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When and why did the massacre of “Black January” happen?

‘Black January’ (also known as ‘Black Saturday’ or the ‘January Massacre’), a bloody tragedy that occurred on January 20, 1990, marked the end of the aggressive and dual policy of the Soviet Union against Azerbaijan, which lasted for 70 years. Late that January night, 26,000 Soviet Special Forces called “Alfa” entered Baku without declaring a state of emergency and committed ferocious actions against innocent Azerbaijani citizens. The invasion was launched at midnight and carried out with brutality, and no mercy was shown to children, women, and the elderly. The Helsinki-based Human Rights Watch has addressed how the brutal Soviet army intentionally crushed unarmed peaceful civilians under their tanks. According to its reports, “among the most heinous violations of human rights during the Baku incursions were the numerous attacks on medical personnel, ambulances and even hospitals”.[1]

As a result of the illegal act by Soviet troops in Baku and other regions of the country, 133 men were killed, 611 men were wounded, 841 men were illegally arrested and 5 went missing. Among the victims of the illegal act were a seven year-old boy, a sixteen year-old girl, an eighty year-old man, a young doctor who was shot dead in an ambulance while helping another victim, and many other innocent Azerbaijani civilians. As a result of the punitive measures that were carried out with unprecedented brutality by Soviet soldiers during that night, approximately 200 houses and apartments were burned or damaged, as well as 80 vehicles including ambulances, and state and personal property that worth 5,637,286 rubles. The bloodiest acts of state-sponsored terrorism and crime were carried out by the Soviet Union on January 20, 1990 against innocent Azerbaijani people. This massacre has been, from that time on, referred to as “Black January”.[2]

“Black January” was a military operation conducted deliberately against the Azerbaijani people and carried out step by step. The Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan and other political institutions were paralyzed and all militia members were disarmed, on the pretext of disarming the population. The Soviet authorities exploited the power block of televisions and stopped broadcasting in Azerbaijan on January 19 in order to stop the population from getting information. Foreigners were not allowed to enter to the city. Soviet authorities also banned Western reporters from traveling to Baku to cover the bloody events. However, while quoting two Russian photographers who were in Baku that night, the Washington Post wrote on January 22, 1990, that “Soviet soldiers fired at almost anything that moved in the early hours of their occupation”.[3] The Soviet Defense and Interior Ministers, and other military officials, had come to Baku a few days earlier, to perpetrate this calculated terrorist attack. Soviet reservists, who had been prepared for the special mission, were mobilized and sent to the region specifically for this purpose. Most of the Soviet militants were orphans who had prepared for the special mission.[4]

[1] Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Conflict in the Soviet Union: Black January in Azerbaidzhan (Human Rights Watch, 1991), p. 23.

[2] Abilov, Shamkhal and Isayev, Ismayil, “The National Revival in Azerbaijan Prior to the Fall of the Soviet Union and “Black January”. In Mammadli, Aliaga, Braux, Adeline and Mahmudlu, Ceyhun (eds.), “AZERBAIJANI” AND BEYOND: Perspectives on the Construction of National Identity (Berlin: Verlag Dr. Köster, 2017), p. 112.

[3] Oberdorfer, Don, “Azerbaijani Capital Demands Withdrawal of Soviet Troops”, The Washington Post, January 22, 1990; https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1990/01/22/azerbaijani-capital-demands-withdrawal-of-soviet-troops/dd8378e3-f8dd-404d-be39-1ec7837bb469/. Accessed on October 2, 2020.

[4] Abilov and Isayev, “The National Revival in Azerbaijan Prior to the Fall of the Soviet Union and “Black January”. p. 113.