18 Feb 2023
Diary from a besieged town
The thought that I would find myself in a blockade came to me rather late, as I was sandwiched between my new job as a translator in a community mental health project and delivering the semester’s final lectures. I barely gave serious consideration to rumors that the road supplying 400 tons of foodstuffs daily to our isolated enclave would be blocked for long. Or, that the landlines supplying electricity would be cut leaving over 110,000 people to rely solely on decreasing local power, cut every two hours due to rolling blackouts, and on a haphazardly disconnected gas supply.
During the first week of the blockade I marveled at the order in which groceries disappeared from the food stalls: potatoes, cabbages, and apples had immediately gone out of stock, then imported dairy, meat products, and candy were a no-go, followed by salt and soda, the only thing in abundance are luxurious Armenian cognacs, disdainfully looking down from upper rows. The first week of the siege the vegetable tents were left with only pomelos and ginger, then gradually went vacant. And by now, in the third month of the blockade, local bread, meat, and eggs are in short supply, grains and oil are issued by coupons.
But food shortages, electricity blackouts, and the disconnected gas supply are not the only problems. This blockade has separated many families, waiting to reunite for months now. I believe they feel the blockade most acutely, along with breastfeeding mothers and people with chronic diseases in the absence of medication and infant formula. People who have recently lost their jobs could barely afford the rare and expensive food. And students are unable to attend school due to the piercing cold or lack of transportation.
Our medical supervisor, who arrived on a short visit in the beginning of December, is stuck in Nagorno Karabakh, unable to join her toddler in Yerevan. She advises us to make lentil soup to supply proteins and to make rusks, a sweet bread that is dried and re-baked — once used as rations on ships — to alleviate hunger. Only now do I understand our elderly, who always stocked up on potatoes, apples, pickles, and homemade cans in closets or cellars. They never throw away bread. That is considered a sign of bad luck. Now, like them, I don’t waste scraps of bread, even the stale and moldy pieces.
But surprisingly, there are positive sides to the blockade as well. Shortages make heavy smokers cut down on cigarettes and force drivers to exercise walking. Plastic, now in limited supply, is not cast off but reused, no longer polluting the environment. And all in all people have simplified their eating and dressing needs; they are often delighted with a handful of pasta and a warm cup of tea.
This is actually my second blockade; the first I experienced as a child, in the period of the first Nagorno Karabakh war. I was 10. Opposed to the current one, the first culminated in bombardment in November, 1991. I remember that day very well; we were attending a birthday party, in which some town intelligentsia played chess, women discussed Akhmatova, and as for us kids: we were observing devoured creamy tarts. We returned home from the party in the evening to a spacious and newly-renovated apartment that we had just moved into, with sparkling classical dining-room furniture. That night our family awoke to roaring blasts of multiple-launch rockets from Shushi/a.
Mum told us that we were not going to school. At the moment I was happy about that, but also scared of the sounds of rockets. Neighboring families were clamorously sprinting into the basement under the building with infants, blankets, and cots to sleep on. The missiles — designed to deliver anti-personnel devastation in an open battlefield — were bludgeoning civilian populations already under blockade and severed from all land communications.
The next six months turned the settlement into a ghost town. Buildings cut in half leered at you with their blackened holes and bathrooms, the roads were cramped with rooftops, and the ruins on the streets reminded of apartment complexes that were once there.
Compared to the siege 30 years ago, we are now spared of bombs, have water, and occasional electricity and gas. Along with the blockade, the mental health of people here has already been drastically affected by the war of 2020. They are bitter for loss, disillusioned by prior expectations, feel victimized and powerless. Aggression, anxiety, and other symptoms of complex trauma — often transgenerational — have increased.
Surfing the web, I found a lifehack on self-care by a Leningrade blockade survivor, the eminent neurophysiologist N. Bekhtereva. She says negative emotions can be counterweighted with positive emotions (emotion vs. emotion), and oppressive thoughts are driven away by workout and exercises (emotion vs. movement). So I bought tickets to a theatrical play. And here I am watching a performance, “While I was Dying,” in a full hall: a story of an old dying woman who wants to see her daughter, a spinster, married, before passing away. Mother and daughter find solace in their shabby neighborhood in cozy chats and reading Dickens aloud to each other. The subsequent suspense delivered me from harsh reality for three hours, in line with the emotion vs. emotion principle.
But it didn’t last long. Later, to counterpoise my anxiety I applied the second principle, emotion vs. motion, by attending fitness ballet and barre workouts. A ballroom hosts ladies of various ages and backgrounds, assiduously performing the trainer’s instructions like «battement tendu, draw in your belly, port de bras forward, stretch your knees and legs, pas de chas». A few minutes in a gentle young lady with beautiful big eyes and luxurious hair — performing port de bras next to me — disrupted the flow of exercise, “my uncle, who was receiving intervention in Yerevan, died, his family is here and doesn’t know what to do,” leaving the rest of us standing motionless for a while.
Viktor Frankl, a Nazi camp survivor, says human life, even in suffering and privation, never ceases to have a meaning. The blockade tries to steal our meaning in life, our hopes and values, trapping in the selfish instinct of self-preservation and basic needs, depriving human dignity, but on the other hand it has opened people to search for meaning. Some find it in the growing fidelity to homeland and consider the blockade a sacrifice in its name. Others become altruistic or lose empathy and concentrate on self-ego, some attach significance to teaching or research, many find meaning in religion.
The graceful and crowded tufa cathedral counterbalances the pain and torment of people with joy, consolation, and hope. I approach people sitting on a bench in front of the altar. I can hear their conversation about blockade as a means of helping people to find meaning in life. One of them is my schoolmate with her son, who found meaning in church after losing her leg in the first war, when a Grad missile ‘entered’ her house. The other, Samvel, says that his meaning in life is his vocation to work, pray, and serve others for the glory of God, who preserved only him during the war in 2020, the only one unscathed out of 42 in his squad.