Khodzhaly, Nagorno-Karabakh; 5 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Three heavily war-damaged hamlets in the valley leading northeast from Nagorno-Karabakh's capital Stepanakert toward Agdam make up the mainly Azeri community of Khodzhaly.
Today the overwhelming majority of stone farmhouses are roofless, burned out, uninhabited shells. The former inhabitants are dead or have fled. A few Armenian refugee families have settled here.
Military operations by Karabakh Armenian forces and Azerbaijani forces in and around Khodzhaly just over six years ago resulted in the deaths of 485 Azeris, including 106 women and 33 children; Baku says that they died in a single day. Some 250 survivors currently live in the Azerbaijani coastal city of Sumgait, which ten years ago was the scene of the first in a series of mainly anti-Armenian mass killings in which, Baku says, 32 people died, although survivors allege many more were killed.
Last week, Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev issued an "appeal to the Azeri nation in connection with the sixth anniversary of the Khodzhaly killing" accusing "Armenian military forces... assisted by foreign mercenaries of wiping the town of Khodzhaly from the face of the earth on February 26, 1992." Aliyev said that the "defenseless civilian population was destroyed without mercy.... hundreds of people were taken captive and subjected to horrific torture and unprecedented degradation." He pledged the "bloodshed will not go unpunished and the guilty will sooner or later be brought to justice," adding that "through the Azeri people's strength and will ... Azerbaijan's territorial integrity will be restored and all refugees," estimated at some 850,000 in Azerbaijan, "will be able to return to their birthplaces."
While issuing this and similar declarations about Khodzhaly in the Baku media late last month, Azerbaijani authorities permitted for the first time in years a televised discussion about the mass killings ten years ago of ethnic Armenians in the coastal city of Sumgait.
The president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Arkady Ghukasian, says the Sumgait killings were Azerbaijan's response to the democratic will of the people in Nagorno-Karabakh. He says Khodzhaly was something quite different.
"As far as the events in the village of Khodzhaly are concerned, to a great extent it is propaganda from Azerbaijan. That is obvious. There was bloodshed. Whose?... I don't understand why Khodzhaly has gained such significance. Azerbaijan unleashed this by refusing to stop the killings in Sumgait, the slaughter of Armenians in Baku (in January 1990), .. in Kirovabad (Gyandzha) and elsewhere." Ghukasian goes on to say that "the propaganda war is not over, Azerbaijan is intentionally trying to focus on the subject of Khodzhaly, although those events did not differ at all from the occupation by the Azerbaijani army of the ethnic Armenian village Maragha or of Shaumian or Mardakert." He adds that "there is a war here and war has its own laws -- from a human point of view it is always a tragedy."
Early this year, new road signs went up around Khodzhaly renaming the community Ivanovka, after the commander of the local military base general Kristofor Ivanian. Ghukasian says renaming the village was just a "popular joke" and is not official.
The head of the Nagorno-Karabakh Army's Department for Moral and Psychological Preparedness, Major Edik Petrosian, says Azerbaijan commemorates the events in Khodzhaly "merely because they coincide" in time with the anniversary of the Sumgait killings.
Petrosian notes Khodzhaly is located on the main road linking the
center of Nagorno-Karabakh with the districts of Martuni and Gadrut, which, he says, were practically cut off by the Azeri community living in Khodzhaly.
"More than once, cars or columns of vehicles came under attack. They beat or and killed people who were passing through Khodzhaly... Khodzhaly became a veritable bridgehead for the Azeris threatening Nagorno-Karabakh above all its capital Stepanakert."
As a result Major Petrosian goes to say, "we had no other choice" but to take Khodzhaly for the safety of the civilian population in Stepanakert.
"If the civilian population dies in war, that is the fault of those who were in power; secondly, the Armenian side gave the civilian population the opportunity to leave the village...a corridor was established toward Agdam and those who could left and those who could not...of course, when there is war there is suffering."
Khodzhaly is now subordinate to the much larger village of Askerian down the road toward the uninhabited Karabakh occupied Azeri town of Agdam which was destroyed, according to the chief administrator of Askeran district Sanver Akopian.
Akopian, a former Nagorno-Karabakh deputy defense minister (1995-97) says that homes will be rebuilt in Khodzhaly for those who want to live there. He says the building materials come from structures in Agdam that survived the fighting..
"I'd like to give my opinion in a couple of words as a witness and participant to the Khodzhaly operation: Azerbaijanis suggest to the world that several hundred peaceful inhabitants were killed. No such thing happened. I do not exclude that civilian inhabitants did die there. But this happened at a time of military operations. This could have been caused by some sort of shelling or stray bullets, but for civilians to have been executed -- no. On the contrary, the fighting ceased temporarily, a corridor was established. I can show you right here how they went, they came from over there -- many were shot by their own (Azerbaijani) forces. Our post was just a few hundred meters from their post. We let the civilians through. I don't know if the Azerbaijani post knew the Azeris were coming, but from the Azeri side there was a very strong bombardment and many died right in this zone. Then their helicopters evacuated them. At the time, the Azerbaijani command and leadership blamed their own soldiers for what happened. I do not believe there was an extermination of the civilian inhabitants of Khodzhaly."
Akopian says that some 100 Armenians families currently live in Khodzhaly, rebuilding and inhabiting homes there.
One of them is Andreinik Sarkisian, a 60-year-old welder, who has been living here for the last two years.
"It was after Sumgait. What they did they got back. Nothing more...
Q: Was there a pogrom here or what happened?
A: No, what sort of pogrom? They were told to leave and when they crossed over to the other side, their people, their OMON (special forces) began shooting and they thought the Armenians were shooting. It was their OMON right here -- that is even worse than a pogrom when their own people began shooting them."
Another Khodzhaly resident is Armen Aruzamanian, an unemployed disabled veteran of the Afghan and Karabakh wars who moved to Khodzhaly four years ago after his home in Askeran was destroyed in fighting. He now ekes out a living for his family by raising potatoes in their garden. He claims most Azeri residents fled Khodzhaly shortly after the war broke out in 1991 when they realized they were not strong enough to protect their families. Aruzamanian says that in their place came Azeri OMON forces who began shooting at ethnic Armenian positions.
Aruzamanian insists Azeris only began inhabiting Khodzhaly 40 to 50 years ago, noting that they did not have a cemetery of their own in Khodzhaly. He puts it, "they knew it was not theirs" and buried their dead in Agdam. He says that before war broke out in 1991 Azeris said they would give up their land for blood. In Akopian's words, "we shed our blood and now they want to resolve matters on paper -- we were ready to resolve things on paper ten years ago."
Aruzamanian says Khodzhaly's Armenians will never let the Azeris return, not even following an internationally negotiated resolution.
"We defended our land and will defend it to the end, to the death," says the disabled veteran, adding that any Azeri attempt to return would, in his words, mean "full-fledged war again." But, he adds, we will never let that happen."