Thomas de Waal, 'Black Garden'
Beginning in the New Year of 1992, the Armenians began to break out of the Karabakhi capital, Stepanakert. They captured the Azerbaijani villages that surrounded the town, expelling the hundreds of Azerbaijanis who remained there. Their main target was now Khojali, five miles northeast of Stepanakert and the base for the region’s airport.
Khojali had been the focus of a large Azerbaijani resettlement program. In 1991, it had a population of 6,300.21 In October 1991, the Armenians cut the road connecting Khojali and Aghdam, so that the only way to reach the town was in a helicopter: a quick flight from Aghdam followed by a rapid corkscrew descent.
In January, when the American reporter Thomas Goltz made this terrifying trip, he found the town cold and poorly defended. “There were no working telephones in Khojali, no working anything—no electricity, no heating oil, and no running water, Goltz wrote. “The only link with the outside world was the helicopter—and these were under threat with each run.
By the time the last helicopter flew in to Khojali on 13 February 1992, perhaps fewer than 300 people had been evacuated by air and about 3,000 people remained. The town was defended by the OMON commander of the airport, Alif Hajiev, and 160 or so lightly armed men. The inhabitants waited anxiously for the expected Armenian attack.
The Armenian assault began on the night of 25–26 February, a date probably chosen to mark the anniversary of the Sumgait pogroms four years earlier. Armored vehicles from the Soviet 366th Regiment lent their support. They surrounded Khojali on three sides before Armenian fighters went in and overwhelmed the local defenders. Only one exit out of Khojali was open. Hajiev reportedly told the civilians to escape and make for Aghdam, and that his OMON militiamen would accompany them for their protection.
In the middle of the night, a large crowd fled through the woods, which were ankle-deep in snow, and started to descend the valley of the small Gargar river. In early morning, the crowd of Khojali civilians, interspersed with a few militiamen, emerged onto open ground near the Armenian village of Nakhichevanik.
There they were hit by a wall of gunfire from Armenian fighters on the hillside above. The militiamen returned fire, but were heavily outnumbered and killed. More fleeing civilians kept on coming onto a scene of appalling carnage.
A Khojali resident, Hijran Alekpera, told Human Rights Watch: ‘By the time we got to Nakhichevanik it was 9:00 a.m. There was a field and there were many people who had been killed. There were maybe one hundred. I didn’t try to count. I was wounded on th[is] field. Gajiv Aliev was shot and I wanted to help him. A bullet hit me in the belly. I could see where they were shooting from. I saw other bodies in the field. They were newly killed — they hadn’t changed color’.
A few days later, a terrible aftermath greeted the reporters and investigators who came to these hillsides. Torn bodies littered the snowy ground. Anatol Lieven of The Times noted that “several of them, including one small girl, had terrible injuries: only her face was left. The Azerbaijani prosecutor Yusif Agayev saw powder around the gunshot wounds and concluded that many of the victims had been shot at point-blank range: “They were shot at close range. We went to the place where it happened. It was obvious to me as a specialist.
As well as those shot down, dozens of victims died of cold and frostbite in the woods. More than a thousand Khojali residents were taken prisoner, among them several dozen Meskhetian Turks, refugees from Central Asia. There are varying estimates of how many Azerbaijanis were killed in or near Khojali. Probably the most reliable figure is that of the official Azerbaijani parliamentary investigation, which put the death toll at 485. Even taking into account that this number includes combatants and those who died of cold, it still dwarfs any body count of the Nagorny Karabakh war.
The number of Azerbaijanis who returned fire was small; this could not excuse the clear targeting of hundreds of civilians, including children, in an open space and the shooting of defenseless people on the ground.
Slowly the news got out that a massacre had taken place at Khojali. At first many in the outside world were reluctant to believe it because most international media coverage of the conflict had hitherto portrayed the Armenians as the main victims of the conflict, rather than aggressors. A self-justificatory newspaper interview given in April 1992 by the former Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov did not help. Mutalibov, seeking to minimize his own role in the failure to defend the town, put the blame for the massacre on the Popular Front. His interview was much quoted in Armenia.
Yet Armenians now do admit that many Azerbaijani civilians were killed as they fled Khojali. Some blame irregular Armenian fighters, acting on their own behalf. An Armenian police officer, Major Valery Babayan, suggested revenge as a motive. He told the American reporter Paul Quinn-Judge that many of the fighters who had taken part in the Khojali attack “originally came from Sumgait and places like that.
Asked about the taking of Khojali, the Armenian military leader Serzh Sarkisian 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. Sarkisian’s summation of what had happened, however, was more honest and more brutal: ‘But I think the main point is something different. Before Khojali, 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’.
Sarkisian’s account throws a different light on the worst massacre of the Karabakh war, suggesting that the killings may, at least in part, have been a deliberate act of mass killing as intimidation.