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24 February 2022

Khojaly – 30 Years After the Massacre

February 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the horrific Khojaly Massacre. In 1992, Armenian forces attacked the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly, brutally ending the lives of 613 people.

Khojaly – 30 Years After the Massacre

Many scenes were captured on film of desperate Khojaly survivors and of the massacre victims’ mutilated corpses - evidence that caused shockwaves in Baku and beyond. Image: Wikimedia Commons 

It was the single worst atrocity of the First Karabakh War: the massacre of over 600 Azerbaijanis in the early morning of February 26, 1992. Almost all of these were civilians fleeing the small town of Khojaly, which had come under sustained attack from Armenian forces. Thirty years later, memory of the event remains an emotional lightning rod for Azerbaijanis worldwide. Monuments and an annual series of international events ensure that Khojaly is not forgotten. Though it was just one of many horrific chapters on both sides of a nasty conflict, Khojaly remains a particularly vivid symbol of the nation’s suffering.   

Is Khojaly Less Relevant in 2022 Than it Was in 2020? 

Geopolitically, the Second Karabakh War of October-November 2020 has recast Azerbaijan from victim to victor. Some might say that this reduces the significance of the Khojaly Massacre – would it not be to Azerbaijan’s advantage to start downplaying such events to smooth relations with Armenia in the hopes of normalizing relations? The answer is no for two key reasons.   

First, on a purely human level, the event is not just history but a lived experience for many and a life-changing reality for the relatives of those who died. For them, it is personally important not to de-value the memories, however painful.   

The second reason is more subtle. On a geopolitical level, a ‘battle of sympathies’ is being played out on the international stage between the antagonists in the long-running Azerbaijan-Armenia saga. The Armenian people endured a huge and undeniable history of suffering with the mass deportations and massacres of 1915. Armenians receive a high level of compassion from almost all outside observers for such horrors, which are kept in the public imagination by a large, vocal diaspora. From the 1990s, however, this deep sympathy was tempered by the fact that Armenians had themselves occupied large swathes of Azerbaijani lands, defying UN Security Council rulings and all internationally accepted norms. After 1994, Armenia rejected any solution to the ‘frozen’ conflict that involved returning such territorial gains. This gave Azerbaijan a real sense of victimhood – the appearance of a plucky underdog dealing with a constantly weeping geopolitical sore.   

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The exact number of those who died in the massacre is disputed, but Azerbaijani sources generally put the figure at 613 including 63 children. Image: Ruad/Shutterstock 

The country’s comprehensive victory in the Second Karabakh War, however, removed this more pronounced sense of grievance. In this light, it is understandable that Azerbaijanis feel a strong need to remind the world of the Khojaly atrocity. Indeed, the members of the Network of Azerbaijani Canadians, a grassroot advocacy organization of Azerbaijani community in Canada recently launched.   

What Happened in 1992? 

The Azerbaijani town of Khojaly was the site of the only airfield in the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), an Armenian-administered but ethnically mixed region of Soviet Azerbaijan. It was thus a very strategic site during the brewing conflict of the early 1990s. Khojaly lies less than 10km northeast of the region’s central city, Khankendi (known as Stepanakert in Armenian), a city which had – by 1991 – ejected its ethnic Azerbaijani community as part of a wider ongoing process. By then, onlookers had already seen Armenians flee other parts of Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis flee Armenia due to interethnic conflict. In October 1991, Armenians cut the main road linking Khojaly via Agdam to the rest of Azerbaijan. That left overloaded helicopter hops as the only way in and out of town for those sensibly afraid of passing through hostile Armenian checkpoints. As it was, helicopters were themselves frequently shot at, making the journey perilous – as described very vividly by American journalist Thomas Goltz in his Azerbaijan Diary.