[Editor’s note: Jack Baghumian is a former student of Father
Alexei in the class “Literature and Faith in the Holy Land” at Loyola
Marymount University. While in the Holy Land together with the class, I helped
him rediscover his Armenian heritage. He is currently working as a journalist
based in Yerevan, Armenia]
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 12th, 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 6th 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 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, Sant 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.
of the region feel as etched into the landscape as the churches themselves, tied to the land by generation 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,”
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 the strategy by Josef
Stalin, then the USSR Commissar of Nationality Affairs: place a majority
Armenian population 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 remans officially within the borders of Azerbaijan.
How to reconcile Azerbaijan’s notional 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 the 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.”
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 result in irreversible damage.