Khojaly: The Worst Massacre in the Nagorno-Karabakh War and Azerbaijan’s Quest to Commemorate the Tragedy

Hamza Karčić. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. Volume 36, Issue 4, December 2016.

Introduction

During the Azerbaijani-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh (1992-1994), one particular village was to emerge as the site of a major tragedy. As Azerbaijani and Armenian forces engaged in 1992 for control of territory in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian forces attacked Azerbaijani-held town of Shusha and Azerbaijani forces sought to keep Armenian-held Stepanakert under pressure. In late February 1992, Armenian forces attacked the village of Khojaly in an attempt to take control over a nearby airfield. Khojaly had been under a blockade for a few months and was only lightly defended. As the village was attacked and the Azerbaijani inhabitants fled Khojaly they were gunned down by Armenian forces. An official Azerbaijani investigation confirmed that 485 persons lost their lives in this attrocity which has since been termed as the single worst massacre in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

In February 2017, Azerbaijan will mark the 25th anniversary of the Khojaly tragedy. The commemoration will take place even as the far more violent and destructive conflicts, particularly in Syria, continue today. Yet, as the selection of papers in the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs’ 2015 Special Issue marking the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre would show, the early 1990s were a far cry from the initial optimism following the end of the Cold War. The disintegration of Yugoslavia led to the worst genocide in Europe after the Second World War and the end of Soviet rule in the South Caucasus led to further conflict and to a major tragedy. Khojaly, which emerged as the site of Azerbaijani suffering during the war in the early 1990s, has been commemorated annually since.

Azerbaijan’s Quest

What is evident over the past several years is that Azerbaijanis across the globe have been undertaking efforts to internationally commemorate the tragedy. These atrocities have been a sorrow wound in the Azerbaijani collective memory ever since. Azerbaijani diplomacy has since sought to disseminate information on Khojaly in order to achieve international recognition and condemnation of this atrocity. According to Joshua Kucera, gaining international recognition of the Khojaly massacre is a crucial element in Azerbaijan’s campaign to regain control of the Armenian-occupied Nagorno-Karabakh. In Thomas de Waal’s words, the international recognition bolsters, Azerbaijan’s case to the world that it is the victim of aggression.

This article examines Azerbaija’s efforts to institutionalize the memory of the Khojaly massacre internationally by making the commemoration of this event an integral part of its foreign policy. The Azerbaijanis living abroad have similarly taken to commemorating Khojaly. A series of events, rallies, and photo exhibitions dedicated to the Khojaly victims have taken place in locations ranging from Turkey to Mexico. A series of monuments commemorating Khojaly have similarly sprung up in Europe from Bosnia to the Netherlands. The quest for international recognition and commemoration of the atrocities at Khojaly takes several forms, including the annual commemoration of the tragedy of Khojaly in cities around the world; the adoption by national parliaments of resolutions on Khojaly and the construction of memorials and monuments in dedication to the Khojaly victims.

The Role of Diplomatic Missions

The international effort to commemorate Khojaly is pursued through the diplomatic channel involving the Azerbijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Azerbaijani diplomatic missions across the globe. The Foreign Ministry’s official website contains two links—one on “Armenian Aggression Against Azerbaijan” and another on “Khojaly: Crime Against Humanity”. Azerbaijani embassies feature on their official websites information about Khojaly. Even the Azerbaijan embassy in Serbia has on its official website a section on “Armenian Aggression” where information on the Khojaly tragedy is provided. An important role in this effort is played by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. Established in 2004 and headed by Azerbaijan’s First Lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, the Foundation has been active in the effort to achieve international recognition of the Khojaly tragedy.

Annual Commemoration

A prominent form of remembering Khojaly victims is the annual commemoration of the tragedy organized every February. Over the past several years, the February commemoration of Khojaly has been taking place in increasing number of countries. The annual commemoration takes different forms including photo exhibitions on Khojaly or public rallies.

In 2009, an event marking the anniversary of the Khojaly massacre was held in the European Parliament. Supported by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, the event comprised a photo exhibition on the tragedy. In Jakarta, the Azerbaijani embassy organized a photo exhibition on Khojaly and showed a documentary film on the atrocities at the commemoration of the anniversary of the tragedy in February 2010. A photo exhibition was similarly organized by the Azerbaijani Embassy in Japan in 2013.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Khojaly, a mass rally was held in Istanbul’s Taksim square with an estimated 100,000 people taking part. This was the largest protest held outside Azerbaijan with the purpose of raising awareness about a little-known tragedy. Similar demonstrations were held in Ankara and other Turkish cities.

A major public awareness campaign was held in the U.S. in February 2013. Organized by the Azerbaijan American Alliance, the campaign included posters “Khojaly  …  A Human Tragedy Against Azerbaijan” that appeared in nine metro stations in the Washington, DC, area. Furthermore, mobile projections of the posters on building and mobile billboards were featured in this campaign in the nation’s capital.

Parliamentary Resolutions

As of mid-2013, an increasing number of national parliaments have passed resolutions condemning the Khojaly massacre. According to Azerbaijani media reports, resolutions had previously been passed in Pakistan, Columbia, Mexico, Turkey and were recently passed by Bosnia, Serbia, Romania and the Czech Republic. According to Azerbaijani media reports from early July 2013, Jordanian Senate condemned the atrocities committed in Khojaly. Previously, the Jordanian Senate had adopted a statement in May 2013 on Khojaly.

In the U.S., state legislatures in Arkansas, Mexico, Massachusetts, Texas, New Jersey, Georgia and Maine adopted resolutions on Khojaly. In the U.S. Congress, legislators friendly to Azerbaijan have been issuing statements for the congressional record remembering the Khojaly victims. A petition urging the White House to commemorate Khojaly obtained more than 125,000 signatures. Several legislators in the U.S. Congress have also commemorated Khojaly in their speeches or remarks for the congressional record which began in 2005. In February that year, Congressman Dan Burton stated:

Khojaly was a little known small town in Azerbaijan until February 1992. Today it no longer exists, and for people of Azerbaijan and the region, the word “Khojaly” has become synonymous with pain, sorrow, and cruelty.

In the 110th Congress (2007-2008), there were four “extentions of remarks” on Khojaly. The 111th Congress (2009-2010) had six such statements while 112th Congress (2011-2012) had 10 statements on Khojaly. Apart from these efforts, national legislatures in Colombia, Mexico, the Czech Republic and Pakistan also adopted resolutions on Khojaly.

The Khojaly tragedy has also been commemorated in the Balkans. In Bosnia, the House of Representatives adopted a resolution “respecting and acknowledging the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan”. A similar proposal was tabled in the upper house (Dom naroda) on 26 February 2013. This resolution expressed support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity and called for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops from occupied Azerbaijani territories. It further condemned the atrocities against the civilian population in the town of Khojaly. Some Azerbaijani media outlets reported that a genocide resolution was adopted by the Bosnian parliament. However, the Bosnian parliament condemned and commemorated the Khojaly tragedy without using the term “genocide”.

Memorials and Monuments

Apart from legislative commemoration, another form of Khojaly commemoration is the construction of monuments and memorials dedicated to Khojaly victims. Memorials to Khojaly were opened in Berlin, the Hague, and Mexico City.

The memorial in Mexico City became contentious in 2012. A gift of Azerbaijan, the restoration of a park in Mexico City included a statue of Azerbaijan’s first president Heydar Aliyev. Though such statues were also set up in Ukraine, Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Georgia, Serbia and Romania, the statue in Mexico City led to a grass-roots campaign to remove the statue. In addition to the park, a plaque remembering the victims of Khojaly and calling the atrocities a genocide invited further local dissatisfaction. Azerbaijan’s embassy in Washington blamed the discontent on the Armenian activists in Mexico.

In the Balkans, it was the Heydar Aliyev Foundation which initiated the construction of the Khojaly memorial in Bosnia. The Azerbaijani-Bosnian friendship park in Sarajevo opened in late February 2012 is dedicated to the victims of the war in Bosnia and to the victims of Khojaly. Member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Bakir Izetbegović stated at the opening of the park that the atrocities in Khojaly coincided with the beginning of the Bosnian war. Leyla Aliyeva, daughter of President Ilham Aliyev, similarly paid tribute to Khojaly at the opening ceremony. Indeed, past suffering appears to form a common bond between Bosnia and Azerbaijan. During his October 2012 visit to Baku, President Izetbegović spoke of aggression suffered by both peoples in the past and stated that Bosnia would never support a violent change in international borders of Azerbaijan. Foreign minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Zlatko Lagumdžija during his June 2013 visit to Azerbaijan noted that both Bosnia and Azerbaijan suffered from aggression and pointed out to the crimes committed at Srebrenica and at Khojaly.

Azerbaijani media reports in late 2012 and early 2013 indicated that Khojaly memorials were to be built in the Turkish cities of Ankara and Eskisehir. In May 2013, Azerbaijani media reported the beginning of the construction of the Khojaly memorial in Baku. The memorial is a project of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and, once completed, visits to the memorial will be included in official protocols.

Conclusion

It is clear that Azerbaijan’s foreign policy as pursued over the past several years seeks to project Azerbaijani presence beyond its immediate neighbourhood. Azerbaijan’s more active foreign policy presence is visible from Bosnia to Mexico and an integral component of this foreign policy is the international recognition of the Khojaly tragedy.