My Karabakh - Part IV: The Sumgait chronicles
Armenian journalist and writer Mark Grigoryan describes his experiences on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in a series of essays written exclusively for JAMnews.
This is the fourth installment.
Karabakh stories, all parts here
Mounting bitterness and the chronicles of Sumgait
A decision was made by the Council of People’s Deputies of the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast to address the supreme councils of Azerbaijan and Armenia with a request to transfer control of the region from the former to the latter. This, in complete accordance with the laws of the USSR, was one of the main moments of the events surrounding Karabakh.
It took place in February 1988, but the decision made by the oblast deputies only took on relevance in the beginning of summer when the Supreme Council of Armenia, pressured by the demonstrations, strikes and protests, finally decided to give its approval to the absorption of Karabakh into Armenia.
However, the authorities of Azerbaijan made an unsurprising statement two days later: Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan.
A month went by. The presidium of the Supreme Council of the USSR held a plenum which was broadcasted live on television: the presidium declared that Karabakh would remain part of Azerbaijan.
If one were to speak in purely political terms, then this should have put an end to Armenia’s demands as a clear decision had been made, and Moscow had no intention of stepping back from it.B
ut the fact that neither Baku nor Moscow would agree to ‘give away’ Nagorno-Karabakh would have been immediately understandable to any observer from the very beginning: the orders that came from Moscow and Baku never gave anyone reason to hope for such a generous gesture. The authorities of the Soviet Union were not used to hearing the opinions of their subjects. It was the other way around: the subjects had to listen to what they were told. Listen, and carry out.
Anger and bitterness started to appear in the Yerevan demonstrations. People felt that they had reached a dead end. But despite that, I don’t remember any of the people in my circle asking out-loud: “Was that all for nothing? Can it be that the people who died in Sumgait and Karabakh have lost their lives in vain?”
But the question quietly arose in everyone’s mind, and had the situation not dramatically changed it would have been voiced at one point or another.
But we weren’t interested in such questions at that point. We protested Moscow’s decision, and went on strike.
I also went on strike. Not alone of course, but with the institute where I was due to finish working in just several weeks’ time. At the institute we held a long, noisy meeting, then voted, and went on strike.
While leaving my office for the protest, I brought an Ukraina typewriter with in order to finish typing my dissertation. In those days I had practically stopped going to the demonstrations, because writing my dissertation was taking up most of my time.
I was so busy that I almost entirely stopped going to the Writers Union, where my friend and classmate Samvel Shakhmuradyan – or Shakh, as we used to call him – worked.
I previously wrote about him: he was the one who took me to the first Karabakh protest. Towards the middle of 1988, Shakh was already a rather well-known journalist and publicist and was trying his hand at writing.
Sometimes I’d check in on him, but even when I did pop into his small room on the second floor, it would often seem that he was pressed for time; Shakh had thrown himself head-first into his work for the Karabakh committee. He was always in a hurry, and there was always somebody in his office where the telephone would ring off the hook non-stop and cigarette smoke hung thick in the air above our heads.B
ut Shakh one day called me in himself and offered to meet. For me, this meeting was important for my understanding of the tragic side of the Karabakh conflict, which until then had been overshadowed by the events in Yerevan: going to demonstrations, discussing the political situation, and the mandatory, periodical visitations to Opera Square when it wasn’t cordoned off by troops and protesters.
And this when we were already hearing rumors about the coming ethnic cleansing in Azerbaijan and Armenia. One could already hear stories about the pogroms and attacks on Armenian homes in cities across Azerbaijan. We had already heard how ‘Azerbaijanis from such and such a region had started leaving’. But my world and my understanding of all of these events remained entirely oriented and dependent on Yerevan.
When we met, Shakh proposed that I help him work on a book which he was intensely focused on at the moment. The book was supposed to be called The Sumgait Tragedy Through the Testimonies of Eyewitnesses.
I agreed immediately. My role was such: Shakh gave me cassettes with interviews from refugees from Sumgait. I had to transcribe them on a typewriter and give Shakh the text. He’d then give me another one. There were more than fifty such tapes from victims of the events in Sumgait.
I wasn’t able to do all of these tapes of course. I think I did no more than 10 or 12.
Nowadays I understand that Shakh spared me by not giving me the opportunity to speak with the Sumgait refugees. Given that their stories shook me with such force through the cassettes in which I could hear only their voices – no faces, no eyes, no gestures or hand motions – I could only imagine how I would have reacted if I had had to meet the refugees face-to-face.
Moreover, and he said this immediately, he did not intend to use my name in the book. It was clear that he wanted to protect me from any ‘unpleasantness’ with the KGB who followed his every little step.
I took the first cassette, came home, put it on, plugged in my headphones and got the typewriter going.
Over the course of the next three weeks, I lived a strange and unnatural life. In the mornings, I would have breakfast and go to work – to the school where I taught Russian literature – and in the evenings I would sit behind a desk and put on my headphones; and terrible tragedies would come roaring in through the wires.
Women and men’s voices told me horrible stories, stories about how people hid in their basements while thugs and marauders went about their apartments breaking their doors and destroying their homes; stories about how crazed mobs would go from home to home in search of young Armenian women to rape.
Some spoke emotionally, while others spoke with a complete lack of emotion; some even sobbed when they spoke. And all of these stories portrayed unimaginable scenes, completely wild and impossible for the end of the 20th century.
“They stormed into our home, and despite the fact that there was a corpse on the floor, they started plundering our rooms.”
“I remember that when they beat me, when they took off my clothing, I didn’t feel pain or shame, because in that moment all my attention was focused on Karine…”
“My father was out cold. You could see his brains, he had blood in his eyes, he had deep wounds on his head… he had been heavily beaten.”
“One of my brothers lay on the ground in front of the house by the entrance, and the other by the window on the side…”
The stories of the Sumgait refugees which I heard and transcribed in the evenings had a strange effect on me: I practically stopped sleeping. In those three weeks while I was working on the cassettes for Shakh, I forced myself to go to to bed late at night and I would lay there with my eyes wide open, often until it got light outside. Then I’d fall asleep for a few hours. But I had to go to work at the school in the mornings.
The ‘The Sumgait Tragedy: Pogroms Against Armenians in Soviet Azerbaijan’ book was published soon after. In this book, there are only a few of my interviews, and my name is not mentioned among the authors. The majority of the texts that I wrote up were supposed to go in a second book which was never published.