The Khojaly Tragedy and the Moment of Truth

When in 1994 Russian journalist Andrey Karaulov, the host of the Russian TV program The Momemt of Truth asked then-Chairman of the State Defence Committee of NK Robert Kocharyan about the Khojaly tragedy, he responded, “I would put next to this tragedy a series of other tragedies that would perhaps surpass the Khojaly tragedy in scale. These are the Sumgait and the Baku massacres, the depopulation of 28 Armenian villages, and the tragedy of the village of Maragha.”

“Khojaly was the village that found itself in the thick of military operations. As I see it, the warring parties should be very careful in using human settlements for military purposes and this is exactly what had happened in Khojaly. There were four Grad flamethrowers stationed inside the village which were systematically firing upon Stepanakert. And when a place turns into a position for firing Grad missiles then, naturally, it draws enemy fire. For that reason a situation emerged in Khojaly where heavy battles for the settlement took place and, the fact was, during these battles the civilian population suffered,” Kocharyan said.

Asked about the taking of Khojaly, Serge Sargsyan said carefully, “We don’t speak loudly about these things.” “A lot was exaggerated” in the casualties, and the fleeing Azerbaijanis had put up armed resistance, he claimed. “But I think the main point is something different. Before Khojaly, 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 were able to break that [stereotype]. And that’s what happened. And we should also take into account that amongst those boys were people who had fled from Baku and Sumgait.”

Samvel Babayan, who was at the center of the events, has a different interpretation. “During the Khojaly operation I was in charge of holding the Aghdam front and providing for a secure corridor along the river current so that the civilians could exit, and I accomplished that mission. The corridor was provided, but a strange thing happened. We were attacked from the direction of Aghdam. The population was supposed to pass through our positions and enter Aghdam. Among the Azerbaijani forces in Aghdam, the impression emerged that the Armenians were making a sally. The violence was committed by the Azerbaijani forces, whether wittingly or not, I don’t know. We did not attempt at the destruction of the population. Generally, during the war we had always allowed the civilian population to leave. We were in a position to block the roads and annihilate 60,000 people in Kelbajar, but we purposefully postponed military operations and provided free passage.”

Khojaly resident Salman Abbasov consequently complained, “Several days before the events of the tragedy the Armenians told us several times over the radio that they would capture the town and demanded that we leave it. For a long time helicopters flew into Khojaly and it wasn’t clear if anyone thought about our fate, took an interest in us. We received practically no help. Moreover, when it was possible to take our women, children, and old people out of the town, we were persuaded not to do so.”

In the early spring of 2005 Azerbaijani reporter Eynulla Fatulayev visited Khojaly. After returning to Baku he wrote in an article; “A few years ago I met with refugees from Khojaly temporarily sheltered in Naftalan. They openly acknowledged that for a few days before the attack Armenians had continuously warned the population over loudspeakers about the imminent operation and asked civilians to leave the encircled city through a humanitarian corridor along the Karkar River. According to refugees from Khojaly, they used the corridor and the Armenian soldiers on the far bank didn’t open fire on them. Some soldiers from the detachments of the Popular Front had for unknown reasons evacuated some of the Khojaly residents toward Nakhijevanik, which was under control of Armenians.

One month after the Khojaly tragedy Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov was interviewed by Czech reporter Dana Mazalova.
– What would you say about the Khojaly events, after which you resigned? At the time, corpses of people from Khojaly were discovered not far from Aghdam. Someone had shot them in the legs beforehand to prevent them from running away. Afterwards they were axed. On February 29th my colleagues filmed them. When we next filmed on March 2 these corpses had been scalped. What kind of strange game was that?

– As the rescued residents of Khojaly say, all that was organized to create grounds for my resignation. I don’t think that the Armenians, who had manifested a clear and knowledgeable approach to such situations, would have allowed Azerbaijanis to obtain evidence that tied them to fascist acts. If I declare that it was the fault of the Azerbaijani opposition I could be blamed for slander. But the overall picture of the conclusions is as follows: the Armenians had, in any case, provided a corridor to let the civilians escape. Why then would they shoot? As soon as Khojaly was surrounded by tanks it was necessary to immediately lead the civilians out. Earlier I had given similar orders regarding Shushi – to evacuate women and children and to leave only men in the city. It’s one of the laws of war – civilians must be rescued. My conduct was appropriate and unambiguous – I gave such orders, but why they weren’t followed in Khojaly is not clear to me.

In succeeding years as well Mutalibov continued to insist, with some corrections, that Armenians had left a corridor for the civilian population to leave, “In the evening of February 25th the late Minister of the Interior Tofik Kerimov reported to me on what had happened, but without details. He said that several hundred people had been shot in Khojaly itself. The first thing I did at the time was to telephone the leader of NK, a certain [Artur] Mkrtchyan. I didn’t know him, had never seen him but I knew his name. I asked him angrily how it was possible to shoot nearly a thousand civilians in Khojaly.”

“He responded word-for-word as follows: ‘It’s nonsense! We didn’t shoot anyone in Khojaly. When we took Khojaly, the residents had already left, since we had opened a corridor for them. Some of the residents are still there; they are staying in the building of the vocational school. We feed them, though we too have a shortage of food.’ I didn’t believe him and asked him to call Armen Isagulov, who was the head of the police department at the time, to the phone. He too told me that they had provided a corridor for the residents. That is why when I gave an interview then I said that I was told that a corridor had been opened for the civilian population. But I didn’t assert whether the corridor had in fact been provided or not. I just appealed to the fact of the telephone conversation. By the way, it is written in black and white in the report by the Memorial Human Rights Center that [Khojaly mayor] Elman Mamedov had been personally informed of the provision of the corridor,’ said Mutalibov.

On February 27 the papers in Baku wrote about only two deaths while only Seher reported, hundreds of deaths. Journalist Shamil Alexperli recalls, “On February 22, I was in Aghdam; the situation was severe. I tried to reach Khojaly a couple of times, but did not succeed and then I decided to approach Shirin Mirzoev and Allahverdi Baghirov, the commanders of self-defense units. They said that they were preparing to move the civilians out of Khojaly and for that reason a corridor had been opened in the direction of the Askeran region. They advised me to wait a few days. However, for some reason the plan to remove the blockade of Khojaly was not carried out and to date I do not know what interfered with the plan. I went to the Mayor’s building in Aghdam, where I witnessed a telephone conversation between Tamerlan Gharaev, the Deputy Chairman of Azerbaijan’s Supreme Council and Elman Mamedov. Gharaev was saying in no uncertain tones that there was “no reason to worry” and that today or tomorrow “we will have tea in Khojaly together.”

A few days after the tragedy, Khojaly Mayor Elman Mamedov acknowledged, “We knew that the corridor had been provided for the civilian population to leave.”

News of the Khojaly tragedy reached Baku in the evening of February 25, 1992 – that is, before the NK forces started the military operations. Neither Minister of the Interior Kerimov nor Minister of National Security Huseinov was able to identify the source of that disinformation. And on the morning of February 26, Ayaz Mutalibov telephoned the Speaker of the NK parliament, Artur Mkrtchyan, and the head of the police department, Armen Isagulov, to find out what had really happened.

On the evening of February 26, realizing that the loss of Khojaly would mean the defeat of Mutalibov, the Ministry of the Interior of Azerbaijan released a statement saying that “the attack by the Armenian guerilla in the direction of Khojaly has been repulsed and the Azerbaijani forces have regained the control of the city.” But this information was immediately refuted by the information center of the Popular Front, which announced that that “two trucks full of bodies of slain residents of Khojaly have arrived to Aghdam.”

The military operation of Khojaly

In mid-February on the eve of his visit to Iran, Ayaz Mutalibov ordered the Shushi commandant, Rahim Ghaziyev, to maintain a truce in his absence and not to fire in the direction of Stepanakert. But within hours after his departure to Iran, a fierce bombardment of Stepanakert and, in particular, the 366th motorized regiment began. The numerous reports sent to Moscow by Soviet military commanders, are evidence of the severe and hopeless condition of the regiment. “Just like in the city, there was no drinking water within the regiment. The apartments of the officers and their families were shelled by rockets every day. During the shelling of the territory of the regiment, private Kovalyov and Senior Sergeant Burkovetski were killed and Lieutenant Zabelin’s leg was amputated as a result of shrapnel from a shell.”

According to Ghaziyev, “On February 16 we received information about preparations for an attack on Khojaly. Our forces stationed in Shushi successfully prevented the attack with the help of this very Grad system, which we used to bombard the enemy positions. On February 25 we again received information about another attempt to attack Khojaly. I assure you we didn’t have enough ammunition to assist the Khojaly residents and to stop the Armenian attack. We didn’t use the Grad system at that time since a thick fog had floated over Shushi. On one of those days I telephoned Mutalibov and informed him of the danger threatening Khojaly. The president said that the minister of the interior, Tofik Kerimov, had assured him that the situation was stable. I realize that a trap was set for Mutalibov in Khojaly.”

Khojaly was of military significance both for the Armenians and Azerbaijanis. During the blockade NK’s airport in Khojaly was the only link connecting the Armenians of Artsakh with the outside world. At the end of the 80’s the Azerbaiajni authorities had begun populating Khojaly with Metskhetian Turks, who had been driven out of Uzbekistan. From Polyanichko’s times it was under the control of Azerbaijani forces; abduction and extortion of Armenians were the daily activities of those controlling the airport.

Stepanakert and the other Armenian towns were regularly bombed from Khojaly. Arkady Ter-Tadevosyan planned and headed the operation of seizing the town. The NK forces had to enter Khojaly from 4 directions: Noragyugh, Mehtishen, Katuk and territories adjacent to the airport. The commanders of the Armenian units were informed of an open corridor along the Karkar River, for the evacuation of citizens. “487 Armenians participated in the Khojaly operation. For the first time the Armenian units used two armored vehicles and one anti-tank cannon. During the Khojaly operation we lost 8 and the opponent, 23 men”, writes Ter-Tadevosyan.

The Khojaly operation began before midnight on February 25, that is, a few hours after Mutalibov was informed about the massacre of the civilian population of Khojaly. According to various estimates, about 3,000 residents remained in Khojaly as of February 25 and the commander of the airport emergency platoon with its 160 soldiers, Alif Hajiyev, was in charge of the defense of the city.

The contacts between Khojaly and other settlements in Azerbaijan and Aghdam, in particular, were maintained by means of helicopters. The last flight to Khojaly before the NK forces captured the city took place on February 13. Ghaziyev claimed that as of February 25, there were 12 T-72 tanks, 12 armored vehicles, 4 Grad missile launchers, 40 cannons and 2,500 soldiers in Aghdam. All this could have been directed at the Khojaly defense but no assistance was rendered.

The filming of Chingiz Mustafayev

During the years of the Karabakh war the greatest humanitarian tragedy was, of course, Khojaly. No other operation resulted in the death or suffering of so many civilians including children and women. To date the number of the killed remains debatable. The location where the civilians were killed is no less important.

Different numbers have been presented in different times. Azerbiajan’s parliamentary investigation mentioned 485, which includes all those killed during the Khojaly operation, including those who died from the cold while trying to escape the city. Namig Aliyev, one of the parliamentary investigators, told Helsinki Watch in April 1992 that 213 victims had been buried in Aghdam. Another Azerbaijani official, Aidyn Rasulov, told the same team of researchers that more than 300 bodies showing evidence of a violent death. The newspaper Karabakh reported that the Commission for Aid to Refugees from Khojaly had distributed benefits to 476 families of those who had been killed. The imam in Aghdam showed Thomas Goltz an incomplete list of 477 reported dead by their families. The Azerbaijani newspaper Ordu printed a list of 636 victims.

Azerbaijani cameraman Chingiz Mustafayev shot footage in the vicinity of Aghdam first on February 29 and then on March 2. It was his footage that was shown at the extraordinary session of the Azerbaijani parliament. The locality where Mustafayev had filmed the corpses was under Azerbaijani control, or more precisely, under the control of armed units of the Popular Front – this can be clearly seen from the footage. Mustafayev could not have filmed in those territories had they been under the control of NK forces. On June 15 he was killed during filming in the Nakhijevanik village.

Different hypotheses have been proposed about Mustafayev’s murder. The Azerbaijani official propaganda insists that he died during filming from an Armenian bullet. The NK side says that Mustafayev was killed by the popular front warriors, so that in the future he would not tell the truth about Khojaly. There are unconfirmed claims that after the filming in Khojaly, Mustafayev warned the cameraman not to talk about Khojaly and be on his guard against danger.

Vahid Mustafayev, who frequently went to film with his brother on the front line, recalled that when the Azerbaijani unit reoccupied the Armenian village of Nakhijevanik, the soldiers scoffed that Chingiz shows up, films for a few minutes and immediately leaves. “If you are a real man let’s go to the front line and you shoot there”, they told him. And so, Chingiz returned to Nakhijevanik, which on June 15, just like during the filming on February 29 and March 2, was under the control of Azerbaijan’s Popular Front military units.

“While showing of in front of the camera our soldiers began firing in the air. Soon the Armenians answered with mortar fire. I have frequently looked at Chingiz filming that last time and I understand what he was trying to do. He was trying to show how a bomb goes off. A couple of times he jumped out of the trench, trying to take a good position. You can hear his voice on the footage, ‘I was late; I missed it’. The last time the bomb exploded next to him and he collapsed. When they transported Chingiz to Aghdam he was still alive, but when they put him on the operating table his heart stopped”, recounts Vahid.

On March 3, 1992, under the pressure of the opposition, Mustafayev’s footages on the Khojaly tragedy was screened in the Supreme Council; a crying man is holding the corpse of a child wearing a red jacket and village women wearing colorful headscarves and jackets are lying in the dirt and melting snow. Thomas Golts writes, “The first scenes of the film was screened and in the next ten minutes the history of the country changed.”

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in front of the Azerbaijani parliament building to demand Ayaz Mutalibov’s resignation. During the March 5, 1992 extraordinary session of the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan, Elmira Kafarova submitted her resignation and the Dean of the Medical Department at Baku University, Yaghub Mamedov, was elected speaker of parliament. The demonstrators kept the parliament building under siege, holding parliament members inside. Mutalibov called the unfolding events a “coup d’état”. On March 6 th he resigned and Mamedov became the acting president until the presidential election was held.

This is how Mutalibov commented on these events: “My resignation was forced. I had no intention of leaving but when I realized that everything had been scrupulously planned and the left and the right had united against the president I decided not to provoke confrontation.” The retired president believed that following his resignation the NK issue would be speculated on within the internal political struggle and the further spread of war would become irreversible. “The Popular Front blamed us for not being able to solve the NK problem. And now they have to give the people assurances that they are able to solve it. There are two ways: either more resolute actions, since I was blamed for indecision, or a compromise… Suppose, they succeed in uniting all our forces. In that case all this could turn into a large-scale war without any clarity regarding who is going to win, though no one in Azerbaijan wants to fight anymore.”

Excerpt from Tatul Hakobyan’s book – Karabakh Diary: Green and Black