CHAPTER 23 THE PROCLAMATION OF THE NAGORNO- KARABAGH REPUBLIC AS A GUARANTY FOR SELF-DEFENCE

Residents of Gushchulare fled to Aghdam about 9 am on February 11. An Azerbaijani tractor mechanic on the local collective farm told Helsinki Watch;

“At 7 am Armenians surrounded the village from all sides and shot everywhere. At 8 am our soldiers told us we had to leave the village. Some of us were killed on the road while fleeing.”15

Meanwhile Stepanakert was being steadily destroyed. Many buildings were reduced to rubble. The “Grad” rockets rained down from Shushi onto the civilians of Stepanakert. (“Grad” is the Russian word for “hail”). The capture of the Azerbaijani stronghold of Shushi was becoming a must for the Armenians. The operation was essential if Stepanakert and all its inhabitants were not to be completely annihilated. Biut it was necessary to take Khojali first. On the night of February 25-26 Armenian forces seized the Azerbaijani town of Khojali, located about ten miles from Stepanakert. On orders from colonel A. Ter-Tadevossians, the Armenians had advanced to Khojali, then immediately turned back. That’s why when the real attack was launched on February 25, the Azerbaijanis didn’t know to believe it or not. The Armenians had left open a corridor for the Azerbaijanis through which they could escape to Aghdam. In 1988 the population of Khojali was 2 thousand and it had the status of a village, in 1992 this number grew to 5 thousand, as Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia and Turk-Meshkhetians from Central Asia had been resettled there. Khojali received the status of town from the Azerbaijani government only in December 1991, and, after Shushi it became the second most populous Azerbaijani town in Karabakh. The only airport in Nagorny Karabakh was located in Khojali and since 1990 an Azerbaijani OMON militia unit was deployed there with the purpose of defending the town and the airport. Displaced persons said that as many as forty militiamen were present in Khojali. In addition it had self-defence group of about 200 Armenian fighters sent ultimata to the Azerbaijani forces in Khojali warning that unless missile attacks from that town in Khopanakert ceased, Armenian forces would attack. According to an Azerbaijani woman interviewed by Helsinki Watch in Baku , “the Armenians made an ultimatus to Khojali after seizing Malibeili.” She added that “Khojali people had better leave with a white flag. Alif Gajiev (the head of the militia in Khojali) told us this on February 15, but this didn’t frighten us. We never believed they could occupy Khojali.”16

The attack on Khojali began about 11 pm on February 25, with heavy shelling and artillery fire. Residents fled the town in separate groups, amid chaos and panic, most of them without any belongings or clothes for cold weather. As a result, hundreds of people suffered, and some died from severe frostbite.17 Among one of the fleeing groups was the Azerbaijani OMON, led by Alif Hajiev, according to several Helsinki Watch interviewers at Nakhichevanik village, a firing took place between the Armenians accompanied by the CIS 366th regiment and the retreating OMON militia and the fleeing residents. All Azerbaijanis interviewed reported that the militia, still in uniform and armed, were interspersed with the masses of civilians and “there was shooting between Armenian soldiers and ours.”

What had happened to those dead at night, nobody could tell. Beginning February 27, Azerbaijani helicopters brought in personnel who attempted to collect bodies and assist the wounded. Members of the group, accompanied by journalists, reported that some of the corpses had been scalped or otherwise mutiliated. The mission was videotaped.

There were no definite figures on the number of civilians who were shot while fleeing Khojali. The head of the special Azerbaijani parliamentary commission, conducting investigation of the Khojali events Namig Aliev Helsinki Watch in April that 213 Khojali victims were buried in Aghdam. Some of the bodies received at the makeshift hospital in Aghdam were identified as combatants. Aliev also reported that of those bodies submitted for forensic examination, thirty-three had been scalped, had body parts removed or otherwise mutiliated.18

The Azerbaijani TV showed the mutiliated bodies of the Khojali victims for several days. This was a new source of anti-Armenian propaganda and a means to counter the Sumgait and Baku events. The Armenian party constantly reported that in fact a a firing had taken place between themselves and the Azerbaijani combatants shielded with the fleeing civilians, but who could have mutiliated the bodies at night, they didn’t know. A new character of an Armenian villain appeared in the minds of the Azerbaijani people. This character terrified them greatly, confirming the existence of the “Armenian syndrome.”

On March 4 the village Ghazanchi of Martakert region was attacked in a ground assault by Azerbaijani forces from Aghdam, which apparantly had assistance from Russian soldiers. All the eighty houses appeared under fire.

In an interview with Helsinki Watch, H. Khachatrian, a bus-driver and part-time fighter in the self-defence, said that after the villages self-defence forces and population fled to nearby villages, the Russians looted and burned its homes, leaving only four houses unscathed. He told Helsinki Watch that when he returned to Ghazanchi in mid-April he saw lying in the street six corpses that had been “eaten by animals.”19

On April 10 Azerbaijani forces attacked Maragha in the Martakert District with an artillery and ground assault from Mir-Bashir. Most of Maragha’s inhabitants had left the village after they got word that their self-defence troops could not hold their posts, which were about 2 kilometres from the village. Civilians who remained in underground shelters, mainly elderly and disabled people, were murdered and captured as hostages. The Azerbaijani forces entered the village accompanied by civilians, who looted the houses. The next day, when the Armenians re-took the village, they found eighty bodies, some of whom were missing their eyes or decapitated. Fifty-four inhabitants of the village were captured as hostages. The Helsinki Watch noted that;

“Both Azerbaijani and Armenian forces actively shelled and engaged in sniper attacks on each other’s towns and villages. They shelling alone damaged or destroyed hospitals, homes and other objects that are not legitimate military targets under applicable humanitarian law rules. These attacks killed or left maimed hundreds of civilians and generally terrorized the civilian population. Although both sides are guilty of these practices, Azerbaijani forces engaged in them with extraordinary ferocity and cruelty.”20

The loss of military outposts was the sign of Mutalibov’s defeat. A violent struggle began between Mutalibov and the Popular Front for power. The Azerbaijanis needed a ceasefire to fight in the new “front” of Baku. They achieved it through the May 8 Iran – brokered eight-point agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia, under which Azerbaijan would lift the economic blockade of Karabakh and Iran, would serve as a peaceful mediator for both sides.

Following the course of events, the Armenian party understood well why Azerbaijan signed the agreement. The Popular Front hastily withdrew its forces from Shushi to Baku. Shushi was weakened. The next day Armenian forces launched an attack on Shushi, the last Azerbaijani stronghold in Karabakh. The May 8 was the first day for the realization of the Armenian project. A corridor was left open through which the Azerbaijanis could escape to Lachin. Women and children had been evacuated from Shushi in early February 1992. Shushi was taken on May 12. The Azerbaijanis used the escape route with alacrity, offering little resistance. A wave of panic went through Lachin, Ghubatli, Zangelan, Jebrail.

Following the retreating Azerbaijani combatants, the Armenian forces found the above regions empty. They were not interested in occupying these territories but opening a corridor through Azerbaijan linking Karabakh with Armenia. The necessity to open an overland route through the town of Lachin and the establishment of a corridor for the transport of food, fuel and medicines was urgent.

Thus, after an interval of 72 years the Armenians became the masters of Shushi again. The Lachin road was called “a humanitarian corridor” by the international community. The blockade of Karabakh came to an end.

The secret of the Armenian success was in the fact they were defending their motherland, while the Azerbaijanis knew in their hearts that the land of Karabakh did not belong to them and were not ready to die for an alien land.

In June 1992 Azerbaijan held a general election and a new government representing the extremist Azerbaijani Popular Front took power. A key feature of the manifest was the “settlement of the Karabakh problem.”

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