towards the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Armenia. Associated Press/Photo by Hayk Manukyan/PHOTOLURE

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: A closed road is paving the way for a humanitarian crisis in the southern Caucasus region of Europe.

In December, so-called environmental activists from Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor, protesting illegal mining. The winding four-mile road is the only link between Armenia and the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan controls the only other route into the region.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: The blockade has continued ever since, and grown into an even more complicated political battle. Many are calling for a durable solution to avoid even more shortages of food and essential supplies.

WORLD’s Onize Ohikere reports.

SOUND: [Singing]

ONIZE OHIKERE, REPORTER: That’s the choir from the Armenian Evangelical Church in Stepanakert, capital of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

They prayed and sang during a Zoom prayer call organized this month by the Armenian Missionary Association of America or AMAA.

AUDIO: It’s good to see you all. Thank you all for coming on this Saturday from across the globe.

AMAA has organized such prayer sessions with more intensity since December.

That’s when the blockade started—essentially leaving the region’s 120,000 residents without essential supplies.

Aren Deyirmenjian is the AMAA representative in Armenia.

DEYIRMENJIAN: There is heavy shortage of flour, which makes the bakeries unable to produce any, you know, bread. There are long queues for bread. Sometimes people stay inside the queues for long hours and they end up with no bread. And this is just the food part. I mean, I'm not talking about the transportation because there is practically no energy. Like, no, no fuel, no gas.

Azerbaijan initially blamed the blockade on Azeri environmental activists opposing illegal mining activity. But by April, Azerbaijan set up a new security checkpoint along the corridor.

Olesya Vartanyan is the senior South Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group.

VARTANYAN: It's not about protesters anymore. It's the Azerbaijani government and border guards that are controlling the checkpoint. And they are effectively the ones who are conducting all the negotiations with the foreign interlocutors, you know, and who are exercising some power and pressure.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a landlocked mountainous region roughly the size of Delaware. Control of the region has long been disputed by the majority Christian Armenia and the mostly Muslim Azerbaijan. A war between the former Soviet countries in the 1990s left about 30,000 people dead.

VARTANYAN: The thing is that even when the war finished with Armenians winning it and taking many, much more territory, unfortunately, it did not really lead to any robust attempts to find a solution to the conflict.

Renewed fighting in 2020 sparked a 44-day war that displaced more than 90,000 civilians.

VARTANYAN: Azerbaijan was able to regain control of much of the territory that it lost during the first war in the 90s. But it also still left open a number of questions, including what will be the future of ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh.

A Russia-brokered ceasefire ended the war. Under the deal, Russia deployed some 2,000 peacekeepers to the region. Their duties included guarding the Lachin corridor.

That is, until the blockade began in December.

Last week, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told the news outlet Politico that Russian peacekeepers have failed in their mission.

Vartanyan says the conflict there has worsened since Russia invaded Ukraine.

VARTANYAN: Azerbaijan that feels much stronger and then has a professional army and also keeps important positions along the frontlines, started testing the borders and pushing for the solution that it wants. But because of, again, this conflict that is going on in Ukraine, we don't see much cooperation taking place between the U.S., EU, and Russia on that.

The EU, U.S., and Russia are still pushing for a more permanent peace treaty between the warring countries. Back in May, Pashinyan said Armenia was ready to recognize the region as part of Azerbaijan—as long as it can guarantee the people’s security.

But Azerbaijan says Armenia continues to fund separatist forces from its state budget.

SOUND: [Aid truck]

Last Tuesday, a yellow truck with Red Cross stickers loaded with blankets, toiletries, and 1,000 food parcels arrived in Nagorno-Karabakh after departing from Russia. The truck crossed through Azerbaijan’s Agdam route, marking the first time the transport link has been used in more than three decades. It also marks the first aid shipment into the region in nearly three months.

The shipment came days after Armenia and Azerbaijan reached yet another deal to allow aid flow into the region. The agreement will allow Russian aid to enter through Agdam. In return, Azerbaijani authorities say they will also allow aid from Armenia to flow through the Lachin corridor.

Harout Nercessian lived in Armenia for 26 years. He now serves as the AMAA representative for Canada. He called the truck’s arrival a drop in an ocean of starvation.

NERCESSIAN: I mean, the people who get some food for a couple of days, they're grateful. The handful who get some food. But that doesn't solve the problem. This is just political posturing more than anything else by the Russians and the Azeris.

As the way forward still remains unclear, Nercessian says the people in the region need prayers.

NERCESSIAN: Many people turn to God under these circumstances. Some turn against God asking why this happened. But many turned to God and the international community needs to pray. The Christian community, the Christian world needs to pray for the people of Artsakh.

For WORLD, I’m Onize Ohikere.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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