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Karabakh: Flag of Hope, Promise of Peace

This week, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev walked through my hometown of Khojaly, where I have been exiled from for over 30 years, and raised the Azerbaijani flag.
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October 22, 2023
Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev raises Azerbaijan’s flag in Khojaly, the town in Karabakh where the worst massacre in the 1992 Karabakh Conflict occurred, and where 613 Azerbaijani civilians were murdered by Armenian forces. (Used by permission)

31 years ago, as a young adult with my first job out of high school, my life was turned completely upside down in one night. 

My hometown of Khojaly, once idyllic, was destroyed overnight in one of the worst massacres of the century. Some managed to escape the onslaught of Armenian invaders; many perished that night of February 25, 1992, their bodies strewn across the fields and forests they had run through in hopes of escape. 613 unarmed men, women, children, and elderly were murdered in cold blood. 

I was captured. Because I worked for the phone company, the Armenian soldiers assumed I had knowledge of Azerbaijan’s communication systems, and I was tortured for information. I was beaten and abused, degraded in the worst ways imaginable. I only survived when I was traded for cigarettes and gasoline, left on the side of the road and thankfully rescued. I have endured immense pain and multiple surgeries to treat the damage they caused to my young body. 

And despite all I endured, I have spent decades sharing my story of survival and endurance and working with organizations across the globe to spread a message of hope and peace. A great ally in this effort has been leaders and members of the Jewish community, worldwide, and especially in Los Angeles. I remember several years ago, a synagogue in Los Angeles hosted a memorial for the victims of the Khojaly Massacre, a rare example of compassion and collaboration; memorializing the massacre of Muslims in a Jewish space. 

And so despite these immense tragedies and all that has been lost, today I share a glimmer of actual hope, and a sign of a better future for the survivors of Khojaly, and for  survivors of injustice and inhumane war across the world. This week, Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev walked through my hometown of Khojaly, where I have been exiled from for over 30 years, and raised the Azerbaijani flag. For so many years, I have longed to return home, and I have waited for the violent occupation of my hometown to end, and for the  entire Karabakh region of Azerbaijan to be free from the invaders. 31 years is a very long time to wait, but witnessing the flag wave in the Karabakh wind, knowing that my home and the home of my friends and family can be returned to now, it makes 31 years feel like a small amount of time. 

Nearly 1 million Azerabaijanis have lived as internally displaced refugees since Armenia invaded and ethnically cleansed the Karabakh region Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. Khojaly, an Azerbaijani-populated town in Karabakh, was one of many occupied towns, but it was also the tragic place of the largest massacre in the conflict, as characterized by Human Rights Watch. It was the place where I spoke my first words, learned to read, grew up with my family and friends – and the place where I saw the worst example of human brutality imaginable. Now I look to the coming  weeks and months, to the rebuilding and revitalization of the many towns across Karabakh that have been liberated, and I feel that absolutely anything is possible. If we can endure and survive such an atrocity and still face tomorrow with a sense of hope and purpose, I believe anything is achievable. 

I believe peace and friendship is obtainable with our Armenian neighbors, with those that have left Karabakh and those who remain. I hope those Armenians who recently left Karabakh will return and live with us peacefully together. 

As the surviving residents of Khojaly, we will now return to our hometown with the uncompromising values of tolerance and acceptance of diversity – qualities that are embedded in our national value system. We will make neighbors and friendships with all peaceful residents of Karabakh; we have all witnessed the power of peace over the calamity of war and hatred, and we know better.  

31 years ago my heart was broken, alongside my back, and the dreams of my youth. But with the support of so many friends and family, with the full support of my countrymen, I have recovered and grown into this day with a renewed sense of hope and purpose. I am grateful to the world and to God that my hometown has  been fully recovered and will be fully restored. 

I pray for this and peace for all of us, Azerbaijani and Armenian alike. I believe that through compassion and kindness, miraculous outcomes can be achieved and friendships can be formed. The Azerbaijani flag waving  in Khojaly after 31 years is one such miracle, and I believe, and hope, there are many more to come. 

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