When did the massacre of Khojali happen and was there any intended plan behind the Armenian military attack on Khojali?

The Khojali massacre that happened on the night of February 26, 1992 was the bloodiest chapter in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, and resulted in the brutal killing of hundreds of civilians. On that night, the Armenian armed forces, under the command of Major Oganyan Seyran Mushegovich and Yevgeniy Nabokhin, with assistance from the 366th motorized infantry brigade of the Russian Interior Ministry that was stationed in the capital city of Nagorno-Karabakh, Khankendi, occupied the small town of Khojali. According to official Azerbaijan statistics, following the occupation of Khojali, the joint military forces of Armenian and Russian massacred 613 innocent Azerbaijanis, including 106 women and 83 children. Twenty-five children were orphaned and 130 lost one parent. Eight families were totally exterminated. Four hundred and seventy-six people were permanently disabled. A total of 1,275 people were taken hostage, and even though afterwards most of the hostages were released, the fate of 150 of them is still unknown.[1] This massacre sparked an exodus of Azerbaijanis from their historic lands that were conquered by Armenians in and outside of Nagorno-Karabakh.

It is possible to call the Khojali massacre an act of ethnic cleansing and a war crime against the innocent people of Azerbaijan, because of its extreme brutality. This bloody massacre was one of the worst examples of barbaric, terrorist behavior in the history of mankind, and should be considered a crime against humanity. The results of the massacre were difficult to reveal: Armenians perpetrated an unheard-of punitive crime against the population of Khojali. Medical examinations showed that dozens of the victims of the Khojali massacre, including women, children and old people, were killed with unusual brutality. The evidence published by international media, examples of which are presented below, shows that some dead bodies were those of victims who had been scalped alive; body parts, such as heads, legs, and ears were mutilated; some civilians were burned alive. In this respect, Pascal Privet and Steve Le Vine in their article “The face of massacre” reported: “Azerbaijan was charnel house again last week: a place of mourning refuges and dozens of mangled corpses dragged to a makeshift morgue behind the mosque. They were ordinary Azerbaijani men, women and children of Khojali, a small village in war–torn Nagorno-Karabakh overrun by Armenian forces on 25-26 February. Many were killed at close range while trying to flee; some had their faces mutilated, others were scalped”.[2]

On 3 March 1992 the New York Times reported: “Fresh evidence emerged today of a massacre of civilians by Armenian militants in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly Armenian enclave of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani officials and journalists who flew briefly to the region by helicopter brought back three dead children with the backs of their heads blown off. They said shooting by Armenians had prevented them from retrieving more bodies. Dozens of bodies scattered over the area lent credence to Azerbaijani reports of a massacre”.[3]

A photographer for Reuters, Frederique Lengaigne, revealed that she had seen two trucks on the outskirts of Nsgorno-Karabakh that had been filled with the dead bodies of Azerbaijanis. “In the first one I counted 35, and it looked as though there were almost as many in the second… Some had their heads cut off, and many had been burned” she said.[4]

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch wrote: “In February 1992, Karabakh Armenian forces-reportedly backed by soldiers from the 366th Motor Rifle Regiment of the Russian Army-seized the Azeri-populated town of Khojali, about seven kilometers outside of Stepanakert. More than 200 civilians were killed in the attack, the largest massacre to date in the conflict”.[5]

As can be seen from the above-mentioned statements, most international newspapers and broadcasts agree on the bloodiness of the Khojali massacre by the Armenian militants, but special emphasis should be put on the two quotations made by Armenians. In 2008, the “The Armenian Cause – Newsletter of The Armenian National Committee of Canada” wrote: “One of the primary tasks of the Artsakh self-defence forces was the removal and destruction of the enemy’s bridgehead at Khojali. Here, there was a considerable contingent of manpower, a great quantity of military equipment. It was essential to reopen the corridor that linked the settlement of Askeran with the capital Stepanakert and also to regain control of the republic’s airport, which was in Azeri hands. On February 25, the Artsakh self-defense detachments, taking up a position in the west of Khojali, demanded that the enemies leave the military base and allow the civilians through the established corridor…Meanwhile, the Azeri service men acted in another way, using the inhabitants in the village as a shield, they resumed bombardment of the NKR populated points, and when they were compelled to leave the village, they themselves shot the civilian inhabitants”.[6]

Another Armenian Historian, David Davidian, notes: “On 26 February 1992 Armenian forces succeed in capturing the second largest Azerbaijani-populated center in Nagorno Karabakh, Khojali, in the Askeran region, which had also doubled as a potent launching point for GRAD missile attacks upon surrounding Armenian regions. Close to 300 Azerbaijanis and Meshketian settlers brought to buttress the Azerbaijani presence are killed while fleeing with Azerbaijani soldiers in retreat. Just after the Armenians and the CIS’s 366th Motor Rifle Regiment captured and neutralized shelling position in Khojali, during a civilian evacuation process fighting erupted between Armenian and CIS soldiers guarding this evacuation and Azerbaijani soldiers mixed in with these evacuating civilians. The result was the deaths of hundreds of evacuating Azerbaijani civilians and soldiers”.[7]

The above-mentioned statements made by Armenians raise questions regarding the “self defense” forces of Nagorno-Karabakh and denying death of the civilians during that night. Firstly, attention should be drawn to the “Artsakh self-defense” and make it clear that whether the self defense forces mean the unified military group of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, military forces of Armenian Republic, and 366th Military Regiment of Russian Army, mentioned in the statement of David Davidian. In his statement, he specifically stresses that there were not only “self-defense” forces of NK Armenians, or, as is mentioned, “Artsakh self-defense forces”, but also combined forces of ethnic Armenians and the Russian 366th Motor Rifle Regiment.

Secondly, Armenia denies the death of hundreds of civilians and puts the number of civilian deaths at less than a hundred; however, the second quotation from David Davidian is proof that hundreds of civilians were killed during the capture of Khojali. Armenians also claimed that the Azerbaijan side was responsible for the deaths of civilians. They argued that there were qualified Azerbaijani soldiers and a large quantity of heavy military equipment. The purpose of Armenia’s attack on the town was thus “self-defense”. Nevertheless, after investigating the interviews with Armenian officials, it is clear that the Khojali massacre was intended by Armenians. As per Thomas de Waal aptly writes: “Yet Armenians now do admit that many Azerbaijani civilians were killed as they fled Khojali. Some blame irregular Armenian fighters, acting on their own behalf. An Armenian police officer, Major Valery Babayan, suggested revenge as a motive. He told the American reporter Paul Quinn-Judge that many of the fighters who had taken part in the Khojali attack “originally came from Sumgait and places like that”.[8]

This statement makes it clear that without any doubt there was an intended plan behind the military attack on Khojali, and most of the Armenian soldiers considered it as “revenge” against the innocent people of Khojali. Concerning this argument, Svante Cornell argues that “the attack was timed, in all likelihood not coincidentally, to occur on the anniversary of the Sumgait killings of Armenians four years earlier”.[9]

Thomas De Waal also writes that during an interview with Serzh Sarkisian, former president of Armenia, who was an Azerbaijani citizen during the Soviet period and was a military leader in the Karabakh War, he said, “We don’t speak loudly about these things.” “A lot was exaggerated” in the casualties, and the fleeing Azerbaijanis had put up armed resistance”.[10] De Waal explains that Sarkisian’s summary of what had happened, however, was more honest and more brutal: “But I think the main point is something different. Before Khojali, 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”.[11]

As mentioned earlier, many Armenians and pro-Armenian writers still deny that Armenian soldiers massacred the civilian population of Khojali, or argue that Azerbaijan killed its own civilians in order to show the brutality of Armenians. Nonetheless, the abovementioned statement by Serzh Sarkisian tells the truth; as Cornell puts it, “no one other than current Armenian president Serzh [Sarkisian] in an interview with British author Thomas De Waal seems to make the narrative clear”.[12] Armenians also argue that they had opened a corridor for the peaceful evacuation of civilians, but the American journalist Thomas Goltz, who was in Khojali two months before the massacre, reported that there were no working phones in the city, nothing was functioning, no electricity, no heating system, and no running water. The only way out of the city was by helicopter, which was at risk each time it flew.[13] Besides this, a question also arises concerning the corridor for the “evacuation of the population”. If there was such an issue, it is unclear why Armenians took more than a thousand hostages and why most of the victims were tortured and killed in an especially brutal manner: burned, scalped, and beheaded. Regarding the “evacuation corridor”, Thomas De Waal writes: “On the night of February 25-26, the Armenians began their attack on Khojali, assisted by the remnants of the Soviet tank regiment. About three thousand people were living in Khojali. It had been cut off by road for four months and was only defended by about 160 lightly armed men. Early in the morning, both civilians and fighters fled through the town’s one remaining exit down a valley ankle-deep in snow. Outside the village of Nakhichevanik, they were met by a wall of gunfire from Armenian fighters. Wave after wave of fleeing men, women, and children were cut down”.[14]

Consequently, all these facts explain that the violence during the Khojali massacre was well organized and planned in advance, and aimed at the total or partial destruction of people on the grounds of their ethnic origin. This confirms that these acts constitute a war crime or a crime against humanity. The author of this historical crime targeted not only Azerbaijanis, but also the whole civilized world and mankind. In De Waal’s words, “the mass killing of peaceful civilians in the ‘free corridor’ zone and adjoining territories cannot be justified under any circumstances”.[15] It was the birth of a new form of fascism and it has to be punished by the international community. Unfortunately, the Khojali massacre, though characterized by gross violations of human rights, has not yet received legal recognition at international level. No concrete measures have as yet been adopted against these aggressive acts of terrorism.

[1] Abilov, Shamkhal and Isayev, Ismayil, “The Consequences of the Nagorno-Karabakh War for Azerbaijan and the Undeniable Reality of Khojaly Massacre: A View from Azerbaijan”, Polish Political Science Yearbook, Vol. 45, 2016, p. 296.

[2] “Khojaly Genocide – 20th Anniversary”, Mission of Azerbaijan to the United Nations, Press Release, 26 February 2012, p. 2.

[3] “Massacre by Armenians Being Reported”, The New York Times, March 3, 1992; http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/03/world/massacre-by-armenians-being-reported.html. Accessed on October 2, 2020.

[4] “Massacre by Armenians Being Reported”.

[5] Human Rights Watch, Azerbaijan: Seven years of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh (USA: Human Rights Watch, December 1994), p. 6.

[6] “History of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh)”, The Armenian Cause-Newsletter of The Armenian National committee of Canada, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2008, p. 4.

[7] Davidian, David, “Armenian Capture of Khojaly, February 1992”, The Armenian Cause-Newsletter of The Armenian National committee of Canada, Vol. 11, No. 3, 2008, pp. 7-8.

[8] De Waal, Thomas, Black Garden (New York University Press, 2003), p. 171.

[9] Cornell, Svante E., Azerbaijan Since Independence (M. E. Sharpe, 2011), p. 62.

[10] De Waal, Black Garden, p. 172.

[11] De Waal, Black Garden, p. 172.

[12] Cornell, Azerbaijan Since Independence, p. 62.

[13] Goltz, Thomas, Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter’s Adventures in an Oil-Rich, War-Torn, Post-Soviet Republic, (USA: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), p. 119.

[14] De Waal, Thomas, The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 119.

[15] De Waal, The Caucasus, p. 119.