The armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh left deep wounds in the memory of the Armenian and Azerbaijani peoples. For more than three years, this war claimed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians. But among its many episodes, the Khojaly tragedy stands out with its special drama. The operation of the Armenian army, the purpose of which was to capture a strategically important settlement, turned into a massacre. On the night of February 26, 1992, more than 600 people died in Khojaly. Mostly civilians – the elderly, women and children. Many years have passed since then, but to this day, the parties to the conflict argue about the degree of guilt each other. Remembering the victims of the Khojaly tragedy, “
“I look out of the round window (window) and literally turn away from the incredibly scary picture. On the yellow grass of the foothills, where gray cakes of snow are still grazing in the shade, dead people lie. All this huge area is littered with corpses of women, old people, old women, boys and girls of all ages, from infants to adolescents to the nearest horizon, ”Russian journalist Yury Romanov recalled his visit to the place of the Khojaly tragedy in the book“ I am shooting the war.
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Karabakh of contention
The Karabakh conflict entered the open war stage in the summer of 1991. After the failure of the August coup, the Allied authorities suffered paralysis. Armenian forces launched a gradual attack on Azerbaijani villages. As such, the front line was not. Local combat zones appeared near Azerbaijani settlements. The largest of them were the cities of Shusha and Khojaly.
Khojaly is located nine kilometers northeast of Stepanakert. In terms of the number of inhabitants, it is one of the largest cities of Karabakh, and in terms of the number of the Azerbaijani population, it is the second. For both sides, Khojaly was a strategic point. A railway branch line and highways connecting Stepanakert, Askeran and Aghdam passed through it. And besides, near the Khojaly was the only major airport in Nagorno-Karabakh, capable of receiving transport helicopters and airplanes.
The clashes around Khojaly began long before the “hot” phase of the war. In the late eighties, the authorities of the Azerbaijan SSR began intensive housing construction there, which was allocated to refugees from Armenia and other Soviet republics, in particular to the Meskhetian Turks. The Armenians protested against such a policy, they believed that the Azerbaijani authorities are trying to change the demographic situation in the region. The population of the city really grew at a rapid pace. If in 1988, 2,135 people lived there, then by the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union there were already 6,300 inhabitants.
Armenian forces began the blockade of Khojaly in the fall of 1991. As the USSR’s internal troops were withdrawn from Nagorno-Karabakh, the ring closed and by the end of October closed completely. Armenians blocked the last road connecting Khojaly and Agdam. Now it was only possible to get into the city by helicopter: it was not very long to fly from Agdam, only the aircraft were constantly fired from the ground.
In January 1992, Khojaly was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. Electricity and water were not supplied to the city, heating and telephone communications did not work. The head of the city, Elman Mammadov, regularly asked the central government to evacuate civilians and strengthen the garrison, but all his requests remained unanswered. The last helicopter landed in Khojaly on February 13, 1992, after which the pilots refused to risk their lives. Then about three hundred inhabitants were taken out of the city.
In January, the Azerbaijani forces attempted to carry out a counteroffensive on Askeran in order to lift the blockade from Khojaly, but the operation failed completely. After that, the Armenians warned the command of the Khojaly garrison about the upcoming assault on the city (confirmation of this is in the publications of the Baku Worker newspaper). The offensive was scheduled for February 25th.
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Versions of the parties about the true causes of the assault greatly differ. The Armenian side claims that Khojaly regularly shelled residential areas of Stepanakert. Azerbaijanis, in turn, declare that the attack on the city is revenge for the Sumgayit events, especially dedicated to the next anniversary (the Armenian pogroms in Sumgait were on February 27-29, 1988, according to unofficial data, hundreds of Armenians were killed then).
Who is right is still not clear. On the one hand, the Azerbaijanis could hardly fire Stepanakert from the territory of Khojaly. The local garrison regularly reported to the Azerbaijani command that it was experiencing an acute shortage of weapons and ammunition. The Azerbaijani forces in the city had one artillery gun, one automatic grenade launcher and three units of armored vehicles.
As for the version of the desire to avenge the Sumgayit events and to coincide with the attack on the anniversary, for understandable reasons, it is extremely difficult to verify. An indirect confirmation can only be the book by Mykhor Melkonyan “The Way of My Brother”. In it, he shares the memories of his relative, who commanded one of the units during the Karabakh war. He claimed that the date of the Khojaly offensive was not chosen by chance and was timed to the anniversary of Sumgait.
By the time of the assault in Khojaly there were from two to four thousand inhabitants. The garrison was only a few hundred people. Moreover, there were a minority of professional soldiers (soldiers of the National Army of Azerbaijan and local OMON fighters), most of them were undefeated militiamen. The commander of the riot police and commander of the airport Alif Hajiyev led the defense.
Information about the participants of the assault from the Armenian side is much less. There, too, were mainly militia, but they went into battle with the support of armored vehicles – tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles. In addition, the Azerbaijani side stated that the 366th motorized rifle regiment, which at that time was subordinate to the RF Ministry of Defense, took part in the battles for Khojaly on the Armenian side. It is also quite problematic to check these statements – the regiment command did not report any dead or wounded, no dead soldiers were found in Russian uniform.
It is important to note here that in the 366th regiment there were quite a few ethnic Armenians, both soldiers and officers, who openly sympathized with the Armenian militia. There is information that the servicemen of the 366th regiment transferred military equipment to the Armenians several times, allegedly hitting the “entourage”. The military explained their actions by the fact that the transfer of combat vehicles was the only way to avoid a clash with the Armenian police and bloodshed. Alexei Bondarev, a private soldier who served in the 366th regiment, recalled how the officers at night took out armored personnel carriers with full ammunition and went into the so-called night duty. In the morning they returned empty and declared that all ammunition, including grenades, had been consumed.
Who exactly of the Armenian commanders gave the order to start the assault is still unknown. Shelling of the city began at 23:00 on February 25. In addition to the guns, Armenians used armored vehicles and volley fire systems. During the shelling, barracks and most of the fortifications at the forefront of the defense were destroyed.
At one in the morning the Armenian infantry entered the city. The last pockets of resistance were suppressed by seven in the morning on February 26. Judging by insignificant destructions, there were practically no street battles in the city – the fate of Khojaly was decided during the shelling.
The exit from the city towards Aghdam remained open. The Armenian side stated that it was left as a corridor on purpose. Armenians promised not to fire at those who leave Khojaly without a weapon. Officials of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) stated that the residents of Khojaly were warned of the presence of this corridor. However, the refugees interviewed did not know anything about him, and there was also no evidence that the Armenians were dumping leaflets on the city on the free corridor.
People in a panic rushed out of the city during the shelling. They did not have time to take even the most necessary things; most of them didn’t have warm clothes and documents. For the protection of civil Alif Hajiyev allocated riot squad. Perhaps it was the clash of Azerbaijani policemen with one of the Armenian detachments that led to the tragedy. At least, this is the official position of the NKR authorities. According to them, after the start of the assault, Azerbaijani troops from Aghdam tried to break through the Armenian blockade – to come to the aid of the Khojaly people. A fight started.
At the same time, from Khojaly, a group of refugees approached under the cover of riot police, and the policemen hit the Armenians from the rear. The surviving refugees do recall the shootings, however, they claim that the Armenians were the first to start shooting. This is quite likely if one assumes that some of the Armenian militias noticed an approach from the rear of the armed people during the battle. In the photos taken the next morning, it is clear that among those killed there were indeed people in military uniform, but the overwhelming majority were civilians. Among them are many women and children.
“It was about nine in the morning. We went to the field, on it lay a lot of dead. Probably there were a hundred people. I did not try to count them. Alif’s Hajiyev was shot down, and I wanted to help him. At that moment I was wounded. A bullet hit me in the stomach. I saw where they were shooting from. I saw a lot of corpses in this field. They were killed quite recently – their skin color has not changed yet, ”Hidzhan Alekperova recalled the morning of February 26.
“Suddenly shots began to be heard from Askeran. The people leading the chain began to fall one by one. Among women and children, I noticed a wife. Started screaming so they lay down on the ground. It was a terrible sight that I will never forget: strong, heavily armed to the teeth, Armenian guys shoot defenseless women and children, rushing around in deep snow, ”said Russian resident of Khojaly, Sergey Bondarev.
“Two groups – apparently, two families, lay together – the hands of women are trying to cover the children. Some of them, including the little girl, had monstrous wounds on the head: in fact, only a face was left. The survivors said that they were finished off at close range, already lying on the ground, ”wrote British journalists from the scene of the tragedy.
According to the investigation of the Azerbaijani side, 613 people died during the tragic events in Khojaly. 63 of them are children. 8 families died completely, 130 children lost one of their parents, 25 remained orphans. 487 people were injured, 76 of them are children. Another 150 people were missing.
On the bodies of 56 residents of Khojaly found traces of bullying. According to the testimony of the journalists “Le Monde”, among those killed were people with gouged eyes and scalps, bodies with severed heads, pregnant women with ripped stomachs. Part of the Khojaly people who had left the city escaped death from bullets, but they froze to death, trying to get to Agdam through the mountains.
The fate of those who remained in Khojaly was also tragic. The correspondent of the newspaper “Izvestia” talked about how the bodies of those killed during the assault were brought to Agdam in order to exchange them for the captured Armenians: Bundles of several corpses that were long dragged along the ground on the ropes behind the armored personnel carrier. There is no limit to bullying. ”
The NKR Supreme Council recognized that at the time of the capture of Khojaly there could be atrocities, and expressed its regret about this. However, no one was punished. Armenians laid the blame for possible cases of cruelty on individual servicemen who were from Sumgayit and whose relatives were killed by Azerbaijanis, as well as individuals with a criminal background.
Serzh Sargsyan, then one of the Karabakh field commanders, and after the President of Armenia, initially stated that Armenians prefer “not to talk about it out loud”. As for the number of victims, in his words, “a lot was exaggerated.” However, later he spoke more frankly: “Before Khojaly, the Azeris thought that we could joke with us, they thought that the Armenians are not able to raise their hand to the civilian population. We managed to break this stereotype. That’s what happened. ”
It has been 27 years since the tragedy, but it is not forgotten neither in Azerbaijan itself, nor in the numerous Azerbaijani diaspora. Every year in many countries around the world, events are held dedicated to the Khojaly events. Monuments to the victims of those events have been erected in several cities of Azerbaijan. The injured residents of Khojaly and their relatives created the organization “Justice for Khojaly” and for many years have been seeking recognition from the UN and other international organizations as genocide in February 1992. Their efforts published a book in which official documents and memoirs of people who survived the Khojaly tragedy were collected.