Karabakh war stories: Shamil Kamil oglu Mammadli, Ganja hero of Khojaly descent
By | Mariya Khan-Khoyskaya Martignoli
January 17, 2021
This is the story of Shamil Kamil oglu Mammadli, born in 1994, an unbelievably talented young man who is the Chief Stage Director of the State Puppet Theater in Ganja, the second largest city of Azerbaijan. His roots are from Karabakh – his family was one of the thousands of forcibly displaced persons who were expelled by the Armenian armed forces during the First Karabakh War. They used to live in Kosalar village in the Khojaly district – the name that became the synonym to tragedy, horror, and bloody massacres of the civilians. He says his family barely escaped the genocide of Khojaly and came to live in Ganja having brought literally nothing with them.
“We didn’t have as much as a glass to drink our tea with at home”, recalls Shamil about his early childhood years. (Azerbaijanis drink their tea in sandglass or pear-shaped so-called “armud glasses” (armud stəkanı, literally “pear glass”). Shamil is my friend – I’ve known him for years now and participated as a guest dancer at the plays he staged with the troop of the Theater. Today I would like to share with you his story – the story of a young Karabakh war hero.
The last time I saw Shamil in life was in fall 2019 – a handsome, cheerful youth, already the head of a family and a young father. Today, in January 2021, I see him via Zoom, a couple of weeks after he returned from the war zone.
“I went to Baku to honor my fellow fallen comrades. I am sorry, I am still not fully here”, he says smiling sadly. “The air of the war is still in my head…”
Shamil was among thousands who volunteered to go to war. “I insisted to go, – he says, – had to address myself to the Ministry of Defense, local military department and 2 days after the war started, I was already there”. For him, a descendant of Khojaly, it was only a natural thing to do. “The moment I heard about the war that started, I enlisted with great willingness to participate in it, and here are the reasons: because this was the war of liberation, of our rights, of justice. Because the lands of Karabakh are ours. Because we’ve had it enough to have our lands unrightfully occupied. Finally, it was time for this injustice to be accounted for.”
Aghdere, Talyshkend, Suqovushan, and Kalbajar were the targets of the liberation of Shamil’s military unit and he participated in all related operational battles. As each unit had its own target territory, he remained with his until the end of the war. The itinerary, territory, and objectives of each unit were clearly defined and everyone had to strictly follow these rules. Each soldier had his task to fulfill and reported to his commander. “Our Army is very orderly”, underlines Shamil.
Though I knew the answer to it, I asked him the question that was all over the news for the whole 44 days of the war:
“Did Syrian or Lebanese mercenaries fight for Azerbaijan in this war?”
Shamil got very serious and told me to pay close attention to his answer to this question.
“All those government officials and media who were spreading the news that war forces from Syria or any other country in the world were helping Azerbaijan in this war are liars. No evidence, no facts, no reliable sources could prove these false allegations. All those who fell in the battle for Azerbaijan were Azerbaijani citizens – none of them was foreign national or living in a foreign country or sent from a foreign country. Moreover, the Azerbaijan Army did not need any foreign resources for a simple reason – we had more than enough soldiers! Do you know how many young people volunteered to go to war? There were so many that there were thousands of soldiers who were kept as backup resources and never even got to fight! Our numbers were plentiful. Azerbaijan is a very well-developed country that only continued to grow and for all these years it was preparing for the war as a potential outcome of the situation. We were well prepared in all aspects – technical, tactical, manpower. Every person – from a simple soldier to a high commander – was well aware of his abilities and knew how to duly execute his objectives.
The Azerbaijan Army employed drones and heavy artillery of top quality that was operated by commanders and officers who received brilliant education both in Azerbaijan and abroad – what foreign help did we need with all these bountiful resources? Imagine, from hundreds of thousands recruited only almost 3,000, God rest their souls, fell in such full-scale, big war. In all locations there were thousands of Azerbaijani soldiers – why on earth would we need someone’s help? “
“However, please do note this: among the dead on the Armenian side, I personally saw men with black skin. Now, we do know that Armenians do not have African origins in their genetics, right? How come I saw so many black men and people that looked like other nationalities among the corpses on the Armenian side?”
I recalled that Armenia performed several settlement waves installing Syrian Armenians in the occupied territories of Karabakh. Shamil agrees. “As we were liberating the lands, we came across clear evidence that under the name of the settlements of Syrian refugees, terrorist groups were formed here. Documents, ammunition found at the households of these people clearly witnessed that they were not regular civilian families, they didn’t come here to live peacefully. Their purpose to live there was to fight against Azerbaijan. Plus, what right did they have to fight against us? Karabakh is Azerbaijan, so neither these Syrians hired and brought here with the support of the Armenian diaspora, nor the Armenians have any right to fight against us for these occupied lands”.
Wasn’t it strange that during all this time those who accused Azerbaijan of the use of foreign mercenaries never stopped to think about that illegal settlement policy of foreign nationals that Armenia had been executing for years? Why did no one reply to us when we asked about this?
“I, a soldier who fought in the Karabakh war, an Azerbaijani citizen, a descendant of a family who was forcibly expelled from Khojaly, having my relatives who fell victims of the Khojaly genocide, have a question to those who throw their lies into our faces, who condemn us for our rightful war: didn’t you see what happened to babies, children, pregnant women of Khojaly? You have all the facts! The bombs that were fired at Ganja, the death of those innocent people, children, babies – that too, you did not see?”
We all know that those rockets that Armenia fired at Ganja were deliberate attacks. Shamil continues. “Please make sure everyone hears it once again that we had strict orders from our commanders to never fire even a single bullet to a civilian. It was the first order that we received and that we were duly following. While Armenia was firing ballistic missiles on our cities, phosphorous and cluster bombs, causing the children in our Ganja, in other cities to die, those Europeans – didn’t they see that? What about our rights, what about our justice, what about those events that my family went through? I, a soldier from Karabakh, demand your answers!”
I reassure Shamil that we asked these questions from those politicians and journalists in Switzerland, in France and continue asking them. No one yet has answered clearly those questions, just like they didn’t react to the fact that we continued to remind them about the UN resolutions, human rights, the international law. “The international community represented by the UN has adopted these resolutions that unanimously demand the complete withdrawal of the Armenian forces from our territories. Then how come for almost 30 years the UN didn’t do anything to have these resolutions fulfilled so that this war could have been avoided? How many times our President Ilham Aliyev has repeated that the Armenian civilians who want to live in Karabakh are free to do so, as they are our citizens! We wanted the Armenian armed forces out of Karabakh – what is wrong with that?”
The lands of Karabakh belong to Azerbaijan – historical facts prove it, international law enforces it. Here Shamil repeats the very same question that has been on my mind and on the mind of every rational person who’d stop and think a minute: which country on this Earth would want to have heavily armed foreign separatists forces on its territory? France? Switzerland? Germany? Sweden? Is there such a country?! Then what’s wrong with the fact that Azerbaijan doesn’t want that?
We take a minute to contemplate these questions and recall that when we asked them from those who restlessly accused Azerbaijan, no explanation, no answer for such a biased approach was given to us.
I ask Shamil to tell me about the war itself: how was it out there? What does it take to go through the 44 days of the war and make it through it, alive?
“You know, Mariya”, he says, “war is something that changes people. Every day, every hour, every minute of your life you are facing death and you never know when your time will come. But hey, you know how much we love our Motherland, how much we wanted to take back what’s rightfully ours, no one was scared of death. No one. Let us die, we’d say to each other, but let our Motherland be free. When I and my fellow comrades saw what happened to our Ganja for instance, when we heard the news about relatives injured and dead, those dead children… it was no longer a matter of Karabakh to us. It was the war for the whole of Azerbaijan. With more zeal, more fervor we went to battles, never afraid to lay down our lives for the justice, to eradicate those terrorists and fascists who deliberately targeted our children, women, innocent people”.
“We all volunteered to fight there. Not a single person went AWOL or deserted the Army, which was completely the opposite for the Armenians. The Armenian government violated the rights of their own people – they forced their soldiers to fight. And you know, Armenians in Armenia didn’t particularly want their sons to go and die in Karabakh for they knew they were dying for nothing, these lands were not theirs to die for! “
“However, you know what they did in these lands? They ruined our cemeteries. What kind of a sick thought must go through one’s mind to unearth the dead and destroy their tombs? Not only they invaded our lands, but they went and vandalized all the traces, trying to erase the very history of the people who lived and died here. But no matter how they tried, they couldn’t erase it completely. This is our land; this is our history. And we returned Karabakh, we returned our Motherland!”
I was fighting with my tears when I was listening to him but at this point, I couldn’t hold it any longer, I simply burst into tears. “Ağlama, ağlama” (“don’t cry”), says Shamil, smiling, with eyes full of tears himself, “don’t cry but rejoice!” He stands up and walks into the adjacent room, showing me his family. “This is my family (he shows me his uncle’s children). They never saw their Motherland themselves, they only read about it in the books. Why should they be deprived to see the lands of their ancestors? It is their right to return to their homes in Khojaly, isn’t it? Look, that’s my elderly grandmother. She was deprived of her home 30 years ago. Why, what for? (I see an old woman, waving me from her couch, touching her heart, and wiping her tears). My parents, my grandparents, all born in Khojaly, who tries to take away their inalienable right to live in their homes?
“I said it already, but I insist on repeating it”, says Shamil. “Our fight was not against the Armenian nation, their children, women, elderly or civilian men. Our fight was against the Armenian armed forces”.
He lights a cigarette. “You yourself are a Christian, so you stand witness to the fact, how we, being a majority Muslim country, respect and restore Christian churches, how we care about our Jewish community and their synagogues. And do you know what they did to all our mosques? Not a single one was intact. Most were torn apart, brick by brick, and those that had at least their walls were transformed into pigsties, stalls, military objects. Why such indignity towards us?
“I have a question for you, Europe: how would you react if you’d see a Christian church in such a state as we saw our mosques in Karabakh?
“Just close your eyes for a minute and imagine some country throws a rocket at the city you live in, killing your children in your house. Would you tolerate that? “
“What city, town, village do you live in? Imagine now that some country comes and takes away this place from you, leaving you without your home. Imagine you’re told that you would never be able to come to this place again. Would you agree to that?”
I ask him whether he witnessed how Armenians were leaving Karabakh. “They took all they could with them but you know what they did to what they couldn’t”, he says gloomily. “What is a house? It’s a compilation of some bricks and dirt. They’d set it ablaze. But you know what they did to what they couldn’t take with them? Beehives. Simple beehives – they’d burn them, frying those poor bees alive! Those animals they couldn’t take with them – they’d just burn them. What kind of savagery is that?” I choke, imagining that. It’s wrong to call these people savage beasts. No animal is capable of such deeds as humans do to them and to each other.
Shamil continues wearily. “We’d help their injured providing them all due medical assistance. What would they do to our injured? They’d kick and punch them right in their injuries. There are many video proofs to that”.
It’s been only an hour that we are speaking but I see that Shamil is very tired. He smiles apologetically. “I am sorry, I am still not back fully you know. I get tired very often and I feel a bit weak. But it’s alright, I will be back. It’s just hard, you know”.
I know he doesn’t tell me all about the horrors that he witnessed: he is a gentleman and wants to spare a lady the gruesome details of the war he saw and what exactly he felt and is feeling now. I can read it in his eyes, even though Zoom that we’re using.
Shamil is a hero of Ganja city, of Khojaly, of Karabakh, of Azerbaijan. I thank him for Karabakh. I thank him and all those who fought alongside him for justice. I bow my head before the memory of the fallen heroes of Karabakh. And even though Shamil says “ağlama”, I still can’t help myself crying, for all of it. For Shamil and his fellow comrades. For my Ganja that got scarred and for my family that I could have lost at least 4 times. For other cities that fell victims to the brazen-faced Armenian aggression. And finally, I cry for this Victory, that truly turned our lives to “before” and “after. As that famous Russian war song goes, “this Victory day smells with gunpowder, this feast is with the grey hair on the temples, this joy is with tears in the eyes”.
Karabakh, you are back! Karabakh is Azerbaijan!
Geneva & Ganja