Azerbaijan International

Winter 1997 (5.4)
Page 7

Reader's Forum
Nakhchivan Blockade

Recently, I had the chance to visit the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, and I must admit that I was appalled at the conditions under which these people are living.

Evidence of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan can be seen from the minute you take a cab from the airport into the capital city­Nakhchivan. The trees are all gone! Wooden stumps­like gravemarkers in a cemetery­mark the spots where they used to grow. They've all been chopped down long ago in a desperate search for fuel. The Armenian blockade of Nakhchivan has resulted in a desperate lack of fuel for both heating and cooking.

Blockades between Azerbaijan and Armenia: northern rail route (against Armenia) and southern rail route (against Azerbaijan - Nakhchivan)

The main problems in the city stem from lack of electricity and gas­services which used to be supplied from Azerbaijan. These days, Turkey and Iran offer electricity, but it's such a haphazard affair. The city is supposed to have access to an electric supply in two-hour increments, but even such limited access is not reliable. Hence, the lack of trees.

Winters are harsh in Nakhchivan and, consequently, to stay alive, people use every means possible to keep warm and to cook their food. When they have not been able to find any more trees, some have resorted to using their own household furniture as fuel.

Gasoline is imported by truck from Azerbaijan south through Iran (bypassing the strip of Armenian territory that separates Nakhchivan from mainland Azerbaijan). Such a trip over rough roads, takes an additional day and is extremely dangerous because of the overload of volatile fuel. The extra efforts to acquire fuel makes it exorbitantly expensive, especially in a region where people suffer financially because of high unemployment.

Despite these immense problems, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of the people whom I visited. Their spirits were strong. They were genuinely proud of their country and proud that President Heydar Aliyev had been born in Nakhchivan and that he has been so instrumental in helping them retain their new independence.

While in Nakhchivan, I was interested in seeing conditions related to children, health and education. Sevil Zeynalova, who is the Deputy Prime Minister and Agil Mehdiyev, the Health Minister, facilitated my visit to several hospitals that are desperately in need of refurbishment. By far, the most desperate conditions were found in Nakhchivan's tuberculosis (TB) hospital.

Although tuberculosis is being treated successfully in most developing countries, it is on the rise in Nakhchivan, especially among young people. The therapeutic center where TB patients stay is so run-down. There was no electricity, and temperatures were extremely cold even during the day. I couldn't imagine what it would be like after the sun had gone down and the warmth had escaped through windows that no longer had any glass panes or through doorways where there were no doors.

To treat TB successfully, patients need plenty of warmth, food and isolation. The doctors there are trying to do what they can within their limitations, but the equipment is so outdated and conditions are so poor that they are unable to stop the spread of this devastating disease.

Another hospital that I visited treated patients suffering from lung diseases such as asthma and bronchitis. The patients were being kept in an underground salt mine as part of their treatment. Each evening after the mine closes, patients are transferred to the salt mine, some 20 minutes away, to stay until morning.

During the day they remain in a cold, run-down building in the city. The treatment center was really quite a unique place, and, prior to the Karabakh war, people were said to have come from all over the world for this drug-free treatment.

A new hospital, located near the mines, was in the process of being built when the Soviet Union collapsed. A crane stands frozen in time overlooking the construction. The site has the potential to become an important treatment center once the situation normalizes and the physical conditions improve.

The Nakhchivan people have such an appreciative attitude. I was immensely impressed by their warmth, openness and hospitality and by their desire to show me everything they were proud of. They remain optimistic about their future. I observed a strong work ethic demonstrated by the speed of construction when they have the means to do so. I'm looking forward to return to bring some humanitarian aid to this region.

Gwendolyn Burchell
Dorking, Surrey, U.K.

Editor: About the Nakhchivan Blockade
The Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan is part of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Its territory, 2,124 sq mi (5,500 sq km), is bounded by Armenia on the north and east, Iran on the south and west and Turkey, for a tiny stretch of about 10 kilometers on the west.

Nakhchivan was deliberately separated from Azerbaijan's mainland by Stalin in 1924 when a small strip of land was given to Armenia. It was at this time that Nakhchivan and Karabakh were both given autonomous republic status within Azerbaijan, a policy deliberately created to fuel local ethnic conflicts and thus distract the individual republics from mounting larger independence movements against the Soviet Union itself. The width of the strip of land separating Azerbaijan from Nakhchivan is 46 km (approximately 20 miles). Although it is a relatively short distance, it successfully succeeds in cutting off Nakhchivan from direct physical ties from its economic and political base-Azerbaijan mainland.

There are currently two blockades that exist between Armenia and Azerbaijan though most people have only heard of Azerbaijan's blockade against Armenia. However, Armenia has also blockaded Azerbaijan, an event which occurred even earlier (1989) than Azerbaijan's blockade against Armenia. Both blockades have had incredibly devastating effects on separate populations.

Armenia's blockade against Azerbaijan refers to the southern rail connection between Azerbaijan and Nakhchivan which runs parallel to the Araz River and the border of Iran. On numerous occasions in the late 1980s, trains originating in Azerbaijan were stopped enroute to Nakhchivan within this short strip of territory belonging to Armenia. Passengers were threatened, robbed and some were even killed. Not long afterwards, the Armenians blew up a ten-kilometer section of the railroad along this stretch. Ironically, this same rail system originating in Baku continues through Nakhchivan north to the capital of Armenia in Yerevan. So, in reality, Armenians, who constantly complain about being cut off from fuel and supplies, blockaded themselves.

When Armenians speak about Azerbaijan's blockade, they are referring to the northern rail route which Azerbaijan cut off after realizing that goods and fuel carried over this route were being used in the war in Karabakh against them. Azerbaijanis viewed such an arrangement as pure suicide and decided to cut off supply lines to a country that was aggressively at war against them. After all, they asked, since when do countries at war supply their enemies?

However, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 1992 based on half-truths set forth by the Armenian Lobby. This legislation, known as Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, denies all direct aid to the Azerbaijan government until such blockade is lifted. Azerbaijan is the only republic of the former 15 republics of the Soviet Union that has been denied U.S. aid for reconstruction after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, more than $700 million of U.S. aid has been directed to Armenia since 1992.

Ironically, the blockaded northern rail route in question is currently under Armenian military occupation and not under control by the Azerbaijanis. Furthermore, a cease-fire has been in effect since May of 1994. And though Armenians cry about the effects of the blockade, they receive ample supplies from Russia via Georgia and from Iran. In addition, no mention has been made in Congress about the equally devastating blockade that Armenians have made against Nakhchivan which is described in the letter above.

Azerbaijanis consider the U.S. legislation to be extremely unjust as it rewards the aggressors in this war. All fighting over Karabakh, which is located inside Azerbaijan, has been conducted on Azerbaijani territory. Armenians have occupied 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory since 1994. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees have had to flee this region and still have not been able to return to their homes and communities.

In the meantime, Armenia is trying to convince the international investment community that the pipeline for major oil export from Azerbaijan would be more economical if it were directed through Armenian territory to Turkey rather than through Georgia or alternative routes. Such a proposal is unacceptable to Azerbaijan under the current circumstances.

From Azerbaijan International (5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.

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