Facing Khojaly: the ethnic cleansing of the Azerbaijanis of Armenia (1987-1994)

“We were like brothers. In fact, we had a better relationship with our Azeri neighbors than with our Georgian ones. What happened was (is?) very unfortunate”, said an elderly Armenian taxi-driver to me in Yerevan (September 2019)

I didn’t have the courage to ask him for ‘what happened’. Come to think of it, it almost felt like a taboo question to ask. A general consensus seems to prevail in Armenia that the Azeris had ‘fled’ during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between 1988 and 1994; this is a sort of euphemism of what had actually happened — ethnic cleansing.

Having been force-fed the Armenian narrative for most of my life, with stories about national heroes and ‘freedom fighters’ such as Monte Melkonian fighting to liberate our homeland from the barbarian ‘Turks’ (Turk and Azeri being used interchangeably) and being faced with questions about massacres perpetrated by Armenians against the indigenous Tartar-Muslims (today’s Azeris), I had to look for answers myself. My quest began with a simple module I accidentally took in Prague entitled: Ethno-Political Conflicts in the Caucasus. The module convener and my colleagues in class planted the seeds of respect and inquisitiveness in me, with regards to questioning the Armenian narrative in topics relating to the Caucasus region.

Armenians learn of the ethnic cleansing committed by the Azeris against Armenians in various pogroms, most notably in Shushi (1920), Sumgait (1988), Baku (1990) and Maraga (1992); the subsequent exodus of the Armenians of Azerbaijan, as tragic, condemnable and unfortunate as it was, is in fact considered ethnic cleansing. The aim of this article though, is to shed light on the plight of the Azerbaijanis — equally human as the Armenians — who have suffered tremendously just as much.

Ethnic cleansing intends to displace an ethnic group from a given territory by another group for the aim of homogenizing the territory.

From 1918 till 1994, Muslim Tartars (Azeris) of Armenia were systematically being ethnically cleansed, in different waves, for different purposes, by different people and with different results. From 1918 till around the 1940s, Armenian irregular militias, regional community leaders, strongmen and others committed crimes against the Azeri population; scores of people were killed and whole villages were whipped out with the intent to displace them. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Stalin ordered the deportation of 100,000 Azeris from the Armenian SSR. Important to note that Azeris once constituted 10% of the population of Armenia. In the late 1970s, Azeris constituted 160,000 people (De Waal: 2013). This was prior to the Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) conflict of 1988-1994.

In the shadows of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

From 1987 to 1994, almost all 160,000 Azeris fled, were expelled, deported, killed, died on route — ethnically cleansed — from their land. This number concerns the Azeris of the Republic of Armenia only and does not include the number of Azeris who have been cleansed from their lands in the Republic of Artsakh, the hotbed of the conflict.  

A mountainous region with an Armenian majority, surrounded by Azerbaijani territory, Nagorno-Karabakh was an autonomous region that was surrounded by mostly Azerbaijani-majority villages. The modern Republic, not recognized by any state in the world (not even Armenia), comprises the ‘original’ Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region and the surrounding areas previously inhabited by Azerbaijanis.

Khojaly: a genocide ?

In February of 1992, tragedy struck the town of Khojaly, in what is today the Republic of Artsakh. Azerbaijanis claim 600 of their own, including women, children and the elderly were murdered in one night. The Armenians have brought up inconsistent claims and have even changed narratives numerous times to dispute this. They blame the Azerbaijani side for the deaths and dispute the numbers.

Azerbaijan asserts that this event must be recognized as a Genocide. There are even memorials around the world (funded by the Azerbaijani government) to commemorate this event. What happened in Khojaly is unjustifiable, it was a tragedy — a massacre. One that was part of a greater plan of ethnic cleansing. Though it was NOT genocide. Genocide is the systematic intentional murder of an ethnic, racial, religious or national group, in whole or in part by the governing authority to erase their very existence from planet earth. Ethnic cleansing is NOT genocide. It does often lead to genocide. But not always, and not in this case.

I find it upsetting that the Azerbaijani government would exploit this tragic event and use it for its own gain. It is estimated that half a million Azeris have been displaced because of the conflict. Azerbaijan doesn’t seem to even care about their misery and has them living in extreme conditions. They are often used as propaganda tools and I find this to be unfortunate. As much as it pains me to say, and as much as I sympathize with these displaced people, I do not support the return of the Azerbaijanis to their homes in Artsakh. Nor do I believe in President-dictator Aliyev’s promises of not ethnically-cleansing the Armenian population if the region is to be held under Azerbaijani suzerainty again. Azerbaijan insists that any peace deal between itself and Armenia, must include the “right of return” to the displaced Azerbaijanis first. Unfortunately, the bond of brotherhood between the two peoples has been broken and the trust that existed between them doesn’t exist any longer.

To conclude, just because pain has been inflicted on us, doesn’t mean that the pain we inflict on other people is justified. Today, the number of Azeris in Armenia has drastically decreased to 20 people, mostly elderly. Once a prominent part of the region, today there is no trace of their existence in the country. It might be a bad idea to allow for their return, but to think that only one Azerbaijani Mosque remains in Yerevan — one that has been re-baptized as an ‘Iranian Mosque’ is hurtful.

Let us give our history the respect it deserves and let us commemorate the once thriving community of Azerbaijanis in Armenia.

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