Interview by Irina Tsukerman
December 1, 2020
Name, age, current location of the respondent.
Salahov Elkhan Isa oglu – 48 years old. Absheron district, Masazir settlement, IDP camp.
When and under what circumstances you left Kalbajar? What were your memories of the city before invasion and departure?
I left Bashlibel village of Kalbajar region, where I was born and grew up, on April 1, 1993, with my family members. I was 21 then. Early that morning, as soon as the weather cleared, the village heard that the Armenian armed forces had completely besieged Kalbajar, residents of all villages and settlements had fled their homes, Armenian troops had closed major roads and crossings, and the district’s central communications, including communications, had been cut off.
In the morning there was a panic in the village that had never been observed. There was a lot of noise – the barking of dogs, the bleating of sheep and lambs, the sound of weeping, the sound of crying, the moaning of mourners… Now every passing hour, maybe a minute, could be a lost opportunity for the civilians of Bashlibel village. Because the tunnel, which played the role of the only highway connecting Kalbajar with the center of Bashlibel, one of the most remote and largest villages in terms of population, was hit by the invaders.
The occupation of the tunnel meant that more than 40 villages in the Tutguchay zone were completely cut off from the district center and the Murov road, leaving civilians in those villages virtually under siege by the enemy army. Therefore, everyone was in a hurry, they had to leave their homes to avoid being hit by enemy bullets, to avoid captivity, to cross the snowy mountains and reach the Murov road as soon as possible. It took about a day to cross the snowy passes on foot and reach the foothills of Murov from Bashlibel.
On a cold, frosty day, we had to leave our house and cross the steep passes of Dalidag on foot. So we could not take anything from our house except the clothes we were wearing. We had to leave our house and all our property, otherwise, the Armenians could have killed us or taken us hostage. My older brother Yaver opened the barn door and took out the sheep and cattle and brought them to the haystack so that they would not starve.
It is as if life were dying out as if hours and minutes were left until the end of the world. Soon no one will be here, everyone will disappear, only animals will remain in this village.
The village of Bashlibel, with a population of more than 2,000, was almost empty in a matter of hours. Only a group of young and middle-aged residents did not want to leave. Because the only road junction connecting the Tutguchay zone with the district center – the tunnel – was under fire by the invader army, it was not possible to take patients, the elderly, and children who could not walk to the safe zone.
On April 1, around noon, the last group left Bashlibel and they had to walk the 25-kilometer mountain road to Kalbajar. It was not yet clear what awaited them. After all, for these simple and helpless people who fled to avoid the siege of the enemy, there was a danger of hunger and fatigue in the direction of Murov on the other side of the city of Kalbajar, a sudden enemy bullet, the danger of freezing in Murov.
On the same day, at sunset, we reached the city of Kalbajar. The deafening roar of Grad missiles signaled that the invaders could fire on the city of Kalbajar in the coming hours. So, no matter how difficult it was, we continued on our way. Tiredness, hunger, fear, and excitement exhausted everyone. We escaped the danger of death by walking non-stop for three days and nights and reaching Toganali village of Goygol region. A special headquarters was set up here for the people of Kalbajar, whose homes were occupied and they were displaced. More than half of Kalbajar, with a population of more than sixty-five thousand, had gathered on an empty plot of land to the right of the road in Togana. The sound of women crying could be heard. In the snowy passes of Murov, people separated from their relatives were looking for each other in the endless stream of people.
In tents, people from Baku, Ganja, Barda, Yevlakh, Aghdam, who came to help the people of Kalbajar, provided medical care to the sick and wounded. People in military and civilian clothes distributed food and clothes to the people. These people, who came to Kalbajar from different regions of the republic, were looking for their relatives, acquaintances, wanted to help them, offered shelters …
However, not everyone in Bashlibel could escape the siege. During the occupation of Kalbajar, more than 100 civilians were unable to leave their homes in the village of Bashlibel. Most of them were families with bedridden, disabled, and elderly parents who could not walk freely. In the first days of the occupation, some of these residents left their homes and headed for Murov, but 62 of them were forced to retreat to the mountains and hide in the caves. However, they managed to remain in hiding for only 17 days.
On April 18, 1993, units of the invader Armenian army were able to locate caves where women, children and the elderly were hiding in the desert area of the village of Bashlibel. Thus, the Armenian soldiers, who looted Bashlibel, saw the smoke of the hearth in the caves located a few kilometers above the village – at the foot of Dalidag and opened fire on the shelter with machine guns and large-caliber weapons. All members of a whole family – 5 people (father, mother, 2 brothers, and 1 sister) were killed during this brutal massacre, which was aimed at the massacre of helpless civilians.
On the same day alone, 16 civilians were killed and 14 were taken hostage in the village of Bashlibel. A few days earlier, World War II veteran Huseyn Yusifov, a 75-year-old bedridden patient, died in a cave. In the same days, the mentally ill, 53-year-old Ganaat Agamirov, 102-year-old bedridden Pari Alasgarova (Salahova), 67-year-old Tutu Aliyeva were brutally killed by Armenians. Huseyn Huseynov, a 76-year-old invalid of the Second World War, who came to Bashlibel from the neighboring village of Takhtabashi and joined the besieged people, was burnt alive.
In total, as a result of the occupation of the Kalbajar region, 36 residents of the village of Bashlibel were brutally killed, 19 people were taken hostage, and one person (a veteran of World War II, 91-year-old Kazimov Alasgar) went missing. Twenty-seven of those were killed and all hostages were civilians. Alaskar Kazimov, who is considered missing, is also a civilian. Of those killed, 14 were women, 1 was a child, 7 were elderly people over 70, including 3 people over 100 years old. Nine of the hostages were women and three were children. The oldest woman taken hostage by Armenians in the village of Bashlibel was 102 years old (Babayeva Kubra), and the youngest child was 2 years old (Mammadov Hokmdar).
How do you feel about the upcoming reintegration?
After twenty-eight years of separation, I am proud of the liberation of my historic ancestral homeland of Kelbajar. I am proud that 28 years of anguish are over. But at the same time, I am deeply saddened by the unprecedented 28 years of our lives and the losses we have had in this brutal war. Over the past 28 years, we have lost many lives, both materially and spiritually …
We have lost our youth, a very important part of our life, our elders, who are the guides of our family and generation … But thankfully, under the leadership of our Supreme Commander-in-Chief, our victorious army has won a deserved victory over the occupant Armenia, and the territorial integrity of our state is about to be fully ensured. Thanks to this victory of our army, we consider ourselves lucky to be able to reunite with our homeland, Kalbajar, which I left crying 28 years ago.
For the past 28 years, I have always looked forward to this day. In my dreams, I have plans to return to Kalbajar. I am very glad that those plans, which I thought were a dream, are becoming a reality …
Do you hope to return home? What are you looking forward when you do it?
On my return to Kalbajar, my first visit should start from Bashlibel. Every inch of Kalbajar, every inch of Karabakh, Azerbaijan is native and sacred to me. Why will I make my first visit to Başlıbel? It’s not just because I was born there. For me, that village has greater values. My return to Kalbajar will begin with a visit to the graves of my relatives who did not leave their homeland during the occupation 28 years ago, lived under siege in Bashlibel, and were killed by Armenians.
Because among those killed at that time were my very close relatives – my aunt, grandmother, aunt’s son. If I had the opportunity, I would go to Başlıbel today. In the village cemetery, I would visit the graves of my father, uncles, and relatives and then go to our home. I know that Armenians burned all the houses and public buildings in our village and destroyed the walls. However, I am sure that I will find the place of our house where I was born and grew up. I will go there and cry a lot … My first visit to Kalbajar will probably be like this …
Any comments on plans to contribute to rebuilding the city?
For me, Kalbajar, the village of Bashlibel, where I was born, has a great value. Every inch of this land, every inch is native to me. Even if it is possible to set up a tent, I am ready to return to my homeland and live there today, and I wish it as soon as possible!
We are ready to build our own house and rebuild the destroyed farms on our own, and I am sure that all the people of Kalbajar think so. We are all looking forward to the day when we will soon return to our homeland and restore everything there. We believe that no matter how much the people of Kalbajar are exhausted, only with our own economic strength, labor, and labor force we can revive the city of Kalbajar, all our villages, and settlements, build and turn it into a flower garden. Because our ancestors said, “The land tends to be strong.” Returning to our homeland after 28 years of longing will strengthen us. And I am confident that our state is able to provide all the necessary assistance and support to the people of Kalbajar in this work, to create all conditions for life.