Nagorno Karabakh War and Khojali Tragedy
Nagorno Karabakh has never been part of any nation state or republic until 1918 when the rule of the Tzarism over the Transcaucasia was diminished and three countries of this region, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia declared their independence in May 1918. Until that time, the territory of today’s Azerbaijan, including Nagorno Karabakh, has been part of various Empires, such as the Sasanid, Arab, Mongol, Safavid, Ottoman, Persian and finally Russian Tzar Empire from the beginning of the nineteenth century.
With the death of the Nadir Shah in 1747, the territories of today’s Azerbaijan and Armenia were divided into Khanates, semi-independent units. Karabakh Khanate was comparable to the other Khanates, such as Baku, Kuba, Sheki, Shirvan, Derbent, Nakhjivan, and Yerevan that were ruled by Turkish Muslim families. In 1801, after the annexation of Georgia to Russian Empire and creation of Georgian Gubernia or protectorate, Russia began to its expansionist policy over the Azerbaijani Khanates. Karabakh Khanate was one of those, who first accept Russian overlordship and protectorate.
Shamkhal Abilov is a teaching assistant at Qafqaz University, Baku, Azerbaijan. He has MA on Global Studies at University of Vienna, Austria. He previously studied at University of Leipzig, Germany. A native of Azerbaijan, Abilov received his BA in international relations from Qafqaz University, Baku. His research interests are Azerbaijan, conflict studies, Caucasus, Central Asia, and international relations theories and globalization. Other than his native tongues of Azerbaijani and Turkish, he is fluent in English and has a working knowledge of German.
According to the Russian statistics, in 1823 the Armenian population was representing 9 percent of entire population, while Muslim population was representing 91 percent. But later the percentage of population changed in favor of the Armenians; 35 percent in 1832, and 53 percent in 1880. This was the result of Russian policy to create a Christian buffer population between Russia and Muslim Persian and Ottoman Empire. Cornell writes that,
Russians saw the Azeris as generally unreliable and as potential allies to the Turks, given their ethno-linguistic affinities. By contrast, the Armenians were seen as Russia’s natural allies in the region, devoted to the Czar, and reliable. In a sense, then, Armenians were favored by the authorities and even took up important positions in the administration of the region.
The movement of the Armenian population to the Karabakh Khanate took place as the result of the Russian-Iranian War of 1826-1828 and War between Russian and Ottoman Empires in 1828-1829. According to the agreement after the war, Armenian gained right to settle in the Karabakh region under the supervision of Tzar Empire. In the aftermath, 40 thousand Armenians from Iran and 84,600 Armenians from Turkey were moved to the Azerbaijani historical city Ganja, which was called Elizavetpol, after queen Elizavet during Tzar Empire, and Yerevan gubernias, of which Karabakh was part. Nicholas I’s decree of 21 March, 1828, which said in part: “The Erivan and Nakhchyvan khanates, which were joined to Russia, should be called the Armenian region in future in all documents,” signified that Russia was set on changing the ethno-geopolitical map of the Caucasus and had made the first toponymic change, replete with political implications. This policy of Russia continued during the Soviet period, which were resulted the alteration of the demographic situation in the Nagorno Karabakh in favor of Armenians. Therefore in 1989, Karabakh Armenians declared their independence on the basis of their demographic majority.
The dispute over Nagorno Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia erupted in 1918 when the two countries created their first nation state in their history with the dissolution of Russian Tzar Empire. In May 1918, Azerbaijan yielded the Yerevan city, which was populated mainly by the Muslim Turks, to the Armenia as a capital city under the special agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia. One of the reasons to relinquish Yerevan to Armenia was to quiet Armenian territorial demand to Nagorno Karabakh. However, Armenians kept following their policy to move the Muslim population out of Nakhjivan, Karabakh, and Yerevan, which was also continued during the Soviet Union. But despite all efforts made by the Armenian side, Nagorno Karabakh was recognized as a part of Azerbaijan by Versailles Peace conference and leading countries.
After the occupation of the three South Caucasus countries by Russia, Nagorno Karabakh became again an issue and was granted with the autonomous status within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1923: “Armenians say that Stalin ‘gave’ Karabakh to the Azerbaijanis, while Azerbaijanis maintain that the decision merely recognized a pre-existing reality”. In this respect Adil Baguirov, referring to the Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History, argues that, “NK was not ‘part of Armenia until 1923’ or ‘part of Azerbaijan since 1920’s’ and was not ‘ceded’ to Azerbaijan by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, as many Western authors and news reports repeat to this day’. He writes that the most significant document related to this issue is the decree of the July 5, 1921 plenum of Kavbureau CC RCP(b) (Caucasus Bureau of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party of the Bolsheviks), where Stalin, together with several Armenian members of Kavbureau CC RCP(b), namely A. Nazaretyan and A. Myasnikyan, decided “on “leaving” (or “retaining”; the term in original Russian that was used in the document: оставить (ostavit’)) NK within Azerbaijan and not “transferring” (or ceding; in Russian: отдать (otdat’)) it to anyone: “Nagorno-Karabakh to leave within the borders of Azerbaijan SSR”. So, if Stalin decided, with the decree of Kavbureau CC RCP(b), to “retain” or “leave” Karabakh within the territory of Azerbaijan, it means that Karabakh was belonged to Azerbaijan even before the Sovietization. Concerning to the subjection of Karabakh to Azerbaijan before Soviet Union, Professor Audrey Altstadt narrates that, “early in 1920, the Peace Conference recognized Azerbaijan’s claim to Karabagh”.
During Soviet time, Karabakh was a focal point for Armenians. In 1947, 1965, and 1977 they have sent several petitions to Moscow for the transformation of Karabakh from Azerbaijan SSR to Armenian SSR. Tension increased in the eve of the dissolution of Soviet Union. On 20 February 1988 the Regional Soviet of Nagorno-Karabakh decided to transfer the region to the sovereignty of Armenia. However, this act was rejected not only by Azerbaijan SSR, but also by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and the Central committee of the CPSU, with reference to the Article 78 of the USSR constitution, which clearly signify that territorial alterations were unacceptable without the agreement of the affected union republic. Christoph Zürcher, referring to the Soviet constitutions, writes that:
According to the constitutions, autonomous republics were “national states” and not “sovereign states” like the union republics. The Cultural rights of an ASSR were far more restricted than those of a union republic…ASSRs were subjects of union republics. As national, but not sovereign, states, they did not have the right of secession either from the Soviet Union or from the union republics to which they were subject.
Zurcher highlights that, only 15 Soviet Union republics had the right of secession from the Soviet Union, but the autonomous republics or oblasts, which were belonged to the union republic, did not have the right to secede or unify with another union republic without the consent of the union republic that they are subjected. But despite this fact, Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh followed a secessionist policy and began to create their political structures with the direct support of the Armenian SSR. They elected a Congress of Authorized Representatives of the Population of the NKAO in the summer of 1989. The congress was made up exclusively of Armenian deputies, elected by local soviets or by village councils. On 24 August of 1989 the congress elected National Council, comprising 78 members, and its Presidium became the de facto government of Karabakh. Hence, from that time on, Armenian possessed unconstitutional government over Karabakh.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno Karabakh broke out. Successes in the battlefield allowed Armenians to enter into the deeper regions of Azerbaijan. Consequently, 20% of the Azerbaijani territory was occupied by the Armenian Armed Forces. During this occupation more than 20 thousand Azerbaijani citizens were killed. (Some writers, regarding to this issue, state that during 1988-1994 more than 35 thousand people died from both sides) More than 20 thousand people were injured, 50 thousand people has been disabled and 5101 Azerbaijani Turks were lost or/and captured. 66% of the captured Azerbaijani Turks is children. A third of the Azerbaijani population was affected from the Nagorno Karabakh problem directly or indirectly.
The Armenian occupation in Azerbaijan resulted with a significant amount of economic loss, which amounted to 60 billion US Dollars. Because of this loss, in this specific region of Azerbaijan, approximately 7000 establishments including industrial and agricultural establishments were closed. These establishments were providing 24% of the grain revenues, 41% of liqueur production, 46% of the potato growth, 18% of the meat production and 34% of the milk production of the country’s economy. In addition, 616 schools, 242 nurseries, 683 libraries, more than 464 historical monuments and museums, 695 hospitals, clinics and health care centers, 724 residential villages have been occupied in the region. Besides from the occupation of this region, country’s ecological system is also significantly damaged and forests in the region were destroyed.
Khojali Tragedy: 26 February 1992
The Khojali tragedy, which took place on the night of 26 February, was one of the bloodiest moments of war between Azerbaijan and Armenian over Nagorno Karabakh. On that night, the Armenian armed forces, under the command of Major Oganyan Seyran Mushegovich and Yevgeniy Nabokhin, with the help of the 366th motorized infantry brigade of the Russian Interior Ministry, stationed in the capital city of Nagorno Karabakh, Khankandi, occupied the small town of Khojali. Following the occupation of Khojali, Armenian and Russian forces massacred 613 innocent Azerbaijanis, including 106 women and 83 children. Twenty-five children were orphaned and 130 lost one parent. Eight families were totally exterminated. Four hundred and seventy-six people were permanently disabled. A total of 1275 people were taken hostage, and even though afterwards most of the hostages were released, the fates of 150 of them are still unknown. The Khojali massacre sparked the exodus of Azerbaijanis from their historic lands that were conquered by Armenians in and outside of Karabakh.
The Khojali tragedy was an ethnic cleansing and war crime against the innocent people of Azerbaijan. Armenians perpetrated unprecedented brutality against the population of the town of Khojali. “According to the results of medical examinations, 56 of the victims were killed with unusual cruelty. Among them were women, children and old people. Some bodies showed that the victims had been scalped while they were still alive. Armenians had mutilated various body parts: heads, hands, legs, ears. Some people had been burned alive”.
A Russian human rights group reported, “Scores of the corpses bore traces of profanation. Doctors on a hospital train in Aghdam noted that no fewer than four corpses had been scalped and one had been beheaded… and one case of live scalping.” Human Rights Watch called the tragedy at the time “the largest massacre to date in the conflict.” The New York Times wrote about “truckloads of bodies” and described acts of “scalping.” Pascal Privet and Steve Le Vine of “Newsweek” in the article “The face of massacre” reported: “Azerbaijan was charnel house again last week: a place of mourning refuges and dozens of mangled corpses dragged to a makeshift morgue behind the mosque. They were ordinary Azerbaijani men, women and children of Khojali, a small village in war–torn Nagorno-Karabakh overrun by Armenian forces on 25-26 February. Many were killed at close range while trying to flee; some had their faces mutilated, others were scalped”.
On 3 March 1992 the New York Times reported that,
Fresh evidence emerged today of a massacre of civilians by Armenian militants in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani officials and journalists who flew briefly to the region by helicopter brought back three dead children with the backs of their heads blown off. They said shooting by Armenians had prevented them from retrieving more bodies. Dozens of bodies scattered over the area lent credence to Azerbaijani reports of a massacre.
New York Times also mentioned that, “Near Agdam on the outskirts of Nagorno-Karabakh, a Reuter’s photographer, Frederique Lengaigne, said that she had seen two trucks filled with Azerbaijani bodies. “In the first one I counted 35, and it looked as though there were almost as many in the second”, she said. “Some had their heads cut off, and many had been burned”.
Human Rights Watch wrote that,
In February 1992, Karabakh Armenian forces-reportedly backed by soldiers from the 366th Motor Rifle Regiment of the Russian Army-siezed the Azeri-populated town of Khojali, about seven kilometers outside of Stepanakert. More than 200 civilians were killed in the attack, the largest massacre to date in the conflict.
As it seems from the above-mentioned statements, most of the international media outlets confirmed the brutality of the Khojali tragedy by the Armenian militants, but here I would like to bring attention to the two statements made by Armenian sources. In 2008, the “The Armenian Cause-Newsletter of The Armenian National committee of Canada” wrote that,
One of the primary tasks of the Artsakh self-defence forces was the removal and destruction of the enemy’s bridgehead at Khojaly. Here there was a considerable contingent of manpower, a great quantity of military equipment. It was essential to reopen the corridor that linked the settlement of Askeran with the capital Stepanakert and also to regain control of the republic’s airport, which was in Azeri hands. On February 25, the Artsakh self-defence detachments, taking up a position in the west of Khojaly, demanded that the enemies leave the military base and allow the civilians through the established corridor…Meanwhile, the Azeri service men acted in another way, using the inhabitants in the village as a shield, they resumed bombardment of the NKR populated points, and when they were compelled to leave the village, they themselves shot the civilian inhabitants.
Another Armenian Historian David Davidian wrote,
On 26 February 1992 Armenian forces succeed in capturing the second largest Azerbaijani-populated center in Nagorno Karabakh, Khojali, in the Askeran region, which had also doubled as a potent launching point for GRAD missile attacks upon surrounding Armenian regions. Close to 300 Azerbaijanis and Meshketian settlers brought to buttress the Azerbaijani presence are killed while fleeing with Azerbaijani soldiers in retreat. Just after the Armenians and the CIS’s 366th Motor Rifle Regiment captured and neutralized shelling position in Khojali, during a civilian evacuation process fighting erupted between Armenian and CIS soldiers guarding this evacuation and Azerbaijani soldiers mixed in with these evacuating civilians. The result was the deaths of hundreds of evacuating Azerbaijani civilians and soldiers.
If we follow these two statement made by Armenians we can raise a lot of questions. First, I would like to draw attention on the “Artshak self-defense” and raise the question that, Does the self-defense forces mean the unified military group of Nagorno Karabakh Armenians, military forces of Armenian Republic, and 366th Military Regiment of Russian Army, which was well equipped? The second statement shows that there were not only “self-defense” forces of Nagorno Karabakh Armenians, or, as it is mentioned “Artshak self-defense forces”, but also combined forces of ethnic Armenians and the Russian infantry regiment.
Secondly, Armenian denies the death of hundreds of civil population and estimate the civilians’ deceased less than a hundred, but second quotation from David Davidian shows that hundreds of civil population were killed during the seize of Khojali. Armenians also condemned Azerbaijan side in the death of the civil population. According to above mentioned statements and other Armenian sources, there were qualified Azerbaijani soldiers and mass quantity of heavy military equipment and the reason that Armenian attacked to the city was due to “self-defense” issue. However, as we follow the statements made by Armenians, it is clear that Armenians intended the tragedy. An Armenian police officer, Major Valery Babayan, suggested revenge as a motive. During the interview, Babayan said to the American journalist Paul Quinn-Judge that many of the fighters who had taken part in the Khojali attack “originally came from Sumgait and places like that”. This is another fact show that there was an intended plan behind the military attack to Khojali and most of the Armenian soldiers took it as “revenge” against the innocent people of Khojali. In this regard, Svante Cornell argues that, “the attack was timed, in all likelihood not coincidentally, to occur on the anniversary of the Sumgait killings of Armenians four years earlier”.
Thomas De Wall writes in his book Black Garden that during an interview the current Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian, who had been Azerbaijani citizen during the Soviet period and was a military leader in Karabakh War, said that, “We don’t speak loudly about these things.” “A lot was exaggerated” in the casualties, and the fleeing Azerbaijanis had put up armed resistance. De Wall narrates that Sarkisian’s summation of what had happened, however, was more honest and more brutal:
But I think the main point is something different. Before Khojali, 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 [stereotype]. 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.
Many Armenians and pro-Armenian writers still deny that Armenian soldiers massacred civil population of Khojali. However, the abovementioned statement of Serzh Sarkisian shows the reality; as Cornel puts it, “no one other than current Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan in an interview with British author Thomas De Wall seems to make the narrative clear”. Armenians also argue that there had been an open corridor for the peaceful evacuation of population, but the American journalist Thomas Goltz, who has been in Khojali two month before reported that there were no working phones in city, nothing was functioning, no electricity, no heating system, and no running water. The only way out of the town was by helicopter, which was under threat with each run. Besides, if there were a corridor, it is not clear why Armenians took more than thousand hostages and tortured and killed brutally most of them. Concerning to the “evacuation corridor” Thomas De Wall writes,
On the night of February 25-26, the Armenians began their attack on Khojali, assisted by the remnants of the Soviet tank regiment. About three thousand people were living in Khojali. It had been cut off by road for four months and was only defended by about 160 lightly armed men. Early in the morning, both civilians and fighters fled through the town’s one remaining exit down a valley ankle-deep in snow. Outside the village of Nakhichevanik, they were met by a wall of gunfire from Armenian fighters. Wave after wave of fleeing men, women, and children were cut down.
All these facts shows that the violence during the Khojali tragedy was well organized and planned in advance and aimed at total or partial destruction of people on the grounds of their ethnic origin confirms that these acts constitute the war crime or crime against humanity. Azerbaijan is going to commemorate the 21st anniversary of Khojali massacre this year. But unfortunately, Khojali tragedy, though characterized by gross violations of human rights, has not yet received legal recognition at the international level and no concrete measures have been taken against that criminal acts.