Sunday, February 26, 2017

Khojaly: Tackling the Legacy of Karabakh war

Note: This article was submitted to Istanbul-based Agos newspaper with the Turkish translation published February 28, 2014; also published in Russian translation by the Memorial site.

Armenian soldiers evacuate Azerbaijani civilians from Khojaly. Photo by Viktoria Ivleva

by Emil Sanamyan

More than 20,000 people died in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict between 1988 and 1994. This grim statistic includes more than 12,000 Azerbaijani and about 6,500 Armenian fighters, as well as 1,264 Armenian and a similar number of Azerbaijani civilians. The 20-year-old cease-fire has significantly reduced the intensity of violence but did not eliminate it: about 250 Armenian and 600 Azerbaijani servicemen along with dozens of civilians on both sides are estimated to have been killed in skirmishes and sniper fire since 1994 and up to 2014.

The cease-fire period, especially in the last ten years, has also seen hardened official and public rhetoric on both sides of the conflict. Little empathy is offered to the suffering of the “other” side.

Armenian officials and public figures emphasize the early violence directed against ethnic Armenian residents of Azerbaijan – particularly in Sumgait and Baku – even before the war began and overlook the suffering of Azerbaijanis who lived in Armenia and in and around Nagorno Karabakh. They also point to the continued official hate rhetoric as the reason for lack of progress towards peace, highlighted by incidents such as the grisly axe murder of a sleeping Armenian student by his Azerbaijani classmate during NATO language course in Budapest in February 2004.

For the Aliyev regime the emphasis is on Azerbaijani civilian losses resulting from the Armenian capture of Khojaly in February 1992. The Azerbaijani government is now spending millions of dollars – of some of the dubiously earned billions by corrupt government ministers – campaigning around the world to make the Khojaly violence one thing that foreigners should condemn about the Karabakh conflict. But the violence did not begin or end with Khojaly, nor was it the most violent episode of the war. Incidentally, this month marks the 20th anniversary of the bloodiest episode of the Karabakh war: the failed Azerbaijani effort to recapture the Kelbajar area located between Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia at the cost of between two and four thousand Azerbaijani soldiers, most of them killed in snow avalanches and cold. There will be no prominent commemorations of that debacle and many of those killed are believed to remain unburied in the mountains of Kelbajar.

This is not to say that the Khojaly violence was not significant or shocking. A report by the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial remains the most authoritative source on what happened.

At the end of 1991, as the Soviet Union formally fell apart, Soviet internal security forces were pulled out from Karabakh and Armenians and Azerbaijanis were left to their own devices. Initially, the Armenian side found itself at a severe disadvantage. Not only was the Armenian-populated Karabakh completely encircled by Azerbaijani territory, but Karabakh’s main town – Stepanakert - was also nearly surrounded by Azerbaijan forces. The disposition was similar to what was going at the time in Bosnia, with Bosnian government forces surrounded on all sides by hostile Serbian and Croatian forces and their capital Sarajevo itself under siege.

Enjoying greater access to Soviet weapons arsenals on its territory, Azerbaijan began to launch missile and artillery attacks into civilian areas – and especially Stepanakert – at the beginning of 1992. According to Azerbaijani government documents captured and published by the Armenian side, the Azerbaijani leadership was aware of the damage they were causing. In the January 29, 1992 session with then President Ayaz Mutalibov, Azerbaijani officials estimated that already by then one-third of all buildings in Stepanakert were damaged by shelling. The documents also report on Azerbaijani offensive operations to capture Stepanakert. With remaining Russian forces slated for a pullout from Stepanakert at the end of February, there would be no third party able to restrain the spiral violence, not even the sort of token presence that the United Nations had in Sarajevo.

The only chance of survival for the Armenians in Karabakh was to break out of the encirclement. That meant first of all to lift the siege of Stepanakert and capture Azerbaijani areas around it, including Khojaly, where the Stepanakert airport was located. Already by then the undeclared rules of the Karabakh conflict meant that the capture of any territory from the other side would result in the expulsion of the local population of the other side. According to Memorial, the Armenian leadership in Nagorno Karabakh in the Directive No. 1 to its self-defense forces demanded fair treatment of enemy prisoners and civilians. In practice there was little oversight and reciprocal violence was commonplace.

There were between two and four thousand civilians in Khojaly along with several hundred fighters. The Armenian attack began on the night of February 25-26. As Azerbaijani defenses there were overwhelmed, most of the civilians and fighters fled through a corridor designated by the Armenian forces to the Azerbaijani town of Aghdam, about 10 to 15 kilometers away. Majority of Khojaly civilians, among them town mayor, walked through the corridor and through the Armenian-controlled Askeran and reached Agdam. About 700 civilians who either stayed in Khojaly or were detained by Armenian forces just outside were in subsequent days transported to the frontline and handed over to Azerbaijani side, mostly unharmed. But several hundred fleeing civilians with some fighters among them were killed in the fields near the frontline as they attempted to cross to the Azerbaijani controlled territory.

According to Karen Ohanjanian, a member of the Nagorno Karabakh parliament at the time and a prominent human rights activist since, there was little doubt that some of the Armenian fighters were responsible for the killings and Karabakh leaders were outraged at the time. More than anything, they saw the violence as a huge blow to their image in the world. Shortly after the scale of casualties became known, the parliament of Nagorno Karabakh issued a statement of regret over Azerbaijani civilian deaths. According to Ohanjanian, the Karabakh leadership had no resources to challenge the offenders directly but it did all it could to prevent such violence against civilians in the future fighting. (According to one account, the Armenian unit some blamed for the Khojaly civilian deaths was decimated in fighting in June 1992.)

Ohanjanian, while visiting Baku for an internationally-organized civil society meeting in 2000, offered an apology – as a citizen of Nagorno Karabakh – for Azerbaijani deaths and suffering. The statement was welcomed neither in Baku – where he was physically assaulted at the airport – nor in Karabakh where his apology was also condemned by many.

Regrettably, there are only a few people on either Armenian or Azerbaijani side with the courage to have their humanism trump their nationalism. Last year, a prominent Azerbaijani writer Akram Aylisli faced death threats and government harassment – including burning of his books – after he published a novel describing the anti-Armenian violence in Baku. Just in recent weeks, a prominent Armenian journalist Tatul Hakobyan was criticized for a favorable portrayal of the youth years of an Azerbaijani economics minister Shahin Mustafayev, who was born and educated in Armenia and whose family was forced to leave their home, like so many other refugees, Azerbaijani and Armenian.

With the dominant rhetoric on both sides favoring the black-and-white, “we are right, they are wrong” approach, there is now little hope that even twenty years after cease-fire the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is about to be exhausted. 

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