Azerbaijan blames Armenia for a massacre of civilians in the South Caucasus. Armenia denies the charge. Meanwhile, lasting peace proves elusive.

Victims of the Khojaly massacre, 1992 (Ilgar Jafarov/Wikimedia Commons)

By Rashad Mammadov

Azeris around the world this week mourn the 28th anniversary of a massacre of civilians during a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia that still simmers and which periodically threatens to entangle Turkey and Russia.

Azerbaijan considers the 1992 slaughter of more than 600 civilians in the town of Khojaly part of a policy of genocide executed by bitter enemy Armenia during fighting over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the South Caucasus.

Armenia says the killings resulted from wartime military operations and blames Azerbaijani forces for preventing civilians from evacuating the town and then shooting those who tried to flee. Human Rights Watch has rejected Armenia’s position.

The radically different interpretations and descriptions of the incident illustrate the monumental challenge of bringing lasting peace to a volatile region where Russia, Turkey and Iran rub elbows.

Animosity runs deep

Although Armenia’s version is disputed by international observers, there is general agreement that during six years of fighting that killed some 30,000 and ended in a shaky truce in 1994, civilians on both sides of the conflict suffered atrocities that haunt the region to this day.

According to Azeri government figures, some one million people were forced to leave their homes and still cannot return.

The region in dispute, Nagorno-Karabakh, is claimed by Azerbaijan but governed by a self-proclaimed state with an Armenian ethnic majority. The fighting that erupted as the Soviet Union crumbled in the early 1990s has died down, but animosity runs deep, and Azerbaijan to this day stakes a claim to the territory, which it says represents about one fifth of its total area.

The massacre at Khojaly crystallizes Azerbaijan’s grievances, which date back more than a century and take root in ethnic divisions between Armenians and Azeri.

UN resolution

Since a 1994 ceasefire in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, representatives of Armenia and Azerbaijan have been holding peace talks mediated by international powers led by France, Russia and the United States. Thousands of refugees in Azerbaijan have not been allowed back to the disputed region.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been arming themselves, and there are regular ceasefire violations, raising the risks of a larger conflict that could draw in regional allies such as Russia, aligned with Armenia, or Turkey, which has close ties to Azerbaijan. The most recent sizeable clashes took place in 2016, killing an estimated 350 soldiers and civilians from both sides.

The South Caucasus is a mountainous land bridge between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and the scene of periodic fighting since the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, which only intensified fighting over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In 2008, the United Nations General Assembly called for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, which it said belonged to Azerbaijan. Armenia has ignored the UN resolution.

In December 2008, the enclave held a referendum and proclaimed the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, but Azerbaijan dismissed the vote, saying the Azeri population in the region was not allowed to participate.

Survivors await justice

For Azerbaijan, Khojaly was the victim of genocide carried out Armenian forces. Although 10 countries and 21 U.S. states recognize Khojaly as a massacre of civilians, few of them consider it genocide.

There is little disagreement, however, over the fate of hundreds of Khojaly civilians on February 26, 1992.

Khojaly was strategically located near an airfield, making it a key target for Armenian forces as they sought to take control of the town in 1991-92.

As Armenian forces seized control of the village, civilians made a last, desperate attempt to flee the battle zone. Western journalists documented seeing bodies, including women and children, shot at short range or stabbed to death. There were reports of victims having been scalped.

Azerbaijan says 613 civilians were killed, including 106 women and 63 children.

Although Armenia has sought to deflect blame, Gerard Libaridian, who was an adviser to Armenia’s president in 1992, has acknowledged that in Khojaly, “something unacceptable did happen, something that involved killings and mutilation of Azeri civilians by Armenian forces in Karabakh.”

While the antagonists argue over the details of the massacre, survivors await justice to be served.


  1. What was the Soviet Union?
  2. What is Nagorno-Karabakh?
  3. What is the definition of genocide?

Rashad Mammadov is a Communication and Journalism professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, Canada. Born in Azerbaijan, he worked as a journalist in Baku in the early 2000’s. His experience covering the geopolitics of the Middle East and former Soviet States led to his choice of academic career with a focus on media-government relations. Fluent in Azeri, English, Russian and Turkish, he holds two master’s degrees and a PhD in Mass Communications.


Massacre haunts divided Caucasus amid shaky ceasefire

  1. Here again we witness Azerbaijani propaganda and fiction at the expense of real Azeri victims.

    First of all the same Human Rights Watch quoted by the author puts the number of victims of this tragedy as 161 and not the fictive number of 613 Baku wants the reader to believe.

    Secondly, this true tragedy has been a propaganda tool for Baku in a futile attempt to portray the Armenians as aggressors, where the true aggressors were the Azerbaijani side. The totally legal pursuit of self-determination by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karababh was met by a brutal genocidal responce by the leadership of BAku where thousands of Armenians were killed in well-known and well-documented pogroms of Sumgait, Kirovabad, Getashen ,Martunashen, Shaumian in 1988-1989, followed by the horrific orgy of massacres of Armenians in Baku in 1990.

    To consult the well-documented and openly ridiculous Azeri falsifications click on the link below; And learn the truth.

    Azerbaijan should be brought to international criminal tribunal to answer for its crimes against humanity, for its genocide of Armenians not only in Karabakh but in Azerbaijan proper. In 1988 over 500,000 Armenians lived in Azerbaijan, today there is no Armenian left except in Karabakh thanks to the heroic Armenian defense units who saved the lives of their families by the murderous gangs of Azeris sent by successive despotic leadership in Baku.

    1. I am not sure what your argument is? Are you saying it wasn’t the Armenian military who killed those people? Or are you saying that they had a right to kill civilians because someone hypothetically killed Armenians in another place?

      So, 161 slaughtered civilians is less of a tragedy than 613? Is that your logic?

      You want to talk about bringing people to international criminal court, start with your generals who admitted, on record to deliberately killing civilians, How about your government, who put up a monument to a nazi collaborator in the centre of your capital city:

      I am familiar with that website you cited. Are you aware that the wording in many documents on that website is different from the wordings of original documents. Shameless falsification!

  2. As a communications and journalism professor, the author is aware of the effect the selective deletion of facts has on an unsuspecting readership. Let’s look at the record.

    First, nobody would have died on either side if Azerbaijan didn’t base its emerging national ethos on the expulsion of Armenians from within the borders granted them jurisdiction by Joseph Stalin.

    Second, 90% of Stepanakert, the regional capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, was destroyed mainly from indiscriminate shelling from Khojaly. Azerbaijan had to assume Khojaly was a lead target needing neutralizing.

    Third, by February 1992, shelling from Khojaly had killed over 30 members of the Russian 366 Mountain Rifle group stationed in Stepanakert. The Azerbaijanis must have known this military detachment would eventually retaliate.

    Fourth, when Armenians finally reached Khojaly and ended the shelling, for a week, Armenians publicly announced on megaphones, radio, and TV, to the civilian population to get out as a final battle was clearly in the works. However, the Azerbaijani military did what it could to prevent civilians from leaving Khojaly. During a last-minute exit of Azerbaijani civilians, using a corridor created by Armenian fighters, shooting began between Azerbaijani soldiers and Armenians, after which many, on the order of a hundred or so Azerbaijani civilians, were killed. Their names registered in human rights reports. Within weeks, that number began to rise until it was assumed 600+ was good enough. Azerbaijanis never make mention of Armenian losses.

    The defeat of Khojaly forced from office then Azerbaijani President Mutalibov. Mutalibov describes the Azerbaijani political engineering of events at Khojaly in an interview with Czech reporter Dana Mazalova in the April 2 issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper. Of course, several years after this interview and reiterated earlier this month, Mutalibov claimed he never made such statements, even though the papers exist.

    Within hours of the deaths in Khojaly, the famous Azerbaijani video journalist Chingiz Mustafayev recorded the destruction. Four days later, Mustafayev returned and found many of these bodies moved from Khojaly to many km inside the Azerbaijani side of the contact line. Mustafayev videoed these same bodies postmortem mutilated, surrounded by Azerbaijani soldiers. Some reporters recognized the earlier Khojaly bodies subsequently mutilated. Azerbaijan claims Armenians hacked up the victims, yet all show wounds that hadn’t bled. Dead bodies don’t bleed. Two months later, Mustafayev lost his life under mysterious circumstances. Mustafeyev’s second film was kept under strict censorship by Azerbaijan until 2017 when Chingiz Mustafayev’s brother Vahid, released the film after Azerbaijani authorities closed down his TV station in Baku.

    Azerbaijanis provide “photos of Khojaly,” which included photos of mothers grieving over dead children, but they were photos from a 1980s-era earthquake in Erzerum, Turkey. Periodically, Azerbaijan would present what they claim as photographic evidence of events in Khojaly. As an example, Azerbaijan took previously color photos from the mid-1990s carnage in Yugoslavia, made them into black and white, and claimed they were bodies from the events in Khojaly in 1992. Last year’s Azerbaijani “Khojaly commemoration” in Iran had a photograph from the 1915 Turkish genocide of the Armenians, claiming it was from in Khojaly in 1992. That photo is in the US National Archives. If events in Khojaly were so evident, Azerbaijan would not have to plagiarize evidence.

    Less than two months after the Khojaly event, early morning on April 10, 1992, Azerbaijani soldiers captured the peaceful Armenian village of Maragha. The soldiers murdered, hacked up, and burnt alive nearly 100 Armenian civilians. Azerbaijanis have forgotten this act of premeditated barbarism.

    Azerbaijan failed to thoroughly cleanse Armenians that were placed under their jurisdiction by Joseph Stalin, demonstrated by sovereignty exercised by the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh today. Azerbaijanis continue to use the term genocide to describe events in Khojaly to a world audience that has been fed a story with most of the facts deleted and others manufactured.

    Yerevan, Armenia

    1. Interestingly, the article is based on international sources while your comments don’t link any objective sources, or any sources for that matter.

      What you call Stepanakert is actually Kahnkendy, it is an Azeri work and translates as (Khan’s village). It was renamed after communist Stepan Shaumyan suring soviet times.

      Your statements about Azeri military’s engagement were rejected not by just Human Rights Watch that article mentions, but also by U.N. investigation team that visited the region later that year.

      Dana Mazalova is a Russian reporter of Armenian origin and she made up that story. Former president Ayaz Mutallibov, whoi still lives in Baku refused even meeting with that reporter. No one has ever presented a proof of that statement by Mutallibov. Mazalova admis that she does not have a recording of anyting.

      But here is what we have a proof of – an interview of former Armenian president, Serj Sargsyanby Thomas deWaal, an Armenian Defense Minister in 1992 who said openly: ““Before Khojalu, 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.” Here is the link:

      And since you mentioned Chingiz Mustafayev, here are some footage from him filming the bodies in Khojaly:
      Watch it, hear him crying when filming murdered infants and then try to convince people in your conspiracy theory.

      Most of the “photos of Khojaly” as you call them come from international journalists, from agencies like Reuters and Agency France Press. Are they also in the conspiracy?

      This article does a great job explaining without any bias and side taking.

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