Today marks the 30th anniversary of the massacre committed at Khojaly by Armenian forces against Azerbaijani civilians during the first Karabakh War.
On 26th February, 1992 Armenian armed groups attacked the Azerbaijani town and in one night massacred more than 613 innocent people, including women, children, and infants. 25 children were orphaned and 130 lost a parent. 8 complete families were exterminated. 476 people were permanently disabled. A total of 1,275 people were taken hostage, and the fate of 150 of them is still unknown. Khojaly town was completely annihilated, and it is difficult to find any trace of it today. What remains of it lie in the rump of the area still occupied by Armenians after the Karabakh liberation war of 2020.
Background to the Assault on Khojaly
The Azerbaijani settlements in the highlands of Karabakh were very vulnerable to attack from Armenian paramilitary forces which had been established, armed and trained over the preceding 4 years, with a view to seizing the territory of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. During Winter/Spring 1990-1 Soviet OMON forces had attempted to suppress the Armenian paramilitary forces which were terrorising Karabakh. The Mutalibov government in Baku relied on the USSR to uphold the territorial integrity of the state but by 1991 the Union was crumbling. Azerbaijan had become politically divided and fragmented within the collapse of Union authority, with greatly differing opinions about what should be done in the circumstances.
At the end of 1991 the Soviet Union was liquidated and the independent states of Azerbaijan and Armenia were proceeding to war for the possession of Karabakh. On 20 November 1991, a heat-seeking rocket fired by Armenians downed a government helicopter near the village of Qarakand in the Khojavand District. 22 people were killed, including prominent Azerbaijani governmental and political figures and observers from Russia and Kazakhstan who were flying to the NKAO to meet with the leaders of the Karabakh Armenians to attempt to achieve peaceful resolution of the escalating Karabakh conflict. This was the first use of a heat-seeking missile system and it was probably fired by former ASALA terrorists from Lebanon who had been given training by a foreign intelligence service who wished to ensure a war took place within the Russian sphere of influence.
As Soviet forces began their withdrawal there was no Azerbaijani army to defend the 40,000 or so Azerbaijanis who inhabited Karabakh. Four predominantly Azerbaijani districts (Kalbajar, Lachin, Qubadli and Zangilan) were also situated between mountainous Karabakh and Armenia, making them difficult to reinforce and defend. By comparison Armenian and separatist forces could traverse the shorter distances they had to travel to change fronts much more easily, giving them a strategic advantage.
One Armenian writer describes the situation in which the Armenian forces sprang into action against the Azerbaijani settlements immediately upon the departure of Soviet forces:
“Starting from November 1991, the Armenian side went on the offensive. The first major target was Khojaly, where the region’s airport was situated… There was no shortage of arms and ammunition. The 366th Motorised Infantry Regiment, originally under the command of the Soviet Interior Ministry, which had an initial force of 11,000 soldiers, started its withdrawal from Karabakh in November 1991, and had completed it by February 1992., leaving behind its armament, including heavy weaponry. Thus there were more armaments in 1992 in the hands of Karabakh Armenians than ever before.” (Vicken Cheterian, War and Peace in the Caucasus, pp. 128-9)
From September 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed, Armenian forces began manoeuvring into positions, cutting off Azerbaijani settlements in the highlands of Karabakh. During early 1992 the Armenians went on a full offensive, moving out from Khankendi/Stepanakert, capturing Azerbaijani village after village, expelling their inhabitants as they progressed. The well organised Armenians, bolstered by foreign-based fighters, who had begun arriving in the fall of 1990, proved adept at the irregular warfare appropriate to the situation. They quickly terrorised the Azerbaijani civilian population into flight. Fedayeen fighters from Armenian met no equivalent from Azerbaijan. A hastily assembled Azerbaijani force, lacking training, organisation or a military plan which attempted to relieve the pressure, suffered a disastrous defeat at Dashalti, near Shusha, on 25th January 1992.
The same Armenian account notes that although the Soviets had also abandoned military equipment in Azerbaijan “availability of weapons did not mean having an army. Both military knowledge and discipline were very low. Similarly, military hierarchy did not exist…” (p. 129).
Vicken Cheterian writes:
“The Armenians... sensed that the Azeri leadership in Baku was divided and Azerbaijan did not have a political or military plan for Karabakh… The Azerbaijani forces also lacked military experience, cadres and discipline. One American journalist who visited Khojaly, whose strategic importance cannot be over-emphasized, reported that there was only one armoured vehicle in the town, and from the sixty fighters defending the village and the airport only four volunteers from outside the region had military experience acquired during the Afghanistan war. Such a force had no military significance, and most Azeri civilians had left towns like Khojaly or Shushi (Shusha), reducing the motivation of the Azeri troops to fight. In contrast, Karabakh Armenian political and military authorities strictly forbade the evacuation of civilians, saying the emptying Karabakh of women and children would reduce the incentive of their men to defend the land.” (p.131)
Khojaly had a pre-war population of around 6,000 and it was the site of the region’s airport. It also served as a railway and road transport hub for the wider area and was considered a big hindrance to Armenian territorial expansion. It had a small population of Meskhetian Turks who had been resettled in Khojaly after pogroms against them in Uzbekistan during 1989/90 which left hundreds dead. The Meskhetians were originally from the South Caucasus but had been deported by Stalin in 1944 to eastern Uzbekistan for “security reasons”. The local Armenians around Khojaly treated them as most unwelcome refugees.
Khojaly had been pinpointed as a strategic objective by the Armenians from as early as 1988 when it had been shelled. From 1988 until 1992, each time there was an attack, people fled to nearby Aghdam, but they returned because they didn’t have the means to permanently move there. The Armenians decided therefore that it had to be thoroughly cleansed of non-Armenians when the opportunity arose with the withdrawal of Soviet forces.
With Armenian forces holding Khankendi/Stepanakert to the South and the Askeran area to the North, Khojaly was largely isolated and was effectively 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. An Armenian rocket also killed around 40 people around a helicopter landing with supplies in Khojaly about the same time.
In the early morning of February 15th, 1992 Armenian armed forces attacked the village of Garadagly, in the Khojavand district, from all directions. Fighters from the neighbouring Armenian villages, mercenaries, and “Arabo” and “Aramo” units led by Monte Melkonian, took an active part in the attack on Garadagly along with officers and soldiers of the 366th ex-Soviet regiment. There was resistance from the Azerbaijani villagers lasting 3 days. When the Armenians overcame the local defenders they massacred around 50 villagers in cold blood, burning a family of 6 alive in their home and summarily executing others they had taken away on trucks. Around 200 houses, a hospital and school were destroyed by the Armenians and 91 villagers died in all. It was a portend of things to come for Khojaly because the same forces now moved against their primary objective.
Around 2,500 people were trapped when these forces surrounded Khojaly. There were around 160 lightly armed defenders including about 20 OMON (Special Police). Ammunition was in short supply and there was hardly any fuel for the 1 or 2 remaining armoured vehicles. The outgunned and outnumbered defenders were largely defenceless against the forces which were ranged against them and were only capable of short resistance.
The Massacre at Khojaly
On 26th February 1992 Armenian militias in alliance with the ex-Soviet 366th regiment, quartered in Khankendi, assaulted Khojaly. Later interviews reveal that the ex-Soviet forces that participated in the attack were made up of a large number of Armenian officers and men, as well as Russians who were re-employed and paid by the separatists, and told it was their religious duty as fellow Christians to assist Armenians to drive out the Muslims. Soviet heavy artillery and around 40 armoured vehicles were employed in the attack and this overwhelming firepower quickly broke down any resistance. The 366th Regiment was not withdrawn from Karabakh until March 1992, weeks after its ignominious part in the massacre at Khojaly. Armenians in Stepanakert blocked the roads to prevent its leaving and helicopters had to be employed to take the Russians out, leaving all heavy equipment with the separatists. It was disbanded in Georgia on March 10th.
The 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’ a book 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.
Other Armenian accounts, in books and the digital media, seek to deny the massacre ever took place, accuse Azerbaijanis of perpetuating it themselves, including mutilating bodies afterwards, or seek to minimise it as much as possible. Tatul Hakobyan’s book, Karabakh Diary: Green and Black, for instance, is full of excuses, innuendos and claims of mitigation. Joseph Masih and Robert Krikorian’s Armenia at the Crossroads does not even mention what happened at Khojaly.
However, the consistent and corroborating eye witness accounts of those who survived and the presence of the international press afterwards, when the bodies were brought out, have always frustrated these Armenian denials. The reports, photos and footage taken by Western journalists, such as Anatol Lieven of The Times and Thomas Goltz of the Washington Post at the scene of the massacre, revealed the details of this war crime to the world. There is also the film of the journalist, Chingiz Mustafayev, who lost his life shortly after to an Armenian sniper, showing the fıeld with around 100 corpses of men, women and children, which lay to the east of Khojaly, between the Armenian towns of Askeran and Nakhichevanik, on the escape route that fleeing residents took toward the safety of Aghdam.
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 instilled in Armenian nationalism a feeling of racial superiority and a consequent despising of “lesser forms of humanity” that they lived amongst. Only Armenians were seen as a real people or nation.
While this form of nationalism, 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. It was bolstered by the bitter hatred engendered in Armenians by the campaign over the tragic events of 1915 in Anatolia that had been launched by Armenian nationalists in the 1960s. Although Azerbaijanis had no responsibility for the actions of the Ottoman government in 1915 they were dehumanised as convenient “Turks” to be butchered in revenge for past wrongs.
An Armenian academic, Ohannes Geukjian, when discussing what happened at Khojaly, acknowledges that: “The Armenians employed violence strategically to polarise the conflict to their advantage and to prevent inter-ethnic cohabitation with the Azerbaijani inhabitants of N-K.” (Ethnicity, Nationalism and Conflict in the South Caucasus: Nagorno-Karabakh, p. 190)
In 2003, the then Armenian President, Serzh Sargsyan, admitted that the massacre at Khojaly served the purpose of the mass intimidation of Azerbaijani civilians from Karabakh, eventually 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 to advance 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)
Melkonian 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.
Here is the account of these events from one survivor, Elman Mamedov, the local leader who lost 22 of his relatives, including his mother, during the extermination of civilians.
“On 25 February a report came in at 8.30 p.m. that enemy tanks and infantry fıghting vehicles were taking up combat positions around the town. We informed everyone of this via the portable radio transmitter. I asked for helicopters to be sent in to evacuate the elderly, women and children. No help came. The storming of the town started with artillery shelling that had been going on for 2 hours. Armenian armed men fired from tanks, armed personnel carriers, using shells of the Alazan type. We were blocked from three sides. The only possible escape route was through the Askeran gap. When Armenian infantry soldiers launched the attack, everything in Khojaly had been destroyed. Most of its remaining residents had been killed. We defended the town from trenches until 2 a.m. We could not resist any more, and the defenders and civilians started retreating. Having crossed the ice-cold river we were moving towards Keteen Mountain. Many people died on the way in the woods where they were frozen to death. We were walking until 7 a.m. when we came out of the woods near the Armenian village of Nakhichevanik. We were trapped in a gorge, where Armenians armed with machine-guns and submachine guns were waiting for us in armed personnel carriers. That is when the real slaughter began. Armenians just shot and shot innocent defenceless people. Many children and women were shot dead here. Some people were fleeing towards the village of Gulably where about 200 people were taken hostage. We helped the survivors and some of the residents of the town managed to get to Agdam. Seven of my friends with me failed to get out of the ambush, it was too late, but we got lucky; we found cover from the firing. We were hid there from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. Only in the evening, when it started snowing, did we manage to get out of it and reach Agdam early in the morning of February 27.”
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. Some women and children also perished when they fell from exhaustion and were frozen to death during their escape across the mountains.
Political Consequences of Khojaly
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. This led to a Popular Front government taking power in Baku, that was perceived as hostile in the Kremlin. Russian assistance was channelled toward the Armenians, who Boris Yeltsin calculated would remain dependent on Moscow and a Russian instrument in the Southern Caucasus, as a consequence. Aid for Yerevan from Moscow was subsequently vital against the numerically superior Azerbaijanis. This disequilibrium suffered by Azerbaijan was not addressed until the return of Heydar Aliyev in late 1993, but by then the war and Karabakh was lost.
The storming of Khojaly came while meetings were taking place between the Azerbaijani and Armenian delegations in Moscow with the mediation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. Like the subsequent assault and capture of Shusha by Armenian forces it came at an important juncture early in the war when Armenia was coming under pressure to conclude a negotiated settlement of the conflict.
The cataclysmic events in Khojaly 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.
It was the complete and extravagant Armenian victory of the 1990s, with its accompanying extensive ethnic cleansing of 800,000 people, that followed from Khojaly, that acted as poisoned fruit for the occupiers. The extreme nationalism which could only tolerate a homogenous Armenian territory and Yerevan’s inability to conclude an accommodationist settlement over the course of nearly 3 decades led to military defeat within 44 days, during late 2020.
Azerbaijan had arisen from the ashes of the defeat of the 1990s, and constructed a functional state with a powerful military force. It waged a clean and decisive military campaign to recover its territories and Armenians who left the formerly occupied areas did so in peace and unmolested. It was so different from what happened at Khojaly and other places to the Azerbaijani populace.
The Armenian victory of the 1990s proved to be both inglorious and temporary. And the war crime at Khojaly stained it with permanent disgrace that will long outlast the occupation of Karabakh. Unlike was the case after the Balkans wars nobody was ever prosecuted for their role in the massacre by any international court.
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Published in Azerbaijan in Focus