The Independent, 8 March 1992
By Helen Womack, Aghdam, Azerbaijan
“WHEN Armenians get killed you simply report it. When our people die you say they were ‘allegedly’ killed”. This is an Azeri soldier speaking . He was showing Western reporters the bodies of civilian refugees in a mosque in Agdam. They were slaughtered by Armenian guerrillas when they took the town of Khojaly on 25 February. “You come here and show sympathy but we know you will go away and write something different”, the soldier said.
The Muslim Azeris are convinced the West favours Christian Armenia in the four-year war over the mountain enclave of Nagorny Karabakh. Armenians are equally adamant that they are misrepresented. It is a mine-field for outsiders.
Just before I arrived at the Azeri border town of Agdam on Tuesday, Armenian officials denied that civilian refugees had been murdered after the fight for Khojali. They implied the Azeris were not only exaggerating the death toll by claiming more than 1,000 killed but were staging a show to make battle deaths look like a massacre. I did not know what to believe.
The night I got to Agdam I was taken to the mosque where the bodies were. They were hideously mutilated, deliberately said the Azeris. Why only four? I asked the soldier. Because relatives had already buried scores of others. Hundreds more corpses were still lying in the mountains, he said. The four bodies had not been claimed, perhaps because their relatives also died.
Each day brings more evidence that innocent people are being killed; they are not just caught in the crossfire. I have little doubt that on this occasion, two weeks ago, the Azeris were the victims of Armenian brutality. In the past it has been the other way round. So much hatred has accumulated on both sides that the future seems to hold only endless revenge and counter-revenge.
Early on Wednesday a large crowd gathered outside Agdam’s mosque; some people were survivors from Khojaly, some were relatives, desperate because they said Armenians were shooting at Azeris trying to recover the dead from the hills. The chief of police, Colonel Rashid Mamedov, said only about 500 Khojaly residents reached Agdam safely.
The accounts of the slaughter were consistent; these were simple people. They described how the Armenians surprised them with the heaviest attack on the town so far, how they realised they could not defend themselves and fled at about midnight into the surrounding woods, how a column of refugees tried to walk down the Askeran Gap to Agdam and how in the small hours of the morning Armenian fighters trapped them there and fired indiscriminately on women, children and old men. Many of those who did not die by the bullet froze to death on the mountainsides.
Ramiz Nasiru, a shoemaker who believes his wife and two children were captured alive, said he saw Russians from the former Soviet army supporting the Armenians with armoured personnel carriers. Other survivors spoke of Russian involvement.
Last year the Armenians accused Soviet Interior Ministry troops of joining Azeri raids on their villages. At that point it seemed as if Mikhail Gorbachev had come down on the side of Azerbaijan in the fight for the disputed enclave. The Commonwealth of Independent States, which is now withdrawing its remaining forces from Nagorny Karabakh, says it was always neutral in the conflict. I think it is possible that some Russian officers, facing a future of uncertainty back home, are helping fellow Christian Armenians as mercenaries.
The crowd outside the mosque was swelled by hundreds of people from all over Azerbaijan who had come to arrange funerals for their relatives. They were distraught because the bodies had still not been retrieved. Agdam’s judge, Adil Qasimov, said about 200 bodies had been brought down from the mountains but he believed as many as 1,500 bodies were still up there. A further 600 people from Khojaly might be held captive by the Armenians.
At Agdam railway station, a passenger train was turned into a makeshift clinic after the town`s hospital was damaged by artillery fire in an earlier battle with Armenians. Since the assault on Khojaly, 256 patients had passed through the train’s doors. Nubar Duniamalieva, 43, was still there. She described how she had crawled to the safety of Azeri lines with a bullet in her back. Two of her children had escaped with her, two were missing. Sayale Zenalova, 60, lifted her skirt to show a bullet wound in her thigh. Her daughter Valide was with her, also wounded in the leg. Sayale said two of her five sons had been shot dead before her eyes, the others were missing.
The doctor on the train, Eldar Sirazhev, said a terrible tragedy had taken place but the world was silent. “The West has always supported the Armenian side because they have a large, eloquent diaspora,” he declared.
Agasy Babaoghlu, a journalist and one of the few Azeris I met who was prepared to admit Armenians were suffering too, hoped that with “imperialist” Soviet forces out of the way and a democratically elected government in Baku, Azeri and Armenian leaders might be able to compromise over Nagorny Karabakh. But it is more likely that a new government in Azerbaijan will press on with the fight for Nagorny Karabakh which Azeris say was theirs for centuries and which Armenians say they lost as a result of boundary changes made by Lenin. “We will forgive the Armenians only when they get out of Karabakh,” said Yagub Rzaev, the grey-bearded commander of the autonomous defence unit “Hawks of Karabakh”. And indeed yesterday it seemed that the Azeris were already taking their revenge for what happened at Khojaly. Armenia said 200 of its fighters had been killed in a new thrust by the enemy into the disputed enclave.