Witnesses of the Armenian occupation

Shelling of a funeral, and a cemetery in Tartar

By | Rachel Brooks, Interviews by Irina Tsukerman

October 15, 2020

Photos were retrieved from private social media. Fair use.

The memory of the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other occupied zones of Azerbaijan, where Armenia has laid its illegal foundation, remain as scars. 

These scars are felt across the Azerbaijani community. As they witnessed the brutality in Ganja, they are reminded of their childhoods. Sakina Mammadova recalls vivid childhood memories that were overshadowed by the growing anxiety. The war split her family apart, as her parents desperately tried to care for all their children amid armed conflict.

Destruction of the tombs after Tartar was recently shelled.

“I was six-years-old when I left Aghdam. My whole family, grandmothers, and grandfathers lived in Agdam. I have so many childhood memories from my home and grandparent’s home. I loved to play in our beautiful garden in the backyard. I had a pink world since the war began in 1990. After the 1991 year, our parents were afraid of letting us play in our garden. We heard sounds of bombs, but I did not understand what was going on,” said Mammadova. 

“First my dad took me and my sister to my aunt who lived in Baku. But my parents, my 6 months old brother and our grandparents remained there. After some period when it was impossible to live there anymore, they had to leave the city under shelling of Armenian armed forces.”

Sarmaya Mustafa recalls the war vividly. She was 15-years-old in 1993. Today, she trains refugee service providers, non-profits (stakeholders) in Texas on refugee mental health. Sarmaya was an internally displaced refugee of the war. The war continued for a year after she was displaced. She graduated from Baku State University (Journalism.) 

Bombing destruction of a child’s room.

Mustafa recalls how there were those of her family who could not join in with the others in their forced migration. 

“My mom was left behind. I did not know if she was alive or dead when Zangelan was occupied. It was the last city occupied by Armenia. I was crying with my sister all day long. Then we heard that Iran agreed to give a safe passage to the civilians and allowed them to cross the border ( Aras river). I was devastated until I could finally see my mother. My mom had only the key to our apartment in Zangelan, we did not have anything else. No home, no winter cloth, no money, nothing. I still have separation anxiety and it is hard for me to say good-bye,” said Mustafa.

Azerbaijan stands in awe of the escalation of the conflict that sent rockets sailing into Ganja, decimating the city, killing families, and leaving children baptized in blood. While the international community urges the two nations to honor the ceasefire deal, Armenia turns a deaf ear and a blind eye and persists. 

Despite the world’s position of siding with Armenia come what may, Azerbaijani nationals call out for peace, using their memories as the tool to avert future suffering. 

Such was the plea of Vafa, who recalled her once-upon-a-time Jabrail with equal parts fondness and sorrow. 

“We used to go to Jabrail to visit my grandparents and relatives during school summer breaks. The best times of a child are memories with the family,” said Vafa.

“The 1993 summer break was the last time I saw Jabrail, I was only 9, I would have never thought that exciting train ride with a full yearning to see grandma and grandpa would be the last one in my life. I didn’t know that I would witness the real war atmosphere. I didn’t know that the excitement I traveled to Jabrail would end with running out of there with fear. I didn’t know that instead of playing with my cousins and seeing neighbors kids we would see real bullets laying on the streets, we would see soldiers walking on the streets.”

She also made a heartfelt plea for the children of Azerbaijan, as well as for those who lived their whole life on Azerbaijani soil, who have been ripped away from the sanctuary of a native country by the fabrications of an oppressive foreign government. 

“No child should go through this feeling, no child should hide in basements from bombs. 27 years have passed since that summer. I lost my childhood memories, I lost my happy place, but my grandparents and extended relatives (my aunts, uncles) lost their homes where they were born, where their parents and grandparents were born, they lost the house they built, they lost their farms and gardens that they built… It is unacceptable. We had home in Sumgayit, we came back home but my relatives and grandparents had nowhere to go, they did farming, growing their food, herding their animals, they had never lived in big tall apartments, it was harder for them to adapt to this life. To feel homeless, when you have one, in your own country. I can’t describe the feeling of disappointment I and my family went through.”   

She also expressed sadness that she cannot show her children her birthplace or where their family came from. 

“Today I am a mom to three beautiful children. My middle child is almost nine, the same age as I was when I lived the most fearful moments of my life, and it breaks my heart that today I can’t visit Jabrail to show my kids where my ancestors lived, where the best days of my childhood were, to show those streets I ran..family is our identity, memories are our identity, lands we grew up on, is our identity, Armenians stole all these from me, and thousands of people,- children, women like me.. they should be responsible for their crimes. they should obey the UN resolutions and leave my lands, from the lands that were recognized as the territory of Azerbaijan.” 

Vafa’s sorrow was shared by many who remembered the beauty of Azerbaijan 27 years ago. Gunel Mammadkhanova, now 37, was 10-years-old during the previous Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. 

“I was 10 years old. I had two siblings. I was the eldest in the family, my sister was 9 and my little brother was 6 at the time old when we left our motherland. The sad thing was the date occupied was my little brother’s birth date. ( 30 October 1993) . It happened on 29th of October in 1993. We were very happy living there with our family and relatives. I remember my childhood playing with my friends, going to school, visiting my grandparents. Our life was pure and joyful there, we didn’t suffer from anything because everyone had their own garden, we took all the fruits and vegetables from our garden,” said Mammadkhanova. From there, fond memories bleed into tragic ones. 

“In 1993, our hard times started to begin. When the war started, everyone was worried and anxious. Sometimes we needed to spend our days in the basement to stay safe from the missiles. 

Till that time, other regions were already occupied by Armenian and our region was the last one remaining in the area and we were surrounded by them.” 

As Armenia surrounded, the family was ripped away from their life and everything they knew. 

“No one wanted to leave but they wanted to evacuate the kids and ladies and old people. That’s why they found wagons to take us out of the village. But wagons are supposed to carry the packages, not people. But no one wanted to leave their motherland. But later everything was getting worse. It was dangerous to stay there. At least, they said we should leave Zengilan because Armenian blocked us and we passed through the Araz River to save our lives…”

Yet on the Araz River, those who were seeking redemption met with an abrupt and brutal ending to their narrow escape. 

 “At the same time, many people died when they wanted to pass the river. It was very hard because of the weather condition. The river was cold and even though they decreased the level of water but it didn’t help to save everyone.” 

Yet Mammadkhanova survived, went on to parent three lovely children, and now lives in Vienna, Virginia, and works as a pastry chef for an Azerbaijani bakery store. Still, the memory of that cold escape on the Araz remains like the mist. 

“We spent one night on the shore of the river. The weather was very cold and freezing. Thank God, all my family members stayed safe. The next day, my uncle came from Baku to pick us up. Then we stayed with them for a while until the government gave us a place where the refugees can stay. After that time our life gets harder and harder. Because we left everything behind us and started to build a life from zero. We had a huge trauma as a family.”

Still, the family hopes to bring their children to see the motherland, to witness Azerbaijan’s beauty despite its pain. 

The history of the Nagorno-Karabakh 

Once upon a time, the Nagorno-Karabakh was a place where ethnic Azerbaijani and Armenians could travel freely in this place. Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to the Azerbaijani territory but has a high population of Armenians. 

The Red Line show interviewed Azerbaijani regarding the chaos the fall of the Soviet Union inflicted upon the Nagorno-Karabakh. The chaos in Baku at that time created the correct theater for Armenia to pierce into the side of Azerbaijan. The land that was occupied became an enclave that was attached to the Republic of Armenia. At the time of the Red Line podcast, which attempted to show both sides of the conflict, Azerbaijan had been building up its defense forces with the hopes of taking back the occupied territory and disbanding the Armenian enclave to drive Armenia back into its legal lines. This report was created in May 2020, when the conflict was relegated to random skirmishes. 

War & Peace by the International Crisis Group had likewise reported on the issue in March. War & Peace reported that at the time of the original bloody conflict there was a heavy population of Azerbaijani living in Armenia just as there was a heavy presence of Armenians in Azerbaijan. Nagorno-Karabakh was a territory that the Soviet Union had attempted to placate, to pacify both sides, but to no avail. In the beginning, the conflict of the early 90s began as civilian militias where the local enclave took up arms. ICG noted that, early on, professional armies were not part of the equation. The amateurish conditions of the war at that stage were prompted by Armenian propaganda schemes and anti-communist rhetoric. The communist regime had kept the ethnic pressure at bay, but as it began to lose control of the region, the informal uprising began to formulate. At that time, the international community more or less viewed the conflict as a domestic dispute that was not seriously an armed conflict, failing to recognize the embattlement of the extremism in Armenian ethnopolitical thought. 

Speaking with the ICG, a journalist who had been at the scene at the time that the front lines were formed noted that a feeling of “two societies being torn asunder” characterized the front lines of Nagorno-Karabakh in the beginning. He noted that before as the front lines were being drawn, there were empty houses in Baku and in Armenia where Armenians and Azerbaijani had vacated each other’s territory, as the tensions surmounted. The journalist described it as an “amateurish” war, that began with local spring-attacks between the two that started before the end of the Soviet Union. 

The Red Line reported that the conflict, that began as a communal conflict, was swallowed up in the geopolitics of the situation. Svante E. Cornell, the director at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, spoke with the program. Cornell stated that the Armenians felt their uprising, originally in protest of the harsh living conditions of the nationalist policies of the Soviet Union, “seemed like a good idea” at the time they launched nationalist campaigns in the area. Armenia, demanding sovereignty over a large chunk of Azerbaijan, took advantage of the weak statehood of the Azerbaijani republic at its inception. But, Cornell states, once they had taken that land, “bitten off that chunk” as it were, they were not able to “really chew it” or fully control it. Cornell stated that foreign influences, powerful friends in high places, had an intensive interest in the crossroads region that Armenia and Azerbaijan occupy. 

Cornell restates the rhetoric that the catalyst of the conflict stems from Stalin’s Soviet Union policy in the Caucasus was the only region where he broke from his Soviet Union autonomy policy. Stalin’s usual theory was that an ethnic majority in one area would get its state under the union, while a minority would not. Yet, with Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, it was Stalin who drew the lines with an Armenian bias that created tensions in the region as early as the inception of the Soviet Union. Azerbaijan was outraged that ethnic Armenians should receive two states, essentially, rather than being placed within Soviet Armenia. This was specifically because Nagorno-Karabakh has been Azerbaijani territory since the dawn of civilization, and was returned to Azerbaijani sovereignty after the Second Persian war. This took place with the singing of the Treaty of Golestan in the early 19th century. 

The region of Nagorno-Karabakh, while inhabited by Azerbaijan and many ethnicities since antiquity, was ceded back into the Azerbaijani control with the Treaty of Golestan, which was signed as a result of the Second Persian War, the last great conflict between Russia and Iran. With the Treaty of Golestan, Persia ceded the control of some of its territories over to Russia. These territories were known as the khanates of the Caucasus. As these were divided by a people group, it was determined that the Nagorno-Karabakh mountain region was part of Azerbaijan. 

Destruction of Armenia’s shelling of Tartar

Armenians, at that time, were also dissatisfied with the fact that Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh were essentially exiled from Soviet Armenia. Thus, in the beginning, neither side was content with the Stalinist division of the ancient lands of Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory that is a mountain island of sorts amid the region. 

While Stalin drew the lines of the Nagorno-Karabakh region during the Soviet Union, it was not his right. Stalin was himself an occupier and conquest-maker of the lands he outlined for his union. Therefore, The statement that Stalin’s lines legitimized Nagorno-Karabakh as a region of Armenia is propaganda. 

Cornell called the status of Stalin’s politics in the region “a time bomb.” The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that ensued at the end of Stalin’s dream was the time in which the fuze was lit. 

Arguably, the Khojaly Massacre, and the scars of its atrocity, can be seen as the blast. The most gruesome destruction from which there was no return. 

Khojaly massacre haunts the current conflict

As the current conflict exhausts the same tired strategy and rhetoric of the conflict 30 years ago, the infamous Khojaly Massacre has been revived in the memory of the survivors, a demon returned to taunt. 

Shelling of a village in Baharli village in Aghdam

One knew that horror all too well, even before the day of the massacre. 

Aynur Jafar was 11-years-old when she left the war zone. She recalled the conflict at the time of the Khojaly Massacre in 1992. 

“After the massacre in an Azerbaijani town Khojaly in 1992, our situation got even worse. Armenian military murdered 630 civilians, including 106 women and 63 children, in Khojaly within a few hours and captured hundreds of them alive,” said Jafar. 

“During those days many often said that those who died were luckier than those who were captured. We heard horrible stories of tortures – rapes, burning children alive in front of their parents, slaughtering parents in front of their children, and so on. I saw a few of the victims of Khojaly who escaped their deaths at the hands of Armenians with my own eyes. All of them lost the light in their eyes. It was horrifying.”

Once Jafar began to recount the atrocities of the Armenian regime during the Khojaly era, the violations of human rights seemed endless. 

The historical occupation remembered on the record

The Presidential Library keeps a record of the circumstances which led to the occupation of the seven districts. Lachin was occupied on May 18, 1992, ten days after the full occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

Aghdam was occupied on July 23, 1993. Then, the occupations of the rest of the districts were as follows, Fizuli – August 23, 1993, Jabrayil – August 26, 1993, Gubadly – August 31, 1993, Zangilan and October 28, 1993. When Armenia occupied these regions they illegally transferred settlers to them in the following numbers, Nagorno-Karabakh – 8 500 Lachin – 13 000 Kelbajar – 700 Zangilan – 520 Jabrayil – 280 Total – 23 000, as of the date of the presidential record. 

The Presidential Library likewise keeps a crystalline record of the horrors the witnesses of the Khojaly Massacre endured. This testimony, recorded by the Azerbaijani republic’s human rights department, appear in their entirety as follows: 

Official excerpt of the witness statements from the Khojaly Massacre 

The Presidential Library of Azerbaijan also shared a series of witness statements regarding the Khojaly massacre brutality against civilians. The original statements are available via Human.gov of the Azerbaijani republic. They proceed in direct English quotation as follows: 

“The chests of the murdered Azerbaijani children were torn, their hearts splintered, and most of the corpses were cut to pieces. 

Jamal Abdulhusein oglu Heydarov – “There were the mutilated, disfigured corpses of a great number of Azerbaijanis 2 km away from the farm near a place called Garagaya, the chests, and hearts of the murdered children were torn, the majority of bodies were cut to pieces.”

 Shahin Zulfugar oglu Heydarov – “There were 80 corpses near the village of Nakhchivanik (near Khojali); they were mutilated, disfigured, and beheaded. Militia Major Alif Hajiyev, his close relatives Fakhraddin Salimov, Mikail Salimov were among them.”

Jalil Humbatali oglu Humbatov -“The Armenians shot my wife Firuza, my son Mugan, my daughter Simuzer, my daughter-in-law Sudaba were in my presence”. 

Kubra Adil qizi Pashayeva – “When we entered the forest of Ketik, we found ourselves under siege by the Armenians. I saw from the bushes how they shot my husband Shura Tapdig oglu Pashayev my son Elshad Shura oglu Pashayev.” 

Khazangul Tavakkul qizi Amirova – “My family was wholly taken hostage by the armed Armenians when Khojali was occupied. They shot and killed my mother Raya, my seven-year-old sister Yegana, and my aunt Goycha. They poured petrol on my father Tavakkul and set him on fire.” 

Zoya Ali gizi Aliyeva – “We hid in the forest for 3 days; we were 150 people. Ahmadova Dunya and her sister Gulkhar froze and died”. 

Kubra Alish gizi Mustafayeva – “As the Armenians took us, hostages, they shot 6 people in front of me.” 

Saida Gurban gizi Karimova – “12 of us were taken hostage. The Armenians murdered my daughter Nazakat. Then Tapdig, Saadat, and Irada were tortured to death.” Ali Agamali oglu Najafov – “The Armenians surrounded the escaping people and shot 30-40 people right there.”

Ali Agamali oglu Najafov – “The Armenians surrounded the escaping people and shot 30-40 people right there.”  

Regardless of ceasefire talks, Azerbaijani who remember the bloodshed of the previous onslaught are braced for the worst. The international intervention has the power to de-escalate the conflict, but with foreign players appearing to pick sides, especially leaning in bias toward Armenia as the true aggressor of the conflict, hopes are continuously dashed. 

Geopolitics of the current conflict 

If any lessons can be learned from the original conflict, the biased backing of foreign powers will fan the flames. All foreign powers have an interest in Armenia and Azerbaijan, who stand, for better or worse, as independent gatekeepers of the Caucusus who are not under the full control of the Islamic Republic. The region that Armenia now vies for total nationalist control over is the economic gateway to the Caucuses. Just as with the conflict at the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign powers would back the conflict in terms of foreign interest, and thereby catalyze irrevocable conflict, where no status quo could ever be reassembled.

Yet, just as foreign powers will fuel the conflict, it has reached an hour and a theater where the complex influence of foreign involvement may be the only thing to salvage the situation. 

At this moment in the conflict, all sides look to the United States to see how it will intervene. The United States has historically maintained a neutral, proctor-like distance of mediation in the conflict. As of this moment, the Democratic National Convention within the United States pressures the U.S. State Department to condemn Azerbaijan and back the Armenian side. This media-led campaign of speculation regarding U.S. involvement should not detract from the human elements of the story. 

As for the current conflict, the bombing of Ganja, far beyond the determined frontlines suffices as a red flag of warning of the intent of modern Armenia. The political shift has not changed the nationalist regime’s thinking. Ganja is the casualty of today, but the whole nation of Azerbaijan is on the chopping block of ambition. A Western biased backing of Armenia, at this point, would be the empowerment of Armenian fascism to ethnically purge the South Caucuses of an Azerbaijani presence or the rights to an Azerbaijani republic.