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Azerbaijan: Armenians and Azerbaijanis Remember Suffering

  • Jolyon Naegele

Sumgait, Azerbaijan; 2 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Azerbaijan last week marked the sixth anniversary of a massacre of several hundred Azerbaijani civilians at the village of Khodzhaly in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Also last week, Armenians commemorated the tenth anniversary of killing of at least 26 Armenian and six Azeri civilians in the Azerbaijani coastal city of Sumgait.

The prevailing view in Armenia is that the Sumgait killing was organized by the Soviet Azerbaijani authorities to intimidate ethnic Armenians in the republic, primarily those in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, in a bid to stop the separatist movement.

Official Azerbaijani reports say ethnic Armenian forces on the night February 25-26, 1992, killed some 485 Azeris and members of five other ethnic groups in Khodzhaly, including 106 women and 33 children.

Karabakh Armenians issued a report last year saying that residents of Khodzhaly had been told to evacuate, but also alleging that Azerbaijani forces refused to let them flee.

Some 250 refugees from Khodzhaly, just north of Karabakh's capital Stepanakert, now reside in the Azerbaijani coastal town of Sumgait, which ten years ago on February 29, 1988 was the scene of the first in a series of ethnic killings in Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Last week (Feb. 26), Arif Aliyev, head of the Azerbaijani Journalists Union, said that the Khodzhaly massacre was incomparably more painful for Azerbaijanis than the Sumgait killings.

What happened in Sumgait has very complicated, serious, contradictory roots concerning who organized it, how it was carried out, Aliyev said, adding that despite these contradictions, this case received very broad international attention and the world knows quite a lot about it. Aliyev also said that Khodzhaly was a tragedy on a much more serious scale than that in Sumgait and clearly involved what he termed "executive force." Yet he noted the Khodzhaly killings failed to gain condemnation around the world. Aliyev described Khodzhaly as still a fresh wound, involving far more victims, many more witnesses and remaining acutely on people's minds.

The chairwoman of the Azerbaijani National Committee of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Arzu Abdulayeva said she is convinced the KGB was behind the killings, noting that a Soviet military unit was stationed just half an hour from the city, but did not interfere.

"I am completely convinced that it was the KGB of the USSR which cultivated this, organized and did it" Abdulayeva said, adding that when she asked a Soviet soldier for help he responded that his troops were barred from interfering. She said the killings went on for a day.

Abdulayeva said that based on her research, what happened in Sumgait was very similar to events in the Gugark district in northwestern Armenia several months later in 1988 when, she said, 17 ethnic Azeris were slaughtered. She said nothing was known for a long time about the Gugark killings beyond rumors because of a cover-up.

"It was a pogrom in Armenia, a pogrom in Azerbaijan with a common pattern of implementation. "

Abdulayeva said Khodzhaly was in response to the refusal by the Azerbaijani president at the time, Ayaz Mutalibov to grant the Russian military access to defend Azerbaijan's southern borders. She said the massacre was organized by special services, though it is not clear whether from Russia or Armenia, and carried out by the CIS Army's 366th regiment with the participation of local ethnic Armenian units.

"It was an act that did not spare women or children. They were shot one after another. It was a sea of blood, a cemetery in a field where they once grew wheat for their daily bread. It is a very bitter memory for our nation but after all that has happened we must remember Sumgait, Baku, Khodzhaly and Gugark; not to cultivate evil between nations but to determine who was guilty. The guilty must be punished, All these events must show us that it was not nations that were to blame in this war... They were used as an instrument and became victims.

But the man who headed the Soviet Armenian Communist Party for 14 years from 1974 until 1988, Karen Demirchian, told RFE-RL in Yerevan that it is not in the Armenian character to conduct "pogroms" although , in his words, it is unfortunate that suffering and bloodshed occurred.

"The pogroms began in Azerbaijan -- I did not see any pogroms in Armenia, " Demirchian said, adding, "what caused the clashes between people is another issue." In his words, "there were no pogroms in Armenia nor will there ever be any -- unfortunately there were pogroms in Azerbaijan and they began in Sumgait."

Demirchian, who is currently one of 12 candidates in Armenia's March 16 presidential elections, says that it would be better if the Soviet Azerbaijani authorities had condemned the pogroms at the time and responded with legal measures .

Asked if the Soviet KGB was involved in organizing the killings, Demirchian said that this is an issue he does not want to get involved in.

The mayor of Sumgait, Shakir Abushov said that ten years after the Sumgait killings, a thorough investigation and explanation has yet to be made.

Ethnic cleansing between 1988 and 1994 resulted in the expulsion of some 850,000 Azerbaijanis, mainly from Azerbaijani territory now occupied by ethnic Armenian forces, and nearly 200,000 Azeris from Armenia.

Mayor Abushov said that of Sumgait's 5,000 ethnic Armenians only about 100 still reside in this seaside city. 60, 000 of Sumgait's current population of 350,000 are refugees --living in hotels, dormitories, hospitals as well as in an assortment of shacks, hovels, trailers, and caravans.

"If we look at history, we see the Sumgait events began in Armenia -- in Kapan and the district of Gugark and Azerbaijanis were expelled from the territory where they had lived and this served to feed Armenian hatred towards Azerbaijanis," Mayor Abushov said, adding, "the scenario for the Sumgait events was not prepared in Sumgait but in Armenia and quite possibly in the center, not necessarily Moscow but possibly some other city." In his words, "the facts show that what happened in Sumgait and later in dozens of places on Azerbaijani territory elsewhere was practically beyond the capabilities of the Armenians."

"In principle, for us and our children there is no need to fear because we are from Sumgait... what happened here was not done by Sumgait's people," Mayor Abushov said, adding, "hundreds of Sumgait residents in those days ten years ago saved the lives of Armenian residents, sheltering their in their apartments."

The head of one of Azerbaijan's main opposition parties, the center-right Musavat, also believes the Soviet KGB organized the Sumgait massacre. Former Speaker of Parliament (in 1992-93) Isa Gambar noted that the "pogroms" followed the February 20, 1988 decision by the Nagorno-Karabakh regional soviet to secede from Azerbaijan.

"That pogrom was organized to drive a wedge into future relations between Azeris and Armenians" Gambar said, adding "unfortunately, when a secret organization conducts an operation on such a scale, there is no record of proofs of their guilt -- these services know how to cover up their wrongdoing."

"Today, everything demands of us that we not look back at the past but forward to the future to contemplate the current situation and a possible way out of this conflict. Nevertheless, most would agree that a solution to the ten-year conflict is still a long way off."