Beyond the blockade

Photographer: Knar Babayan


For over four months my 3.5-year-old niece has been asking me "Hibs ton kilakan?" (When are you coming home?).

I have no answer to the question.

I can only see my family in Artsakh (Karabakh) online, and I don't know when I will be able to return to my home. The road has been blocked by Azerbaijani "eco-activists" for more than four months. 

The last time I saw my parents, my brother, my sister and her two children was the summer of last year, when I went to visit them. My father keeps bees in the village of Gishi and I went to help them. 

I had planned to return in September to celebrate the birthdays of my sister Tatev and my niece Sara. But on September 12, fighting escalated on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and my family convinced me to postpone the trip. They feared there would be attacks along the border with Azerbaijan. 

And so I waited for December, collecting as many vacation days as possible to ensure I could spend the New Year holidays with my family. Above all, I knew I needed to be home in the small town of Martuni on December 28 for my mother’s birthday.

But it was not to be. The “eco-activists” blocked the road on December 12 and it remains closed to this day. 

My only form of communication with my family is by phone and online calls—and even that is limited, as there are frequent electricity and telephone/internet outages in the conflict area.  I asked my family to photograph their “blockade lives” and I documented my own, limited, connections with them. 

My mother celebrates her 64th birthday with my sister and grandchildren. Traditionally on her birthday, wherever we are, we gather at our family house in Martuni. For the first time in 35 years, I was not with my family because of the blockade.

My 3.5-year-old niece, Sara, is about to take a bath in the living room. My sister's family lives in an apartment building in Stepanakert. Normally, the house has gas heating. Since the blockade started, they, like many residents of the town, have switched to a wood stove due to periodic gas cuts and frequent electricity outages.

We created a family tradition during the pandemic. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I join my mother and sister to have coffee together and a chat online. This call was made at the beginning of the blockade, when there was a shortage of fruit. I moved my fruit bowl away from the camera so that my little niece would not notice it.

I explained to Sara that I cannot visit since the road is closed. One day she woke up in the morning and ran to the window. Seeing the cars driving freely on their street, she asked her mother in surprise, "look, the road is open, why Ke is not coming?”

As soon as the lights go off, Sara gathers her toys and sits next to them with a flashlight so that neither the toys nor herself are afraid of the dark. During the blockade, her fear of the dark intensified.

My nephew, 11-year-old Daniel, dons a headlamp and starts to study.

Daniel found his own method to keep warm in the absence of heating. As soon as he feels cold, he starts working out.

When I am at home, Daniel and I read books together: one page me and one page he. Now we do the same thing online.

Spring is the best season for the traditional Artsakhian dish “jingalov hats’’ (flatbreads filled with greens). Every time I miss my home and family, I make ‘’jingalov hats’’ to remind me of them. My family joined me by video call and encouraged me to stay strong.

Every weekend my brother Davit calls me from Gishi to show me our garden. This spring they planted a lot of potatoes. My father jokes: “We’re going to send you some.”

In the evening, as soon as the lights are turned off, my father sits comfortably in the armchair, holds his wireless radio and listens to music.

This report was prepared before Azerbaijan’s April 28 claim that there is no blockade. Armenia has denied reports that traffic has resumed on the contested pass.

This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.

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