February 25/26 is a difficult time for us in Azerbaijan, and for all Azerbaijanis around the world. It is a day when we remember the Khojaly Massacre, one of the most brutal incidents of inhumane warfare to take place in modern times. It is a day when we commemorate what happened in 1992, in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, in the town of Khojaly. In the early 1990s, supported by powerful allies, Armenia managed to invade approximately 20% of Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory. United Nations Security Council condemned this illegal military occupation that was accompanied by total ethnic cleansing of the occupied lands of their indigenous Azerbaijani population (over 800,000 of them). Sadly, to this day, the occupation continues, and the international community does nothing to make Armenia comply with international law.
But what happened that night of February 25/26, 1992 in Khojaly was much more than an act of occupation. What happened in Khojaly was a brutal massacre. Hundreds of totally innocent, unarmed Azerbaijanis were gunned down while fleeing the Armenian army. They were gunned down like animals in a field: men, women, and children.
As an Azerbaijani Jew, I feel especially sensitive about such an incident of inhumanity in modern time, in my modern country, decades after the Holocaust, with so many years of “Never Again” already behind us. It is hard to believe human beings were still capable of such atrocities, but as we know, even today, violence and cruelty ensues, in many countries around the world. We have such a responsibility to make good on that promise, and yet the world continues to challenge our commitment. A few years ago, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin addressed this very issue at the United Nations General Assembly, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. He challenged the gathering of world leaders, asking: ““[I]s our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing of Azerbaijanis in Khojaly? Of Afghans by the Taliban? Is it effective enough today in Syria? Or in the face of the atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria? Are we shedding too many tears and taking too little action?” He understood what the Khojaly Massacre is – something that should never have happened. Something that goes against the grain of morality, of what is right in the world, of the most basic tenets of humanity.
It’s not surprising to me that the President of Israel could shed some light on Khojaly, and on Azerbaijan in general. Azerbaijan and Israel share particularly strong and lasting ties. Azerbaijan and Jews do as well. I speak from my own experience as leader of the 2,000-year old Mountainous Jewish community in Azerbaijan, but also base this sentiment on history. Azerbaijan has a bold and lasting history of protecting, honoring, and celebrating Jewish life and Judaism. During the Holocaust, Azerbaijan was a renowned safe haven for Jews, accepting as many as could make it to our land, and fighting the Nazis until their defeat, on the Russian front. For centuries before the Holocaust, during many incidents of European and regional anti-Semitism, Azerbaijan served as a safe haven for Jews then too.
In 1992, during the invasion and occupation of Azerbaijan, many Azerbaijani Jews volunteered and fought against the Armenian insurgents. One that stands out in particular is Albert Agarunov, a renowned hero in our nation, and someone who is becoming more well known across the world because of his unusual and remarkable story, and his great heroism. A Mountainous Jew, Albert was a marvelous sharpshooter, and was successful at defeating and evading the Armenian militants for much of the war. He was so skilled as a sharp-shooter, the Armenians placed the highest bounty on his head of any Azerbaijani. Sadly, Albert was killed by an Armenian bullet as he had left the safety of his tank, exposed to the insurgents so he could navigate the tank around the bodies of murdered fellow Azerbaijanis. His last act was an act of respect and kindness, and he is revered and titled as a National Hero in Azerbaijan, buried at our famous Martyrs Lane in the capital city of Baku, remembered adoringly by all Azerbaijani people.
Yes, this time of year is a difficult time, as an Azerbaijani and as a Jew, remembering this great tragedy. Thankfully, we have survivors who share their experience and supportive services to continue their healing process. Thankfully, we are a nation that can carry on as a land of peace and tolerance despite the intolerance and cruelty others have caused us to endure. Thankfully, we have the support of great nations, such as the State of Israel, the United States and many others, to continue pushing Armenia to take responsibility and to leave the occupied Karabakh region; our land they so brutally took and still refuse to leave. I hope it will not be long from now that we have more to be thankful for, and that the story of Khojaly and the entire region will have a new chapter; one without occupiers, one that has the thousands of residents returning home, even after so many years.