What Americans should know about Khojaly genocide!

What Americans should know about Khojaly genocide!


By Rachel Avraham

The famous Holocaust scholar Elie Wiesel once stated, “Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Today is Khojaly Genocide Day. It is a national holiday in Azerbaijan that is commemorated every year on February 26 in the memory of the 613 innocent Azerbaijani men, women and children who were slaughtered in one day for the crime of being Azerbaijani. According to Rabbi Israel Barouk, who wrote in Khojaly: A Crime against Humanity, “Of those who perished, 56 people were killed with particular cruelty: burning alive, scalping, beheading, gouging out of the eyes and the bayoneting of pregnant women in the abdomen.” An additional 1,275 people were taken hostage. Many of those who were held hostage were raped and tortured in the cruelest manner.

Raoul Conteras wrote in Murder in the Mountains: War Crime in Khojaly and the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict about the horrendous torture endured by the survivors. The testimony given by Durdana was particularly shocking: “She was bound to a chair and slapped and hit time after time. One of the soldiers lit cigarettes for his comrades and they took turns burning her legs with lighted cigarettes. They beat her with a metal stick, which was probably a pipe. When his arm tired, another soldier took the pipe and continued to beat her.” A soldier mashed his boot into her face and then she was gang raped in front of the other prisoners, until she passed out.

Sadly, Durdana was only one of many Azerbaijani women to be treated in this manner in Khojaly. This was not an isolated incident. The Armenian forces deliberately set aside an entire city in 1992 for extermination. Indeed, the Armenian forces planned and orchestrated their assault on Khojaly in a manner that there would be no survivors. The humanitarian corridor that they created was in fact a death trap and prisoners were given nothing but snow to eat during their time in captivity.

This fits the criteria for genocide under international law, as the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as genocide: a) killing members of that group; b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to the members of that group; c) deliberating inflicting on that group conditions of life inflicted to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and e) forcefully transferring children of the group to another group.

Thus, in Khojaly, the Armenian forces set out to destroy the population of an entire city by either murdering them on the spot or starving and torturing them to death in captivity; causing an entire city’s population serious bodily and mental harm via the vast destruction as well as the torture and primitive conditions in which the hostages were held, and by raping the women, which created psychological barriers for these women to ever be able to procreate again, thus “preventing births” within that group. Therefore, the Armenian forces without a doubt committed a, b, c, and d with the intent to destroy part of the Azerbaijani population, the entire city of Khojaly. 800,000 other Azerbaijanis would be ethnically cleansed from the Nagorno-Karabakh region and other cities like Agdam would be transformed into ghost towns around the same period.

As an Israeli American writer, I was raised to believe that it is important to take a stance against all genocides and crimes against humanity. For today, it could be Khojaly, tomorrow it could be another nation and then the following day, it could be my people. As German dissident Martin Niemoller once stated, “First, they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then, they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then, they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Aside from being Khojaly Genocide Day, today is also the Jewish holiday of Purim. There are some important parallels between the Purim story and the Khojaly genocide. Just as Haman set out to murder all the Jews under King Achashverosh control in one day, the Armenian government decided to wipe out an entire city in one day for its inhabitants were Azerbaijani and they wanted to set an example. As former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan told a British journalist: “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 needed to put a stop to all that. And that’s what happened.”

However, while there are parallels to the Purim story, there are also some key differences. Haman the Agagite had bigger aspirations than merely annihilating a city. He wanted all the Jewish people to be slaughtered from India to Persia to Ethiopia, merely because one Jewish man refused to bow down to him. Nevertheless, the most important aspect of the Purim story is that he failed to achieve his goal. Instead of slaughtering the Jews, Haman and his sons were hanged on the gallows, after Queen Esther intervened to save her people.

In contrast, there was no Azerbaijani Queen Esther to save the people of Khojaly. Nevertheless, the message that one must always fight against genocide is universal. For this reason, Khojaly Genocide Day and Purim coexist together in Azerbaijan in harmony, even though Khojaly Genocide Day is a day of mourning and Purim is a day of joy. Khojaly Genocide Day shows us what happens when there is no Queen Esther to save her people from annihilation and why we must always fight against genocides and other crimes against humanity.

As Mordechai told Esther when she hesitated about presenting herself before the king without being summoned, as she knew that it could be a death sentence: “Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance for the Jews will come from some other place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time that you attained the royal position.”

Indeed, the petrifying silence of the international community is what enabled the Armenian government to commit a genocide in Khojaly and to ethnically cleanse Azerbaijanis from the entire Nagorno-Karabakh region and its seven adjacent districts in the First Karabakh War. As Irish philosopher Edmund Burke once stated, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Where is Khojaly? What is the nature of the conflict?

Khojaly is an entire district in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, which borders Shusha, Azerbaijan’s cultural capitol city, and Agdam, a city that the Armenians transformed into a ghost town during the First Karabakh War. The administrative center of this district is the city of Khojaly, where a genocide took place during the First Karabakh War.

In this city, almost the entire population was ethnic Azerbaijani, although part of the population consisted of Ahiska Turks who resettled from Uzbekistan in 1987 and others were Azerbaijanis who were expelled from Armenia in 1990. The area is located on the main route out of the mountainous region and thus had great strategic importance.

I believe the context for this conflict is Armenia’s quest for territorial expansion. It has been the long-term goal of the Armenian government to seek to establish a Greater Armenia that includes not only the land that they have now, but also parts of modern-day Turkey and Azerbaijan. The Armenians in the 1990’s sought to take advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to build an Armenian state on lands that constituted what they perceive to be greater Armenia. The problem with this vision is that historically, the Armenians did not make up a majority on these lands. Rather, they lived amongst the Azerbaijanis and other peoples.

Raoul Conteras wrote that two hundred years ago, only 8 percent of the Nagorno-Karabakh region was Armenian and 90% was Azerbaijani. However, in 1829, in accordance with the Treaty of Turkmenchay and the Russian-Ottoman Treaty of Adrianople, 84,000 Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and 40,000 Armenians from Persia were relocated to Azerbaijan as well as the Azerbaijani populated areas in Armenia, with 30,000 settling in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Under Stalin, this trend continued, as Nagorno-Karabakh was set up as an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, for it was Soviet policy to transfer ethnic groups from other areas to minimize dissent. Indeed, 100,000 Azerbaijanis around this period were transported from Armenia to Azerbaijan. However, Stalin did not transport any Armenians out of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Therefore, many of the Armenians who lived in Nagorno-Karabakh were descended from recent immigrants. Nevertheless, the Armenians did not let this fact get in their way and they sought to utilize brute force to create a greater state than what was granted to them under international law, as they believe that they have an ancient historic connection to these lands going back to Noah’s Ark.

Nevertheless, they have chosen to ignore the histories of other peoples in the area, who also got ancient ties to the land, such as the Albanians and the Azerbaijanis, in their quest for a Greater Armenia. For this reason, Nagorno-Karabakh’s secession from Azerbaijan predated Armenia’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, as the Armenian leadership valued a Greater Armenia over their own independence from Soviet control. As close allies of the Soviet Union, the Armenian leadership cared more about crushing Azerbaijan than building up their own state.

This desire to create a Greater Armenia at the expense of Azerbaijanis and other peoples in the area is what stands behind the Khojaly Genocide and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. If it were not for the dream of obtaining a Greater Armenia, then the Minsk Group would have been successful in negotiating a peace agreement over the past 29 years that would have led to Armenia complying with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and withdrawing from the Nagorno-Karabakh region or at least part of it voluntarily, without any blood being shed on either side. Furthermore, if it were not for the dream of a Greater Armenia, neither the First Karabakh War nor the Second Karabakh War would have taken place, and many people who perished from this conflict on both sides would be alive today. Thus, the dream of a Greater Armenia is a major impediment to regional peace and stability.

What is the state of Azerbaijani-American relations?

Azerbaijan is a strategic ally of the United States in the Muslim world. Azerbaijan’s defense ties with America enable the average American to benefit from Caspian energy, which is preferable to other energy sources that are less stable, such as Venezuela, Russia and certain oil producing states in the Middle East, like Iraq and Iran. Aside from providing energy security to the US, Azerbaijan assists America greatly in countering the threat posed by the mullah’s regime, which is perhaps the greatest threat to peace in the entire world.

Azerbaijan is a participant in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program and has assisted the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo. The United States presently utilizes Azerbaijani airspace when conducting operations in Afghanistan and over a third of the nonlethal military equipment that American soldiers utilize there travels via Baku. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has an intelligence sharing agreement to assist the international struggle against terrorism and systematically cooperates in America’s war against terrorism.

Considering this, it is against America’s national interests that over 100 US Congressmen have called upon President Biden to be against Azerbaijan and that the Biden administration is presently reviewing US assistance to Azerbaijan. It amounts to nothing less than a slap across the face for a faithful US ally that the US is willing to initiate diplomacy designed to strengthen Iranian hegemony in the regime by considering returning to the now defunct Iranian nuclear deal yet is taking measures to abandon Azerbaijan by reviewing military assistance to Azerbaijan that strengthens America’s national security.

What issues should most Americans be aware of to fully understand the region?

The average American should know that the Islamic Republic of Iran, the nation that chants death to America and death to Israel, who is the number one state sponsor of terrorism in the world, supports the Armenian government in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. They supported the Armenian government by sending supplies and offering other logistical aid to Armenia during the Second Karabakh War. They also played an important role in helping to secure Armenia’s victory during the First Karabakh War. They are also one of the greatest regional players who opposes unfettered Azerbaijani control over Nagorno-Karabakh, whereas other nations in the region support Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and are not so close to the Armenian government.

The Islamic Republic of Iran supports the Armenian government because a significant portion of the Islamic Republic of Iran is ethnic Azerbaijani and the Iranians fear that they could one day attempt to secede from Tehran and reunite with Baku. With the Nagorno-Karabakh region under Azerbaijani control, this makes this scenario a greater possibility, as a strong Baku could encourage Azerbaijani Iranians to protest more against the linguistic and cultural repression that they face and to seek a better future for themselves. For this reason, during the Second Karabakh War, Iranian Armenians were permitted to protest in solidarity with Armenia, but ethnic Azerbaijanis were repressed for seeking to express solidarity with Azerbaijan.

At this point, it should also be added that the mullahs also resent the government in Baku because they are Shia progressives, who promote multiculturalism, religious pluralism, and tolerance as official state policy. In contrast, more moderate sects of Islam are repressed in Iran, not to mention minority ethnic and religious groups. For this reason, the mullahs would rather prop up a Christian country than to support a Shia nation that challenges religious fundamentalism and seek to promote a modern, pro-America, pro-Israel way of life.

For this reason, oftentimes, American support for Armenia leads to the strengthening of the Iranian axis in the Caucasus region, as the Armenian government has helped Iran to bypass sanctions and to even enhance their nuclear program utilizing the Nagorno-Karabakh region in exchange for support in their struggle against Azerbaijan. Therefore, when congressmen and senators take anti-Azerbaijan positions, they are in fact taking pro-Iranian positions, which go against America’s national security interests.

What is the last thing that you want people to know about Khojaly?

The 613 innocent Azerbaijani men, women and children who were slaughtered in Khojaly and the 1,275 Azerbaijanis that were taken hostage were not just statistics. They were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives. They were teachers, doctors, farmers, shepherds, chefs, museum curators, artists, writers, poets, engineers, lawyers, and businessmen. Each one of these people has a story of a life that was destroyed and lay buried beneath the rubble. Every Azerbaijani refugee can tell you what it is like to see one’s life shattered and to try to rebuild oneself from the ashes in a new location, where that person knew no one and had zero family history.

I want the average American to not look at these people as statistics, but rather as living, breathing souls who suffered a grave crime against humanity and demand justice for the crimes that were perpetrated against them. It is of pivotal importance for preserving the humanity of the victims of the Khojaly Genocide. As Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once stated, “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths are a statistic.”

In other words, statistics are often utilized to dehumanize the victims and trivialize their suffering. That is why the Armenian government always tries to minimize the number of Azerbaijanis murdered in Khojaly and why Neo-Nazis groups always try to minimize the number of Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust. By doing so, they can minimize and even evade responsibility for their role in perpetrating these crimes. However, to deny atrocities the magnitude of Khojaly or to reduce the story of the victims to be nothing more than statistics, which could have been exaggerated, is equivalent to slaughtering the victims a second time.

Furthermore, as the famous Holocaust scholar Simon Wiesenthal once stated, “The history of man is the history of crimes and history can repeat. So, information is a defense. Through this, we can build, we must build, a defense against repetition.” Thus, we all have a moral duty to learn the stories of the victims of the Khojaly genocide, to tell their stories to the world, to educate the next generation about what they endured and first and foremost, to remember that each victim is a man, woman, or child just like us, whose life was shattered by perpetrators who despised them merely because they were born into the wrong nation. They are not statistics. They are human beings, and no one should forget that. Thank you.

The above is Rachel Avraham’s speech at “Learning from Khojaly: What Americans can learn from the South Caucasus Region” sponsored by Expectant Advisory

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