02 August 2023, The Tablet

Nagorno Karabakh, where the ancient Christian population is being ‘strangled’ by the humanitarian blockade

by Sam Mason

Nagorno Karabakh, where the ancient Christian population is being ‘strangled’ by the humanitarian blockade

Protesters in July near the French and US embassies in Yerevan, Aremenia demand the opening of the Lachin corridor in Nagorno-Karabakh
Aleksandr Patrin/Kommersant/Sipa USA

In a room of 100 people, I wonder how many could point to Nagorno Karabakh on a world map? My guess is not many. It is a mountainous and forested enclave in the South Caucasus, landlocked by Azerbaijan, connected to Armenia by one road – the Lachin Mountain Pass.

The Lachin Pass is a lifeline to the people of Nagorno Karabakh. Without it, their sole transport link to Armenia would be closed. Trucks would not be able to deliver 400 tonnes of daily supplies. Residents would be denied access to essential goods and services. No road means no fuel, plus no medicine and no food.

Two years before full-scale war erupted in Nagorno Karabakh, I remember travelling along the Lachin Pass. I have fond memories of driving by minibus from Yerevan to Stepanakert, the capital city. I enjoyed safe passage in both directions. Friends of mine even cycled and camped along the way, free to explore some of the world’s oldest places of Christian worship.

We would not get far if we attempted the same journey today. The mountain road is closed. Azerbaijan has blocked all traffic. Trucks can’t get through. The flow of humanitarian cargo has come to a complete halt. “Since the road is blocked, medicines cannot be imported,” I’m  told in an urgent call with Vardan Tadevosyan, the region’s Minister for Health. “Our hospitals are struggling. Surgeries and treatments are badly delayed. Patients cannot access urgent medical care.”

The blockade of the Lachin Pass began in December 2022. Ever since, civilian and commercial vehicles have been prevented from travelling between Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. “Supplies are running out,” says Vardan. “The shops are empty. Totally empty. Nothing to buy. Even the bread factories can’t supply bread because they do not have fuel. People are being starved out of Nagorno Karabakh.”

I’ve heard reports from inside the enclave that residents are fainting in the streets from hunger. An estimated 90 per cent of pregnant women have anaemia. Miscarriages have increased due to high levels of stress and a lack of access to vital medication. More than 2,000 babies are deprived of baby food. Patients with chronic diseases and disabilities are particularly at risk. So too are the elderly.

Azerbaijan has been ordered by the International Court of Justice to “take all measures at its disposal” to lift the blockade, and to ease suffering on civilians. Yet it continues to prevent humanitarian aid from passing through the mountain road. An illegal checkpoint, manned by Azerbaijani guards, blocks the arrival of any food or medicine.

Not even our organisation – Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, an independent NGO that has operated in the region for two decades – is allowed to send supplies via the Lachin Pass. Imports from Armenia are banned. We cannot get through. Azerbaijan maintains a strangle-hold over humanitarian access. 

Time is short for the 120,000 Armenian Christians living in Nagorno Karabakh. As proud stewards of cultural artefacts and sacred spaces, where Armenian clergy have lived and served for centuries, local people fear the worst: loss of life and loss of their beloved homeland. Without intervention, we may soon witness the painful demise of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

Pope Francis is right when he describes the people’s plight as “inhumane”. The humanitarian situation is critical and deserves an immediate and coordinated international response, starting with the restoration of free and safe movement through the Lachin Mountain Pass. NGOs such as ours should be granted swift access to the enclave, in order to provide life-saving assistance. Trucks must not be prevented from delivering basic supplies. We pray for peace and we support calls to lift the blockade.


Sam Mason is CEO of Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), which partners with local peacebuilders and humanitarian organisations in conflict zones, including war-torn Nagorno Karabakh. www.hart-uk.org

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Comment by: Martin Pendergast
Posted: 10/06/2014 11:43:36

It was good to see Susannah Cornwall's response (29 May) to the Notebook piece on Sally Goss (17 May). The Notebook comments could give the impression that Sally's intersex identity was causal in her moving beyond Dominican and Church boundaries. These decisions were entirely her own, and contrary to some recent reports she was never excommunicated. In fact, early attempts were made to her enable to remain in a mixed-gender Dominican community in the Netherlands, and in more recent times she had begun to dialogue again over Catholic belief, prompted not least by the writings of Timothy Radcliffe OP. I wonder what she would have made of the recent Equality Law Consultation Document from the Catholic bishops of England & Wales encouraging Catholic groups to support trans people, "to make the transitional process as easy as possible."

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