Khojaly: The Day When All Bets Were Off!

I always say that, the magnitude and importance of Khojaly Tragedy for Azerbaijan is equal to that of 9/11 for Americans. Just like 9/11 when people talk or think about Khojaly they’ll always remember, where they were on that day, how they heard the news, what was their first reaction.

For many of us, Khojaly massacre was a very serious turning point in Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, when we realized all bets were off. Armenians will not stop at anything, will hold nothing sacred to advance. Because, if at the initial stage of the conflict there were some who blamed Moscow for escalating the tensions to keep its political grip on the region, after Khojaly it was clear that the game has changed severely. As President of Armenia Serj Sarkissian admitted himself, people in Khojaly were massacred to prove a point, to break a stereotype that Armenians will not raise their hands against civilian population.

To me, Khojaly is very personal. My family is from Karabakh. My roots, my ancestors’ graves, my family memories are laying in ruins in the Armenian occupied territories as I write this. Some of my family members who resided in Khojaly left the town in December of 1991. They were one of the few lucky ones who realized the hopelessness of the situation and took off early and moved into my grandmother’s house in Agdam. There was a point when they had about 42 family members sheltered in 4 bedrooms. But no one even thought about complaining, because they realized there’s no way back.

A week after the massacre, I was making rounds in the hospital in Baku as a medical intern where they brought few survivors. They managed to make it through the snowy mountains out of Khojaly at night half-clothed. They were being treated for frozen limbs. Many of the cases were hard to save, we ended up amputating feet, toes or hands. I kept hearing stories from patients about civilinas who tried to escape the military encircled town through the “free corridor” to the nearby town of Agdam. Only that “corridor” was attacked hours later by Armenian forces and fleeing ones were shot like turkeys in an open field, killed with unusual cruelty. I am sure you all remember the terrifying news footage and pictures of mutilated and shot from close range people that was documented courageously by journalist Chingiz Mustafayev.

As a journalist I have covered a story of Khojaly massacre and its meaning for Azerbaijani people for CNN. We had extremely hard time coming up with the footage that would be suitable and non-graphic enough to show to the international audience. The producers in Atlanta were shocked. Because, once you see it, the mental snapshot stays with you forever. I don’t care what your ethnicity, beliefs or values are, it is not a site to forget once you lay your eyes on a dead body of a scalped elderly man or a raped child.

What kind of definition we can give to Khojaly tragedy? It has been a point of debates for almost two decades… Was it a genocide? Was it a massacre?

If you open any book on military and war history you will see that since the time of Romans it was called a “destructive war”. But today, contemporary military scholars and strategist have narrowed down this general definition. Deliberate military targeting of civilians as a method of affecting the political behavior of nations and leaders is called terrorism.

My personal take is I agree with that definition. What happened in Khojaly in February 1992 was a terror. It was an attempt of Armenian side to influence Azerbaijan and its stance on Nagorno-Karabakh by hurting children, elderly and women, by treating an innocent life as a disposable bargaining chip.

An unsuccessful attempt at that too! Anyone who is a bit familiar with war strategies should have known that civilian casualties in a given conflict or war is not only morally reprehensible, but also bad military science. While it can bring short-term advantage, in the long run it does not break an opponent’s will to resist; on the contrary, it usually steels it. Killing civilians rarely if ever enhances security, and ,especially, in an age when global public opinion is of dramatically increased importance, it only undermines a nation’s force in both the field and the international arena.

Targeting innocent noncombatant civilians for military gains didn’t start with Khojaly and will not end there. In the same manner, human cruelty against another human being is a dark child of a mankind. Whether it is a terrorist beheading a hostage “for the record” or US military personnel posing in front of the camera with raped and tortured prisoners- it is indeed a sad realization that despite stepping into progressive times we didn’t leave human savagery in Middle Ages. But what is important here and what makes us different as a civilization today is for the group of people who have been subjected to this cruelty, violence and humiliation and for the people who are associated with them, as in case with Khojaly and Azerbaijani people, to talk about it, educate the international community and make it a part of history of a mankind, so it will not be repeated again, so the worst of evil within ourselves responsible for this inhumane cruelty, as it happened in Khojaly is repressed next time. If you remember when the story of Abu-Qhraib broke out first, not many Iraqis were surprised. Because as it turned out, by word of mouth people knew about mistreatment of prisoners. Only when it was spoken out, the measures were taken and those responsible were brought to justice. The campaign of “Justice for Khojaly” needs to go on until it becomes a part of books, a part of curriculums, until it becomes a symbol and equivalent of human savagery.

It is, of course, very hard to talk about it. Even almost two decades later, for the generation who witnessed it. But we have to move on. The importance of confidence building measures between Azerbaijanis and Armenians as one of the conditions to advance the peaceful negotiations can’t be underestimated. But Khojaly will definitely stand out as a tragic episode that will be most hard to deal with when it comes to those confidence building measures.

I think, it will take first and foremost an official apology and recognition from Armenian side for what happened in Khojaly for us to even start sorting out this inhumane act against Azerbaijani people.

But, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it for now- as we see today, a person responsible for this is a head of state in Armenia. A terrorist being a head of UN member state! After presidential elections in Armenia Serj Sarkisian proved that he is ready to gamble with innocent lives for political gains not only in Azerbaijan but also by opening fire and killing its own people in the streets of Yerevan.

But for us, for Azerbaijanis, forgiveness has to be down the road. I have no doubt – we are tolerant society- to the point that, sometimes, we even tolerate the intolerance.

We will forgive, but we will never and we should never forget!

Post Written by Shafag Mehraliyeva, Baku Representative for the Karabakh Foundation.