In the wake of the Armenian and Azerbaijan conflict and subsequent cease-fire mediated by Russia, there are many new and old questions still left unanswered.
Reports of war crimes have reached a new tool in the latest war between two feuding countries with new cases immerging almost every single day. And while the mentioned war crimes are recent actions of the Azerbaijan military towards Armenian civilians and prisoners, there is one war crime Azeri keep mentioning that happened almost 30 years ago.
The incident has been a stone of discord between the two countries and for the last 30 years, no side has taken the responsibility for the incident that occurred and its victims.
In the midst of 2020. conflict, Ilham Aliyev, president of the Republic of Azerbaijan, went so far as to re-open this decades-old wound, and he did it in his UN speech.
He stated that Armenia was responsible for the Khojalu massacres and that more than 10 countries have recognized the Khojalu genocide(?)
That raises a very important question. If it was that clear who’s at fault in the Khojalu massacre, why didn’t all countries recognize the Khojalu Genocide?
Following a significant number of evidence and witness reports, we are about to discover what really happened in Khojalu and who should really take responsibility
How Was Khojalu Geographically Important?
In late September of 1991, Nagorno-Karabakh was under heavy artillery fire. The target was residential areas in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region (NKAR).
In this bombarding, the Azerbaijan army used Alazan anti-hail rockets and they fired them from five strongholds they controlled-Shushi, Jangasan, Malibeyli, Krkzhan, and Khojalu. The bombarding caused many civilian casualties, as well as the destruction of Stepanakert.
In those days, Stepanakert sheltered over 35,000 refugees who escaped from many regions of Azerbaijan, including Baku. Surrounded by enemy fire, Stepanakert went into a complete blockage. Because their supplies were cut off, the city was facing starvation.
In early February 1992 after the liberation of the Krkzhan settlement and Malibeyli village, all nearest to Stepanakert, there was still an issue of Shushi and Khojalu settlements which still posed a real threat to the city and its inhabitants. And out of all Azerbaijan-controlled settlement, Khojalu gained special attention for many reasons.
Geographically, Khojalu sits halfway between Stepanakert and Askeran which are the two largest Armenian cities in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Liberating Khojalu would mean liberating the road connecting these two cities and the Armenian army would gain a considerable advantage. Not only that, but Khojalu also had the only airport in the region, at that time controlled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan.
Khojalu, north of Stepanakert, was now separated from other Armenian-controlled strongholds that were located south of Stepanakert and was facing dangers from both Stepanakert and Askeran. Khojalu was ready for taking.
They Were Warned
On February 25, 1992, the Armenian side marched toward Khojalu in hopes of liberating it and neutralize at least one of the firing point. Khojalu took artillery fire around 11 p.m., but by 4 a.m., all defensive outposts in Khajolu were destroyed and Armenian infantry had already entered the city, just to find a city full of civilians and members of Azerbaijani armed groups. The problem was- Khojalu was warned.
Elman Mamedov, the mayor of Khojalu stated that on February 25, the day of the fighting, he received reports of enemy tanks and infantry taking combat positions around the town. The reports were received around 8.30 pm, hours before the fighting even began.
He reported this to everyone over the radio. What’s even worse was the conversation he had with Agdam the day before on February 24th. After capturing the Armenian solder and finding out about the impending attack, he telephoned Agdam.
Agdam didn’t respond in any way. When Mamedov asked for helicopters to evacuate children, women, and the elderly, the help never came. By 2 o’clock in the morning, many inhabitants of Khojalu were killed, leading the survivors to flee in the only open direction-across the river towards the mountain of Ketiyin.
The burning question here was- why weren’t civilians evacuated? The head of the Commission for Investigation of events in Khojlu said that villagers were left there deliberately. He believed that Baku didn’t evacuate the population because that would seem like an invitation to the Armenian side to go on the offensive and take the town.
”Even the members of the Security Council knew that Armenians could not commit acts of genocide. They thought that if the people left the place, we would give Khojaly away on our own,” he says.
Humanitarian Corridor ‘’Nobody’’ Knew About
In 2010 S. Gannushkina said that ”The information about the existence of a “free corridor” was not communicated to most of the residents of Khojaly.” But if we go back to 1992 to a report signed by Gannushkina from Memorial Human Rights Center, we learn that at least one person in Khojalu found out about the impending attack and the free corridor the Armenian side provided for the evacuation of the civilians.
A few days before the attack, the Armenian side informed the authorities of Khojalu about the attack and urged them to evacuate civilians in time. They informed Khojalu they have left a humanitarian corridor that foes along the riverbed, past Askeran towards the city of Agdam, at the time occupied by Azerbaijan.
Witnesses like Salman Abbasov, a resident of Khojalu stated that days before the attack, Armenians gave them warnings over the radio and said they should evacuate the civilians. But not only were they not offered any help, they were told to sit still and not to worry. Azerbaijan was planning an attack on Askeran and in that way, they would stop the attack on Khojalu.
It was not clear whether the Azerbaijan side planned such an operation, but one thing was clear. Information about the attack and humanitarian corridor was withheld from the inhabitants of Khojalu by Azerbaijan resulting in the following tragic events.
A big part of the Khojalu genocide speaks about victims that were found some 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) from Khojalu. More than 50 bodies were found alongside the road to Nakhichevanik, just 700 meters (765.5 yards) from Agdam, controlled by Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijani journalist Chingiz Mustafayev testified that when the reporters found the bodies, there were over 50 of them and they all wore military uniforms. A crew of six reporters stayed for 45 minutes filming the scene, but when Armenian trucks drove past the road, they had to go back to Agdam.
While the whole story reminds of a trap, the statements of the survivors and reports show something more sinister lead to this catastrophic event.
The right way and the wrong way
The village of Nakhijevanik was controlled by both the Armenian and Azerbaijan side several times throughout the war. When the Armenian side marched toward Khojalu, Nakhijevanik was controlled by Armenia. So why was there a group of people that took the route towards Nakhijevanik?
Suleiman Abbasov, one of the survivors who took this road said that, before escaping Khojalu, they received a radio communication that informed them Nakhijevanik was taken from Armenian militants. Thinking that Nakhijevanik is now an allied stronghold, they fled into a trap.
The radio communication was taken from Azerbaijan frequency.
After they reached the village, a short fight ensued, but when the help from Agdam came, the group managed to break through.
By all logic, if the Armenian side wanted to commit acts of genocide, there wouldn’t be a warning of the impending attack. Likewise, they wouldn’t create a humanitarian corridor, or they would have made a trap on the humanitarian corridor.
The fact that the mayor of Khojalu along with a large group of people passed safely through the humanitarian corridor is proof that the Armenian side was doing everything by the book.
The Real Number of Khojalu Casualties
Like in every war, the number of casualties in the Khojalu incident was heavily manipulated and twisted by the Azerbaijani side. There was only one motivation for exaggerating the numbers of casualties and their circumstances- shift the focus away from the mistakes made by the Azerbaijani side.
According to Human Rights Watch, it is estimated that there were around 200-300 victims of the Khojalu genocide. But official Azerbaijan propaganda counts 613 victims, with several lists made, all having different counts. In those lists, besides those killed in combat, victims who died of hypothermia while retreating were listed.
Other issues appeared when some of the lists had to be purged from ”duplicates”. There were multiple instances where the name of one person appeared twice but written in a different way. Because there are more ways to write an Azerbaijani last name, in Russian transcription you could find “Исмаилова Нурия Гачай Кызы” (Ismayilova Nuria Gachai Kyzy) and “Исмайлова Нурия Гачай Кызы” (Ismailova Nuria Gachai Kyzy).
Azerbaijani also included people who passed away way before the Khojalu genocide into their lists. For example, Khayala Hasanova Eldar Gyzy died in 1987. Still, she was included in the list of Khojalu victims. Khudiyev Zahid Bahlul was also one of the victims of the 1992 Khojalu genocide. Following his death in 1992, he was mobilized in 1993.
The whole ”number propaganda” of Azerbaijan shatters when faced with eyewitness testimonials.
Victoria Ivleva was present at the time of the attack. She stated that after the assault stated, many civilians fled, including some armed men from the town garrison. Some went in the direction of the free corridor (not knowing there was a free corridor) and some went north-east, towards the mountains. Approximately 300 civilians were left hiding in their cellars.
After counting the number of people left in Khojalu and returning some that lost themselves in the mountains, the Armenian side, faced with a large number of people and not enough food, returned them to the Azerbaijani side without preconditions.
During the negotiations thou, the Azerbaijani side refused to accept their citizens back. But when they did, they tried to spread the propaganda of ill-treatment and violence against them, for which they couldn’t find any proof.
False Photographs and Propaganda
As a part of Azerbaijan propaganda to show the ”Armenian atrocities” they used photos and videos of bodies and corpses. The problem with this propaganda was that many of the photos used were actually of people killed in different regions all across the world (i.e. earthquakes victims, victims of Kosovo events, refugees images from other parts of the world).
One photo, which became a symbol of the Khojalu genocide and showed bodies scattered in the valley, was not even from Khojalu. The picture was actually a shot from a documentary about Račak Massacre in Yugoslavia in 1999. But the photo was used in a brochure prepared by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation in dedication to Khojalu.
Faced with the absence of facts and evidence, by using photos like these the Azerbaijani side tried to make their version of Khojalu events more believable.
Besides falsified photographs, the Azerbaijani side did use the photos of the actual Khojalu incident. Those photographs showed mutilated bodies (scalping, cut off limbs…) of the people found 700m from Agdam en route to Nakhijevanik. The propaganda would be a success if the originals of those photos, showing no signs of mutilation of the same person, haven’t emerged in public.
What the Azerbaijani propaganda machine wasn’t counting on was the power and dedication of reporters. One reporter particularly-Chingiz Mustafayev.
Following the events near Agdam on the night of February 25 and February 26, 1992, the scene of the massacre was closed for journalists by the Azerbaijani authorities. Both local and foreign reporters, including Chingiz Mustafayev, were allowed to view the scene on March 2nd and March 3rd and as they expected, they saw only what the Azerbaijani side wanted them to see.
What Chingiz Mustafayev saw in March was completely different from what he witnessed shortly after the attack, when he infiltrated the death scene and gathered 45 minutes’ worth of footage and evidence. The original footage showed no signs of mutilation on bodies, as opposed to multiple mutilation acts seen after the Azerbaijani authorities opened the ”Khojalu set” to the journalists.
This all heavily implies that the mutilation of these bodies was done as a propaganda tool against the Armenian side, as well as a planned action of sacrificing a group of residents in order to stage a scene that would stigmatize Armenians as ”inhumane”.
Dead Men Tell No Tales
The problem with Khojalu events was not that there wasn’t enough evidence. It was that those who had them or people who gave crucial testimonies were either killed in battle or have completely changed their tune.
The most important witness who was there at the time of Khojalu events was Chingiz Mustafayev, a cameraman first to film the bodies of those fallen near Agdam. Just when he reported the results of his own investigation to the Investigative Commission of the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan, he was killed by a fragment of an exploding shell in Lachin.
An Azerbaijani journalist, Eynulla Fatullayev, was sentenced to imprisonment by an Azerbaijani court. He was charged for his Karabakh diary and for his statements on Atc.az forum. There he wrote that the free corridor was open for the safe evacuation of civilians and that the civilians killed near Agdam were deliberately killed by fighters of the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, just so they could later be staged to make it look like the Armenian side killed them. But following the release from the prison, Fatullayev had a personality makeover and became the head of leading pro-governmental propaganda, acting like his Karabakh Diary never existed.
Following his interview in 1992. the former first president of Azerbaijan Ayaz Mutalibov had to flee the country to save his life. Still, after he disavowed his statements in 2012 he was allowed to come back. So what did he say in his 1992 interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta?
”…the general background behind the reasoning is that the Armenians, after all, did leave an open corridor for people to flee. Then why should they open fire? Especially in an area near Agdam with enough forces at the time to go out and help the people. Or just come to an agreement that the civilians must leave.” He then proceeded to explain that as he gave the order to evacuate Susha, he expected the same orders to be carried out in Khojalu.
He also said that in his conversation with the chairman of the NKR Armed Forces Mkrtchyan, he asked for a chance to take the bodies of Azerbaijan people out of the city. To this, Mkrtchyan answered there would be no bodies as all their people are well treated and fed, despite the food shortage, and ready to be exchanged for Armenian civilians who were being held hostage.