Regional Issues

A Deeper Look at the Occupation of Zabil Safarov’s Kalbajar

The Caspian Post
The tragedy of the film’s story is self-explanatory, as are the small grains of hope offered in the new light of the post-2020 de-occupation of Kalbajar. But in this article, we give a little more historical context to the film.
Zabil Safarov during filming for an interview with The Caspian Post, April 2021. Image: Elchin Mukhtarov

In a heart-rending video, the Caspian Post catches up with Zabil Safarov, who recounts the life-changing experiences he suffered during the First Karabakh War. In April 1993, Zabil, a 14-year-old child, was carried off from the roadside at the village of Chiraq in western Azerbaijan. He was just one of dozens of hostages similarly taken by Armenian forces as part of the ethnic cleansing of the Kalbajar Region (also written Kəlbəcər, Kelbajar, Kelbadjar). However, his plight became particularly notorious because his armed kidnappers shamelessly filmed him being hoisted confusedly onto a truck. They filmed his grandmother pleading with them to leave him with her – and eventually killed her in front of him. Some of the footage was ultimately uploaded onto social media. 



The tragedy of the film’s story is self-explanatory, as are the small grains of hope offered in the new light of the post-2020 de-occupation of Kalbajar. But in this article, we give a little more historical context to the film. If you’re not familiar with the general background to the conflict of which this story is a part, start by reading this. It’s also important to note that Kalbajar is a region of Azerbaijan that was never part of Nagorno Karabakh AO and an area where the population was – until 1993 – overwhelmingly Muslim (predominantly ethnic Kurdish Azerbaijanis).


Kalbajar is located on the very western side of Azerbaijan - Armenia to the west, the Lachin corridor to the south, and the Soviet-era Nagorno Karabakh AO to the east. Image: Caspian Post

By the end of March 1993, Armenian troops and irregulars approached the Kalbajar region, which was very thinly defended. Despite some fierce battles, reinforcements from elsewhere in Azerbaijan failed to arrive, and panic spread as local people started to fear the worst. Armenian forces were closing in from three sides, cutting off any easy exit yet demanding that the Azerbaijani population leave their homes. They claimed that civilians would not be harmed if they fled, but that left a very ominous unspoken threat: fresh in local memories was a similar attack at Khojali in February 1992 that had resulted in the massacre of over 600 unarmed Azerbaijani civilians.


It’s key to get a sense of the topography. Kalbajar’s northern flank is divided from the plains of central Azerbaijan by the mighty massif of Murovdag. With Armenians controlling areas west, east and south, the only feasible routes to safety were on high mountain trails or via an 80km logging road winding over the Omar Pass. The pass becomes snowbound in winter – even today, with a decent 4-wheel-drive vehicle, the trip takes around four hours. Most of the dispossessed had no vehicles and had to walk or find horses and carts – a journey of at least two days in the biting cold. Armenian attackers claimed that they had left open an ‘escape route,’ but it was a desperately difficult one in the still snowy conditions of late March 1993.


Fleeing Kalbajar in 1993, refugees trekked through the Murov mountains with only what they could carry. Image: Ilgar Jafarov/ CC BY-SA 4.0

As panic spread and a mass of refugees started to flee, war reporter Thomas Goltz flew into Kalbajar by helicopter on March 31. It was a mission he described as ‘an invitation to drop into hell.’ His breathlessly powerful description of the scene in his book Azerbaijan Diary captures the desperation of locals piling up carts with as many possessions as they could carry while the whoosh and ‘KVVROMP’ of missiles continue to threaten every step. Some folks initially refused to leave – including the great Kurdish-Azerbaijani scholar Shamil Asgarov who hoped to protect his library of 30,000 books and the priceless collection of the local museum. Eventually, he too was forced to flee – aided by his son Khalid who, years later, recounted the tale for the BBC’s 2017 Witness programme.


Some 3000 ‘lucky’ people were carried out by desperately overloaded helicopters, while by early April, around 36,000 finally made it across the mountains to refugee processing centres assembled in Yevlax and Khanlar (now known as Goygol). At least 40 succumbed to frostbite in the snowbound mountains – some of those had already been injured, and others – to avoid possible traps – had taken particularly precarious routes through forests and over dangerous peaks that ended up being six days of hiking with minimal food and protection. Several thousand of the region’s population remained unaccounted for. Amongst those were people like Zabil and his grandmother, Seadet. Zabil would be held for five months, tortured, half-starved and forced to do slave labour, till ‘rescued’ by the intervention of the Red Cross.


In 1993, civilians were driven out of their homes with minimal notice and unsuitable clothing for the long, dangerous trek across snowy Murov mountains to safety. Image: Ilgar Jafarov/ CC BY-SA 4.0

The Armenian attacks on the region caused international outrage at the time. It was criticized by the US secretary of state on April 6. On April 30, the UN security council issued an urgent resolution in which the call for Armenia’s immediate withdrawal from the ‘Kelbadjar region’ was the headline demand. Helsinki/Human Rights Watch reports later confirmed that Armenians had seized over 90 hostages from the Kalbajar area, many of them children. An immediate repercussion on Armenia was that Turkey closed its borders to Armenia and thus stopped the flow of food aid that had been coming from the EU. Years later, historian Gerard (Jirayr) Libaridian, who had at that time been the Armenian presidential adviser, explained that for the Turks, who had managed to turn something of a blind eye towards the Karabakh conflict thus far, this was simply a step too far. There was not a scrap of justification for depopulating Kalbajar. According to Thomas de Waal’s classic book on the conflict, Black Garden, even the Armenian government of the day was divided about the attack.


Yet, until 2020, Kalbajar would remain under Armenian occupation, the occupiers calling the area Karvachar. In the Second Karabakh War, Kalbajar was spared any fighting, but its diplomatic return to Azerbaijani control was one of the ceasefire conditions. The transfer was delayed until November 5, 2020, with many Armenian settlers setting fire to homes in the area’s villages before departing. Many other settlements – including Zabil’s home hamlet of Chiraq - remain in utter ruins. After all, it had been deserted for decades. 



Thomas de Waal has recently suggested via Twitter that “Kelbajar will be the most difficult region to resettle. It has Armenia to the west, NK to the east, the Lachin Corridor to the south. The Murov mountains to the north into the rest of AZ are impassable for much of the year. It’s a massive challenge. Many will not return.” But as we hear in the film, Zabil appears undaunted. He claims that he’d return even if he had just a container box to live in. And, if Azerbaijan really does manage to restart the region’s economy by financing a massive plan for infrastructure and innovative smart villages, perhaps he won’t have to wait too long.