Countless humanitarian tragedies have occurred between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the course of the two Karabakh wars since the fall of the Soviet Union. Thousands of people on both sides fell victim to a dispute provoked by Armenia’s claim to the internationally recognized territories of Azerbaijan. The massacre of more than six hundred Azerbaijani civilians in Khojaly, a town with a population of seven thousand people, in bitterly cold morning of February 26, 1992, is the most tragic page of this conflict between the two nations.
Recognized by increasingly growing number of states and world parliaments as a genocide act, the Khojaly tragedy gains a new significance following the 44-day war, which put an end to the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict:
This should be now perceived as the “Holocaust moment” of the conflict telling why both nations must seize the peace and reconciliation opportunity offered by the trilateral statement of November 10, 2020, that concluded the Second Karabakh War, in order not to let similar tragedies happen ever again.
Khojaly Genocide is the largest massacre committed against peaceful Azerbaijani people in the course of Armenia’s war against Azerbaijan
The occupation of the Azerbaijani territories of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts and ethnic cleansing of the region in the early 1990s by the armed forces of Armenia was a process of immeasurable atrocities and extreme violence. The Armenian leaders, having realized that more than 700,000 people based in this region would not be easily persuaded to flee and leave their homes to Armenia, decided to force them into it.
This caught the Azerbaijanis off-guard, as they did not expect cruelty, let aside violence, from their Armenian neighbors, with whom they had lived side-by-side in friendships and often kinships over the centuries. Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s President in 2008-2018, once admitted that this belief of the Azerbaijani people was the very reason, why the slaughter of Azerbaijanis in Khojaly happened.
Sargsyan, who was the commander of breakaway Nagorno Karabakh’s military forces in 1992, told Thomas de-Wall, current senior associate of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an interview dated December 2000, when Sargsyan was Armenia’s defense minister, that “Before Khojalu, 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.”
Azerbaijani residents of the Khojaly town paid a very high price for the trust that Sargsyan’s forces attempted to disprove. More than 600 people, including 106 women and 63 children, were tortured and brutally murdered. The fate of 150 of them, including 68 women and 26 children, remains unknown to date. As a result of the massacre, 487 were injured, 8 families were completely destroyed, 130 children lost one and 25 children lost both parents.
This massacre in Khojaly was documented in detail by journalists and later reported by the human rights organizations including the Human Rights Watch. This was described by the Human Rights Watch as “the largest massacre to date in the conflict” between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The occupation of Khojaly, a strategically important part of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan and the town that hosted the only airport of the region, was a critical step in Armenia’s plans to seize the control over the surrounding districts.
This region remained under Armenian control for around three decades until the 44-day war which both ended the occupation and opened new horizons for the re-establishment of peace between the two countries. The trilateral statement signed by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia on November 10, 2020, calling for opening of all transportation and communication links in the region, has in a certain sense, generated a unique chance for the restoration of peace between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, who had lived peacefully in the past and continue to live so in other parts of the world where they are settled.
Peace and reconciliation have no alternatives
It is thus extremely important for the two nations, as well as the international organizations, to seize this rare chance and not to take it for granted. Fortunately, there have been a number of positive signs that raise hopes that peace would be indeed possible.
First and foremost, the official recognition of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as “resolved” by the Azerbaijani side is critically important for eventual peace. It is worth noting that the Azerbaijani government agreed to ceasefire at a time when the Armenian armed forces had lost its entire fighting capabilities and would face grave losses had the war continued.
This provided an opportunity for the governments and peoples of the two countries to find a common ground for the implementation of post-conflict peace-building initiatives. “We have entered the process of the restoration of peaceful coexistence stage in the resolution of the conflict”, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister Ceyhun Bayromov announced in late November.
The opening of regional transportation and communication channels, along with the proposal to establish a six-state regional cooperation platform (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia + Turkey, Russia and Iran) currently top the peace agenda and hold a vital significance for the regional stability and security.
This assessment is also shared by the Armenian government led by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. “A constructive, mutually beneficial solution to the issue of opening [of] the communications is one of the factors that can bring lasting peace to our region,” PM Pashinyan said in an interview with a local news agency, adding that apart from lasting peace, it will bring certain economic benefits, change the economic image and potential of the region and Armenia.
These messages from the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan raise a hope that it can be eventually possible for the “Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict” to become as a matter of the past. This all creates a new situation that should not be taken granted by anyone who is interested in building peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan and ending the longstanding hostilities often accompanied by violence. Khojaly Genocide, being the most tragic page of this conflict, tells therefore why peace and reconciliation between the two nations have no alternatives.
*About the author: Dr. Vasif Huseynov is a senior fellow at the Center of Analysis of International Relations (AIR Center) and Adjunct Lecturer at Khazar University in Baku, Azerbaijan.