Remembering the innocent victims of a war crime in Khojaly

There is nothing more calamitous than the trauma of war.
February 19, 2016

There is nothing more calamitous than the trauma of war. The scars left behind from wars are definite, and the consequences profound. For all the talk of war in global terms, the most fundamental essence of it is extremely personal.

The prospect of tragedy, of senseless loss of human life, touches every part of the world today. Across the globe, in places like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine or the Caucasus, wars and conflicts continue to cause more and more suffering to affected populations. There are few things more global than war, but there is nothing more personal, or more individualized than the loss of one's own life, or the mourning of slaughtered kin.

War becomes something else, and takes on even greater consequences, when the basic lines of human decency are overpassed, and the world once again must document human brutality, massacres, and ethnic cleansing; all in violation of many international laws on wartime engagement. 

The town of Khojaly in Azerbaijan's Karabakh region might sound unfamiliar to some. But Khojaly was the scene of one of the most horrific tragedies in modern European history – a tragedy that lives in the hearts of many today as though it had just occurred.

Twenty-­four years ago, I watched in horror as TV screens in Azerbaijan showed the immediate aftermath of a brutal event: dead children, women and elderly, mutilated bodies, frozen corpses scattered across the ground. 613 Azerbaijani civilians, including some 300 children, women and elderly, had just been ruthlessly murdered in a massacre, which the international human ­rights group Human Rights Watch would later call the “largest massacre in the conflict”​ between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

On February 26, 1992, Azerbaijani civilians were attempting to evacuate the town of Khojaly in the freezing cold while coming under attack, and many were gunned down by the invading Armenian troops as they fled towards the safety of Azerbaijani lines. This brutal attack was not simply an accident of battle, it was part of Armenia's deliberate policy of terror to intimidate Azerbaijani citizens into fleeing towns and villages of the region, allowing Armenia's army to occupy Nagorno­-Karabakh and other areas of Azerbaijan. The Khojaly massacre was an unabashed campaign of ethnic cleansing, in no uncertain terms. 

This policy of ethnic cleansing and terror was even braggingly acknowledged by the very men in charge of it. Serzh Sargsyan, then one of the most senior Armenian military commanders and now the country's president, told the British journalist Tom de Waal in 2000 that “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 needed to put a stop to all that. And that's what happened.”​ One also needs to mention that Seyran Ohanian, one of the commanders of Armenian troops invading Khojaly, is currently the defense minister of Armenia and is hailed as a national hero in the country.

Since 1992, Azerbaijan has worked hard to recover from the atrocities of that brutal invasion, and to make sure the perpetrators of these crimes, the mass murder of innocent people, were condemned.

And the world has responded: countries from Mexico to Slovenia and from Bosnia ­Herzegovina to Peru, as well as nineteen U.S. states, including Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and others ­have all condemned the Khojaly massacre.

The Khojaly massacre has also not gone unnoticed by Israel. President of Israel Reuven Rivlin speaking to the United Nations General Assembly last year, noted:  “Is 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 in Khojaly?”

More than two decades after Khojaly, Armenia's illegal occupation of 20% of Azerbaijan’s territory still continues despite international condemnation, and nearly one million Azerbaijani refugees remain uprooted.

This unprovoked and senseless  land grab has not brought any benefits to Armenia – on the contrary, it has only weakened the country and significantly reduced its sovereignty and independence making it over-reliant on external help. The country has lost almost half of its population since 1991 to economic emigration.

In a powerful contrast, Azerbaijan has become the region’s largest economy, pursuing and succeeding with a truly independent foreign policy and promoting interfaith tolerance and harmony in a difficult neighborhood. The country is also a vital strategic partner for the U.S., especially in the areas of global energy security and the fight against terrorism.

Yet to the people of Azerbaijan, the tragedy of Khojaly can never be forgotten, or lessened by the blessings of recovery.  Despite global condemnation, Armenia denies these crimes, as if genocide denial were an acceptable, everyday sort of national policy.

Azerbaijan will continue its fight for justice for the Khojaly victims. And we would like to see the U.S. Congress join this struggle. A Congressional condemnation of the Khojaly massacre would be the first step in the right direction. For our future generations, let us make sure that such callous human cruelty cannot occur freely in this world, because we wish our children to live in a world that will no longer tolerate the madness of genocide and ethnic cleansing. For the crimes of Khojaly, like the crimes in any other part of this world, there is no ambiguity of blame. Justice must be a swift measure, and there is nothing so unjust in the world as the murder of innocents.

Based in Los Angeles, Nasimi Aghayev is Azerbaijan’s Consul General to the Western United States

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