Undeniable Truth of Khojaly Genocide
The killing of around 700 civilians in an Azerbaijani town of Khojaly – over night during the onslaught of Armenian troops in 1992 – marks the bloodiest page in the First Karabakh war.
The event, which is referred to as Khojaly massacre or Khojaly genocide in Azerbaijan, was a turning point in the Karabakh conflict. It changed the course of the war as Armenians gained a psychological advantage over Azerbaijanis.
As Armenian forces were advancing, Azerbaijani civilians were fleeing to other parts of Azerbaijan fearing a second Khojaly. This pattern continued throughout the war and by the time the sides signed the cease-fire agreement in 1994, Armenian forces took control of Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan proper, which together amounted to 17 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally-recognized territories.
Some 47,000 Azeris were expelled from Karabakh and around 600,000 were forced to leave the surrounding territories. It is worth mentioning that expulsion of civilians is a common element in many cases of genocides.
In addition, there is no consensus within the UN as to how many deaths equal genocide and little consensus exists even today as to what constitutes genocide.
Khojaly fits the genocide category in line with the Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which cites intentional killing members of a group – in whole or in part – as genocide, regardless of the number of the victims. Gregor H. Stanton’s ten steps of genocide - classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial – apply them in the context of Khojaly massacre.
The First Karabakh war
The conflict over Azerbaijan’s Karabakh region flared up with the rise of ethno nationalism in late 1980s when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse.
Armenians started voicing support for Karabakh’s cessation from Azerbaijan in 1988. Things took a violent turn after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1991.
By October 1993, all of the Nagorno-Karabakh (Mountainous Karabakh), as well as Lachin corridor – a strategic territory connecting Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia – were occupied by Armenian forces. (Herzig, 1999) Nagorno-Karabakh region does not have a border with Armenia and seven Azerbaijani-populated districts outside of it that share border with Armenia were also occupied during the war.
Armenians used heavy artillery to shell villages until irregular Azerbaijani units withdrew and then occupying towns and villages, expelling civilians, looting and destroying all the buildings. The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia took lives of 200,000 people on both sides.
Late into the night on February 25, Armenia’s forces, backed by the Infantry Guard Regiment No. 366 from a then-collapsed Soviet army, assaulted the town of Khojaly, located in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
Officially, 613 civilians were killed in Khojaly. Among the victims were 63 children, 106 women and 70 elderly. Some 1,275 residents were taken hostage and whereabouts of 150 other residents remain unknown. Fifty-six people were killed with special cruelty. Before the massacre, Khojaly had a population of 7,000 residents.
The town did not have a military fortification but was strategically important. It controlled Khankendi airport – the only airport in the Nagorno-Karabakh - and was neighbouring strategic Azerbaijani towns of Lachin (a corridor between Armenia and Karabakh), Kalbacar, Khojavand and Shusha.
Ahead of the attack, Armenians had surrounded the town from three sides and left the fourth funnel open for residents to flee. However, the fleeing civilians were ambushed and killed before reaching an Azerbaijani outpost. According to the account of survivors, they were given an ultimatum by the Armenians – get out or die. (Goltz, 1999).
Journalists who were given temporary access to Khojaly by Armenians captured the scene of the carnage in video footage that was later aired in the national TV. The footages show corpses of civilians, including those of children as small as two scattered in a plateau; some corpses were scalped, beheaded, or had their eyes gouged, pregnant women were bayoneted in the abdomen. Some children were found with severed ears. An Azerbaijani journalist Chingiz Mustafayev who was in the scene of the massacre suggested that judging by the position of the bodies, the victims had not resisted or attempted to escape.
Azerbaijan accuses former Armenian President and Defense Minister of being war criminals for their involvement in the First Karabakh war and in military operations in Khojaly, and the massacre has become one of focal points in Baku’s policies towards Armenia.
In February 2022, the Military Prosecutor’s Office of Azerbaijan put the former presidents of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan, on the wanted list accusing them of multiple crimes based on the Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Emil Taghiyev, Head of the Special Investigation Department of the Military Prosecutor's Office, said Kocharyan and Sargsyan have been provoking national hatred and enmity toward Azerbaijanis in regular meetings with ethnic Armenians in the Khankendi city of Azerbaijan since 1988.
"They were prosecuted and wanted under the relevant articles of the Criminal Code for propagating the belief that Karabakh belongs to Armenia and only Armenians should live there, Azerbaijanis must be forcibly sacked and expelled from the city [Khankendi] and Nagorno-Karabakh, their houses must be set on fire [and] for making illegal decisions on declaring the “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic” and repealing the Constitution of the Republic of Azerbaijan in those territories on September 2, 1991,” Taghiyev was quoted as saying by APA.
Both Kocharyan and Sargsyan have personally attended the First Karabakh War in 1991-1994, which ended in the illegal occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijan's territories, mass killings of over 30,000, and forcible expulsion of around one million ethnic Azerbaijanis.
Kocharyan, who served as Armenia’s president in 1998-2008, actively engaged in the capture of the Azerbaijani city of Shusha in 1992 and was one of the masterminds of brutal ethnic cleansing policy against the indigenous Azerbaijani population of the Karabakh region. In 1994-1996, he led the bogus separatist regime established in the occupied Azerbaijani lands.
In 2003, former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan admitted that the massacre served the purpose of intimidation of Azerbaijani civilians. In an interview with British journalist Thomas DeWaal, which was later published in the latter’s book Black Garden, Sargsyan suggested that the Khojaly massacre meant to break the stereotype that Armenians would not kill civilians.
“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 were able to break that [stereotype]. And that’s what happened. And we should also take into account that amongst those boys were people who had fled from Baku and Sumgait.” (De Wall, 2003, p. 172)
In the same interview Sargsyan also suggested that if civilians had fled, they would not have been killed.
Monte Melkonian, a California-born Armenian who was recruited in the First Karabakh war and was in charge of 4,000 soldiers during the war, described Khojaly massacre as a “strategic goal” and “an act of revenge” in his diaries that were published posthumously in his brother Marker Melkonian’s book “My Brother's Road: An American's Fateful Journey to Armenia”. (Melkonian, 2005, p. 213)
Monte Melkonyan also blamed out of control forces for the atrocities.
“Monte crunched over the grass where women and girls lay scattered like broken dolls. ‘No discipline’, he muttered.” (Melkonian, 2005, p. 213)
Monte Melkonyan was one of many members of ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of our Homeland) organization who fought in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. (Melkonian, 2005) ASALA is recognized as a terrorist organization in the USA and several European countries and had mobilized its members during the Karabakh war.
Classification of genocide
Khojaly massacre was planned, systematic extermination of civilians that fits Raphael Lemkin’s (1943 or 1944) definition of genocide, the word that he coined by putting together Greek word genos (tribe, race) and the Latin word cide (killing).
According to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was drafted by Lemkin and adopted in December 1948 by the United Nations’ General Assembly, genocide is "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, such as such":
“Killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
The word “with intent” stands out in Article Two. Special intention is а prerequisite for an act to be qualified as genocide and distinguishes genocide from similar international crimes. Khojaly massacre was the case of killing members of an ethnic group with the intention to destroy them for military and strategic purposes. The goal was to break the spirit of the Azerbaijani people and to expel as many civilians as possible from their homes.
There are two key factors that were precursor to Khojaly massacre – territorial claims and racial hatred. Armenians claim that they have lived in the region for thousands of years and must conquer back what they describe as their ancient homeland. For this reason, a large number of Armenians do not see a problem expelling or even exterminating Azerbaijani civilians. It is worth mentioning that the number of Armenians had been increasing in Karabakh due to the Russian Empire’s conquest of the region in 1813.
Khojaly massacre was a logical conclusion of the series of dehumanization campaigns and propaganda – carried out by the Armenian government and its public figures. This campaign started decades before the war in 1990s. Thus, it would be interesting to look at in the context of the Khojaly massacre against the backdrop of Gregor H. Stanton’s ten stages of genocide – classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.
The first stage of genocide – classification - that was suggested by Stanton, fits well in the context of Khojaly massacre. Since the early XX century, Armenians have classified Azerbaijanis as the others – the Turks against whom they had grievances due to the events that unfolded in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1920.
The underlying tension and hatred for Turkic Azerbaijanis reached its peak in 1918 when Armenian Dashank terrorist groups, an extension of nationalist party Dashnaksutyun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) massacred 12,000 Azerbaijanis in Baku between 30 March and 2 April. Dashnaks killed civilians indiscriminately in a campaign that would later be called the genocide of Azerbaijanis. The massacre became a turning point in Azerbaijan’s political direction in the following years to come. (Hasanli, 2016)
Classification of Azerbaijanis as “Turks” persisted even during the 70 years under the Soviet rule (between 1920 and 1990) when the two nations were peacefully co-existing. Armenians perceived Azerbaijanis as the Turks due to Azerbaijan’s ethnic and language closeness to Turkey. It is a common knowledge that Armenians were referring to Azerbaijanis as Turks and to the Azerbaijani language as the Turkish language. This is in stark contrast to Azerbaijanis who were unaware of the animosity against themselves. With the exception of few people, during the Soviet period, Azerbaijanis were not vocal about their Turkic heritage and did not believe in the Armenian-Azerbaijani enmity until the war in Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in early 1990s.
The hatred for Turks was expressed even during the Soviet times where expression of nationalism and ethnic animosity were a taboo. Zori Balayan, an Armenian writer and journalist, who later became the chief ideologist of Karabakh movement, called Turks – and by extension the Azerbaijanis – Armenia’s and Russia’s “enemy” in his book Ochag (The hearth) in 1984, even though it was before Gorbachov’s perestroika. (De Waal, 2003) In the same book, Zori Balayan openly voiced Armenian claims on Azerbaijan’s and Turkey’s territories.
It should be noted that Armenia’s land claims on Azerbaijan and Turkey are the main part of its national ideology. In 2011, asked by an Armenian student whether Armenia would be able to conquer Mountain Ararat in Eastern Turkey, President Serzh Sargsyan said: "This is the mission of your generation. For example, my generation skillfully accomplished its mission. We liberated Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh], part of our land, from the enemy in the early 1990s. Each generation has its own mission." (https://news.az/articles/armenia/41254)
American journalist and writer Thomas Goltz who was in Karabakh during the incident, has described the difficulties he faced to get his report on Khojaly published in the Western media. He also described how the media organizations were requesting him to give a “more balanced” report that would include the non-existent Armenian casualties. (Goltz, 1999).
Since 1992, Azerbaijan has been pushing for Khojaly’s recognition as genocide and wants Armenia to acknowledge its violent treatment of civilians. Now, sixteen countries from around the world including the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Panama, Pakistan, Jordan, Indonesia, the Scottish parliament in the UK, the 57-country Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as well as 24 state governments in the United States, have officially recognized the events in Khojaly as genocide of Azerbaijanis.
Khojaly massacre was an intentional and cold-blooded crime against humanity that was used as an instrument of psychological manipulation over unarmed civilians. Regardless of the casualty number, the intention of killing was present.
The UN convention on genocide proposed by Lemkin has not established how many deaths amount to genocide and therefore the author relies on the intentional character of the massacre rather than the number of victims and concludes that the killings in Khojaly amount to genocide.
The magnitude of genocide should not be judged by the number of victims, but rather by the nature of the massacre and by the motivation of the perpetrators. Khojaly was the crime against humanity committed for nationalistic ambitions of a society that believes it has the right to expel and kill Azerbaijanis. Khojaly was an indiscriminate and intentional killing of civilians for their ethnic belonging and the perpetrators of Khojaly genocide should be brought to justice
In 2020, the Azerbaijani army liberated over 300 settlements, including nine villages of the Khojaly district during the 44-day-long counter-attack operations in the Karabakh region. The war ended in a tripartite ceasefire statement signed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on November 10. Armenia returned the occupied Aghdam, Kalbajar, and Lachin districts to Azerbaijan as part of the agreement. A major part of the Khojaly district is currently controlled by the Russian peacekeepers deployed as part of the ceasefire statement. The peacekeeping contingent will remain in the region for five years, according to the signed document.
1. De Waal, T. (2003) Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war. New York University Press.
2. De Waal, T. (2010). The Caucasus: An Introduction (p. 62). Oxford University Press.
3. Goltz, T. (1999). Azerbaijan Diary: A rogue Reporter’s Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic. Armonk, New York, London, England: M. E. Sharpe
4. Melkonian, M. (2005). My Brother’s Road: An American’s Fateful Journey to Armenia. New York: I.B. Tauris
5. Herzig, E. (1999). The New Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs.
6. E.Kanet, R. (2007). Russia Re-Emerging Great Power. Palgrave Macmillian
7. Hasanli, J. (2016). Foreign Policy of the Republic of Azerbaijan: The Difficult Road to Western Integration, 1918-1920 (Studies of Central Asia and the Caucasus). Routledge.
5. http://old.memo.ru/hr/hotpoints/karabah/Hojaly/index.htm - Report of Memorial Human Right Center
Authors: Aisha Jabbarova, Mushvig Mehdiyev. Editor: Orkhan Jalilov