This week marks the 29th anniversary of the massacre at Khojaly committed by Armenian forces against Azerbaijani civilians during the first Karabakh War.
On 26th February, 1992 Armenian armed groups attacked the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly and in one night massacred more than 613 innocent people, including women, children, and babies. More than 480 were wounded and 1200 people were taken hostage. Khojaly town was completely annihilated, and it is difficult to find any trace of it today. Any remains lie in the rump of the area still occupied by Armenians after the Karabakh liberation war of 2020.
From September 1991 Armenian forces had began manoeuvring into positions, cutting off Azerbaijani settlements in Nagorno-Karabakh. During early 1992 the Armenians went on a full offensive, moving out from Khankendi/Stepanakert and capturing Azerbaijani village after village, expelling their inhabitants as they progressed. The Armenians proved very adept at irregular warfare in the opening phase of the Karabakh war and this enabled them to quickly terrorize much of the Azerbaijani civilian population into flight. Fedayeen fighters from Armenian met no equivalent from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani forces suffered severe losses in an ambush at Dashalti, near Shusha, on 25th January 1992.
The Armenians next main target was the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly which had a pre-war population of around 6,000 and was the site of the region’s airport. It served as a railway and road transport hub for the wider area and was considered a hindrance to further Armenian territorial expansion. With Armenian forces holding Khankendi/Stepanakert to the South and the Askeran area to the North, Khojaly was largely isolated and was put under siege and blockade from September 11th 1991. The only way in and out was via helicopter and rescue and supply flights virtually ceased after the Armenians shot down a helicopter over Shusha in late January 1992. Around 2500 people were trapped when Armenian forces surrounded the town in early 1992. There were between 160 and 200 lightly armed defenders including about 20 OMON (Special Police). Ammunition was in short supply and there was hardly any fuel for the 2 remaining armoured vehicles. The outgunned and outnumbered defenders were largely defenceless against the forces which were ranged against them.
On 26th February 1992 Armenian militias in alliance with troops from the Soviet 366th regiment from Khankendi, whose officers were 80 per cent Armenian and who were being funded by the separatists, assaulted the town. Heavy artillery and around 40 armoured vehicles were employed in the attack and this overwhelming firepower quickly broke down resistance. The subsequent massacre at Khojaly in which around 613 people were done to death in brutal fashion by the Armenians was the most devastating of the operations conducted by the Armenian paramilitaries against the Azerbaijani population.
The Armenian writer Zori Balayan, author of ‘The Hearth’ which inspired the Karabakh “Miatsum” movement in the mid 1980s, later made the following extraordinary confession of having taken part in atrocities at Khojaly:
“When I and Khachatur entered the house, our soldiers had nailed a 13-year-old Turkish (Azerbaijani) child to the window. He was making much noise so Khachatur put his mother’s severed breast into his mouth. I skinned his chest and belly. Seven minutes later the child died. As I used to be a doctor I was a humanist and didn’t consider myself happy for what I had done to a 13-year-old Turkish child. But my soul was proud for taking 1 per cent of vengeance for my nation. Then Khachatur cut the child’s body into pieces and threw it to a dog of the same origin as Turks. I did the same to three Turkish (Azerbaijani) children in the evening. I did my duty as an Armenian patriot. Khachatur had sweated much. But I saw the struggle for revenge and great humanism in his and other soldiers’ eyes. The next day we went to the church to clear our souls from what had been done the previous day. But we were able to clear Khojaly of the slops of 30,000 people.” (Zori Balayan, Revival of our Souls, p.260-1)
What is most disturbing about this is the author’s belief that such behaviour would in any way be justifiable. It, unfortunately speaks a lot about the extremes of Armenian nationalism and what was being carried out in Karabakh.
There is little doubt that there were ideological factors which motivated the atrocity at Khojaly. Armenian nationalism has a strong supremacist impulse which regards Armenians as a superior race and “Turks” as inferior people. The supremacist ideology which was given traction by important Westerners like James Bryce during the late 19th Century cultivated notions of a special people – the most ancient nation, the original Christians of the region, and masters of a great empire. All this was a fabrication which instilled in Armenian nationalism a feeling of racial superiority and a consequent despising of “lesser forms of humanity” that they lived amongst. While this form of biological policy, which was all the rage within Imperialism before the War of 1914, went into disgrace after the revealing of the Nazi death camps in 1945, it had deadly effects in the 1990s because it persisted within Armenian nationalism.
In 2003, the then Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan, admitted that the massacre at Khojaly served the effective purpose of the mass intimidation of Azerbaijani civilians from Karabakh, achieving their complete ethnic cleansing. In an interview with the journalist Thomas De Waal, published in his book Black Garden, Sargsyan suggested that the Khojaly massacre laid down a marker to the Azerbaijani population of Karabakh and was meant as a warning to them – clear out or die.
“Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We were able to break that. And that’s what happened. And we should also take into account that amongst those boys were people who had fled from Baku and Sumgait.” (Thomas De Waal, Black Garden, p.172)
Monte Melkonian, who became drawn away from international terrorism toward Armenian irredentism in Karabakh, described Khojaly as a “strategic goal” and “an act of revenge” in his diaries that were published posthumously by his brother Marker Melkonian as ‘My Brother’s Road: An American’s Fateful Journey to Armenia.’ Melkonian, one of the prominent leaders of ASALA, was a US citizen who helped split ASALA and form ASALA (Revolutionary Movement). He was given early release from a French prison where he was serving a sentence for illegal possession of weapons. Melkonian, who had gained military experience in Lebanon, “was one of the key architects of the victories in Karabakh and… played an instrumental role in organizing the Karabagh Army and turning it into a first-rate fighting force.” (Joseph Masih and Robert Krikorian, Armenia at the Crossroads, p.44) He led a 4,000 strong unit and was joined by hundreds of other Armenians, from the US, French, Lebanese and Syrian diasporas, many with backgrounds in terrorism. Considered the most efficient detachment of the Armenian separatists of Nagorno-Karabakh, the “Arabo” unit, was formed in 1989 in Yerevan on the initiative of the Dashnaktsutyun party from among its members who had acquired combat experience in the Lebanese civil war. Arabo gained notoriety for its participation in the terrible events that befell the inhabitants of the village of Garadagly and the town of Khojaly.
Melkonian blamed, out of control irregular forces, for the massacre and the atrocities perpetrated. His brother wrote:
“The Arabo fighters had then unsheathed the knives they had carried on their hips for so long, and began stabbing. Now, the only sound was the wind whistling through dry grass, a wind that was too early yet to blow away the stench of corpses. Monte crunched over the grass where women and girls lay scattered like broken dolls. ‘No discipline’, he muttered.” (Marker Melkonian, My Brother’s Road: An American’s Fateful Journey to Armenia, p. 213)
Prior to the attack, the Armenian forces had surrounded the town from three sides, purposely leaving the fourth open as a funnel for civilians to go through. Residents attempted to flee via the North-East, along the Gargar River through Askeran to Aghdam. They left in groups determined to trek around 12km through Armenian controlled territory to reach safety in Aghdam. The fleeing civilians were, however, ambushed and killed in brutal fashion in woods and open ground, often with the use of knives. Journalists captured the shocking scenes of carnage in video footage that was aired on TV. The footage showed the mutilated corpses of civilians, including those of small children scattered on the ground. Many had been scalped, decapitated, or had their eyes gouged out, with some pregnant women having been bayoneted in their stomachs. Many women and children also perished when they fell from exhaustion and were frozen to death during their escape across the mountains.
The international press could not ignore what happened at Khojaly. The British Sunday Тimes of 1st March 1992 announced: “ARMENIAN SOLDIERS MASSACRE HUNDREDS OF FLEEING FAMILIES.” The Washington Тimes of 3rd March 1992 headlined: “ATROCITY REPORTS HORRIFY AZERBAIJAN.” The Human Rights Watch Center stated that the actions of Armenian armed forces violated the Geneva conventions as well as articles 2, 3, 5, 9 and 17 of the UN Human Rights Declaration.
Below is the Washington Times report:
The Washington Тimes, 3 March 1992
ATROCITY REPORTS HORRIFY AZERBAIJAN
Ву Brian KILLEN, Agdam, Azerbaijan
Dozens of bodies lay scattered around the killing fields of Daghlig Garabagh yesterday, evidence of the worst massacre in four years of fighting over the disputed territory.
Azeri officials who returned from the scene to this town about nine miles away brought back three dead children, the backs of their heads blown off.
At the local mosque, six other bodies lay stretched out, fully clothed, with their limbs frozen in the positions in which they were killed. Their faces were black from the cold.
“Telman!” screamed one woman, beating the breast furiously over the body of her dead father, who lay оn his back with his stiff right аrm jutting into the air.
Those who returned from а brief visit bу helicopter to Кhojaly, captured bу the Armenians last week, said they had seen similar sights – only more. One Russian journalist said he had counted about 30 bodies within а radius of 50 yards from where the helicopter landed.
Armenia has denied atrocities or mass killings of Azeris after its well-armed irregulars captured Кhojaly, the second-biggest Azeri town in Daghlig Garabagh, last Wednesday. Azerbaijan says 1000 people killed.
“Women and children had been scalped”, said Assad Faradzhev, an aide to Karabakh’s Azeri governor.
Мr. Faradzhev said the helicopter, bearing Red Cross markings and escorted bу MI-24 helicopters former Soviet armу, succeeded in picking uр only three children before Armenian militants opened fire. “When we began to pick uр bodies, they started firing at us”, he said.
Мr. Faradzhev said they were оп the ground for only 15 minutes.
“The combat helicopters fired red flares to signal that Armenians were approaching and it was time to leave. I was ready to blow myself uр if we were captured.” Не said pointing to а grenade in his coat pocket.
Reuters photographer Frederique Lengaigne saw two trucks full of Azeri corpses near Agdam.
“In the first оnе, I counted 35, and I looked as though there were almost as manу in the second. Some had their heads cut off and manу had been burned. They were all mеn, and а few had been wearing khaki uniforms”, she said.
In Agdam’s mosque the dead bodies lay оn mattresses under а naked light bulb. People screamed insults at Azerbaijani’s president, Ayaz Mutalibov, saying he had not done enough to protect Karabakh’s Azeri population.
Hundreds of people crowded outside chanting Islamic prayers. Some wept uncontrollably and collapsed near their dead relatives, brought to the town bу tuck only minutes еаrliеr.
Chilling film of dozens of stiffened corpses scattered over а snowy hillside backed accounts of the slaughter of women and children sobbed out bу refugees who made it safety out of the disputed Caucasus enclave.
Azerbaijani television showed picture of оnе truckload of bodies brought to the Azeri town of Agdam, some with their faces apparently scratched with knives оr their eyes gouged out. Оnе little girl had arms stretched out as if crying fоr help.
“The bodies аге lying there like flocks of sheep. Еven the fascists did nothing like this” said Agdam militia commander Rashid Mamedov, referring to the Nazi invaders in World War II.
“Give us help to bring back the bodies and show people what happened”, Karabakh Gov. Musa Mamedov pleaded bу telephone to the Soviet army base in Gyandzha, Azerbaijan’s second-largest city.
А helicopter pilot who took cameraman and Western correspondents over the аrеа reported seeing some corpses lying around Кhojaly and dozen mоre nеаr the Askeran Gap, а mountain pass only а few miles from Agdam.” (Washington Times, 3 March, 1992)
The brutal massacre at Khojaly had important political implications quite apart from terrorising Azerbaijani civilians into flight. It fatally undermined the government in Baku, which initially attempted to cover up the act, in the Soviet tradition. President Mutalibov, who had delayed forming an Azerbaijani army and had continued to rely on Moscow to uphold peace and security was forced to resign when news started to get out about the true extent of the atrocity and TV pictures of dead women and children appeared. It also undermined the more moderate Armenians in Yerevan who inclined toward a negotiated settlement. Khojaly paid dividends for the militant nationalists by producing a great flight of defenceless Azerbaijanis from Karabakh and it strengthened the hands of those who pursued a policy of eradicating the Azerbaijani civilian population, which was increasingly seen as an effective strategy for complete victory.
However, it was the complete and extravagant Armenian victory of the 1990s, with its accomanying extensive ethnic cleansing of 800,000 people, that acted as poisoned fruit for the occupiers. Their extreme nationalism and inability to conclude a settlement over the course of nearly 3 decades led to military defeat in 44 days during 2020. And the massacre at Khojaly stained their temporary victory with a permanence that will long outlast the occupation of Karabakh.
Allah rehmet elesin