2 Sep 2023
Fragile Beginnings: Motherhood Under Siege in Nagorno-Karabakh
In her fifth month of pregnancy, Zina Gasyan,a resident of Stepanakert, known as Khankendi in Azerbaijan, has to walk under the 40-degree August heat to reach the nearest hospital for her monthly examinations. She was required to stay in the hospital for several days for inpatient treatment as a result of complications with her pregnancy.
Zina, along with the rest of the ethnic Armenian population in the breakaway Nagorno Karabakh region, has been living under Azerbaijan’s blockade for over 8 months. The only road connecting Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia and the rest of the world, the Lachin Corridor, was closed on December 12. The region’s gas supply was cut off in the spring, electricity has been working intermittently for the last few months, and humanitarian aid hasn’t entered the region since mid-June.
Addtionally, there is a shortage of medicine in both pharmacies and hospitals, which creates a significant hardship for pregnant women.
“When I found out I was pregnant during the blockade, I thought to myself that ‘God’s decisions are inscrutable.’ As if God wanted me to respond to the faith in this way,” Zina says. Zina says she tries to not give in to emotions and not to dive into pessimistic thoughts for the sake of her unborn baby, but she has many fears. She describes life in Nagorno Karabakh as “living in a boiling pot, where an explosion can happen at any time.”
Zina says she has been looking for newborn baby clothes to be prepared when the baby is born, but it has been hard to find enough clothes. Though clothes seem to be secondary when one cannot even find diapers. A few weeks ago, when diapers were still stocked in pharmacies, Zina didn’t think to buy them in advance, as she thought there would be diapers availiable by the time she gives birth. Now she is afraid she might not find any when the baby is born.
She has a few months yet to hope for a better situation until the baby is born, but until then, there are more immediate concerns. The essential food shortage continues to strike the region, and Zina has to think about what to feed her three year old son, Anri. She says her relatives usually “save” her from the endless queues for bread, but when looking at Anri, she feels guilt. “I couldn’t give him the peace that I dreamt about when I was his age. I was born in the 1990’s, and I went through the same things as a child that he is going through now…”
83 km from Stepanakert, in the village Maghavuz of the Martakert district, Zarine Makyan, 29, and mother of three, tries home remedies such as “iodine squares” and “basilic decoctions” to cure her baby who is two months younger than the blockade. Harut, only six months old, has been coughing for a while now, but the family hasn’t been able to take him to a doctor due to the lack of fuel across the whole region.
The medicine that the doctor prescribed over the phone turned out to be impossible to obtain. The nearest pharmacy is a 14 km journey from the village. Even if it were possible to reach it, the prescribed medicine disappeared from the pharmacies a long time ago.
When Harut was born Zarine was told she didn’t have enough breast milk to feed her baby. But it was impossible to find baby formula. “I gave him only breast milk, I didn’t have enough, but what else could I do? Now I give him cow milk too, because there are no other options,” she says.
The problems do not come only with the needs of the newborn; Zarine’s elder children keep asking her for sweets and fruits. As a response she can only give them sugarless tea. Zarine thinks out loud, “Children demand things from their parents. What can the parents do? ‘Mom I want sweets, I want chocolate, I want fruits,’ they say. My elder child understands the situation more or less, and tells her brother ‘there is no chocolate, from where should mom find a chocolate for you?’ but the four year old doesn’t understand, he says ‘I want to eat.’”
The only way to find some essential goods is the exchanges happening in social media groups. “I will exchange soap for sugar,” “I will give cooking oil in exchange for baby formula,” “I need milk mixture urgently, where can I find it?,” “Does anyone know where I can find this medicine? I am pregnant, my doctor prescribed this for me.” “I urgently need a baby shampoo, I have nothing else to give in exchange.” These are the most common posts in the Facebook group that gathers together mothers from Nagorno Karabakh.
Mothers from Nagorno Karabakh also try to support each other by giving away things they have but do not use anymore, such as baby clothes, cradles and medicine. Some women even share breastmilk with other mothers who don’t have enough for their babies.
Yet day after day, people run out of things to share or exchange, and it becomes harder in small communities such as Maghavuz. “Right now we don’t have shampoo, washing powder…” Zarine stops for a second and laughs “there are so many things that we don’t have anymore, I don’t know which one to say.” They ran out of diapers for baby Harut too. Zarine says they don’t use anything instead of diapers during the day. At night only she puts a piece of fabric for the baby and wakes up to change it. “If people can’t find simple bread anymore so that their children do not go to bed with an empty stomach, who can even think about diapers in this situation?”
Zarine does her best to shield her children from political talk and the reasons behind the blockade. Her daughter, 6, knows that the road is closed, but she doesn’t know why it is closed and who has closed it. “I try not to put these thoughts in their head. They got scared during the war [in 2020]. Now, whenever they hear the word “Turk” [Azerbaijani], they feel afraid.”
Not far away, in the same village, Ani Grigoryan, a 33-year-old mother of two, thinks of a way to take her 21-month-old daughter, Iveta, who was born with heart problems to a medical examination. Iveta had surgery in Armenia just a few days after her birth. Consistent examinations to follow up with the situation were required.
In July, Ani should have taken Iveta to a medical examination in Yerevan to determine whether she needed another surgery. However, after an old man was kidnapped at the Azerbaijani checkpoint while trying to pass through the Lachin Corridor in a Red Cross vehicle for medical reasons, she was afraid to ask the Red Cross for assistance passing through the corridor. Ani is afraid not only from the long inspection at an Azerbaijani checkpoint, but also how Iveta would handle that situation, standing there, under the summer heat.
Besides the heart problems, Iveta was also diagnosed with low hemoglobin. The doctors said she should eat lots of fruits. “It was such a bad year that you can’t even find fruits on the trees, the heavy hail ruined the harvest in spring, if we find one single fruit, I divide it into two pieces, so that both of them [Iveta and her 10-year-old brother] can eat.”
Meat is one of the few products that is still possible to find in Maghavuz. But the prices are so high that the villagers cannot afford it. Ani’s husband, a construction worker, is one of those many people in Nagorno Karabakh who lost his job because of the blockade. Ani is the only one in the family who works now, and buying these rare and overpriced products hasn’t been easy for the family.
Ani remembers the day the blockade started quite well; it was Iveta’s first birthday. They went to Stepanakert to buy some products for the celebration, and they got the news about the blockade that day.
It is hard for Ani to think about the future. There is no energy left. She says “We don’t have faith for any positive changes. We depend on God’s mercy now.”
Photos by Ani Balayan