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