Tragic moments that are part of Azerbaijan’s history in 1990 and 1992

Tragic moments that are part of Azerbaijan’s history in 1990 and 1992

This story is the second in a two-part series on Azerbaijan. The first part, ‘Elegance of Fire’,  is a visual and poetic journey of how the country is evolving, and of the variety and wealth of its ancestral cultural identity.

On the other hand, this story, ‘Massacre of the Innocents’, pays tribute to the powerless victims of the geopolitical chessboard in this part of the world. It is intended as a reminder of the decisive, tragic moments that are part of the country’s history in 1990 and 1992.

Since 1987, when I first went to Baku, I have visited Azerbaijan several times as a photojournalist. I covered the decisive, tragic moments in the history of the country for the international media, including Black January in 1990, and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and massacre of the village of Khojaly in 1992. A few years later, while on an assignment for the National Geographic Magazine, I spent some time investigating the troubled lives of refugees and displaced persons.

I have often returned to Azerbaijan as an observer and witness of a country undergoing rapid change. In every village, town, and city I traveled through, I noticed a place of remembrance — often to mark the memory of a tragedy, the loss of a relative, or of a piece of land.

I was deeply touched by these profound experiences of life and grief, and in ‘Massacre of the Innocents’, I wanted to pay tribute to these women and men, all powerless victims of the geopolitical chessboard.

In 1990, just a few days after the January 20th massacre in Baku, known as ‘Black January’, I was smuggled into the city. Baku was closed off to journalists at the time, and so I hid in the back seat of a car. Above you can see the heavy presence of the Soviet forces in Baku, which remained in the capital in an ultimately failed attempt to save Communist rule and quell Azerbaijani’s independence.

Then on January 25th, 1990, acting as if I was looking for a friend who had recently had surgery, I managed to sneak into a Baku hospital undetected. Due to the high volume of wounded civilians, the hospital was running out of equipment and space. Many people lay unattended in the hospitals corridors.

During Black January, hundreds of families lost their loved ones, and in the following days survivors visited the city morgue in Baku, searching through photographs of bodies to try to identify missing family members.

The photographs above were taken in the Alley of Martyrs cemetery on January 26, 1990. On the left you see a woman who has collapsed during her son’s funeral after he was killed during the Black January massacre, and on the right a man carries a portrait of one of his family members who was also killed during the massacre.

The following month, the 2,500 remaining inhabitants of the town of Khojaly (there were 23,757 before the war) found themselves without electricity, heating oil, water, or food, and thus sought the safe passage out of the town they were promised.

Instead, Armenian armed forces and members of the 366 Soviet infantry regiment were waiting to gun them down. As a result of this massacre 613 people were killed and 487 were severely injured on between 25th and 26th February, 1992. Those who escaped the gunfire only wounded had to trek through the mountains to safety, and many perished in the cold. 1,275 people were taken hostage.

After the Khojaly massacre the International Red Cross organized a cease-fire to enable their teams to return the bodies of Azerbaijanis killed in Khojaly. Those who survived visited the mosque of Aghdam, used as a morgue, to search for their disappeared loved ones.

They wandered among dozens of bodies, brought by the Red Cross, wrapped in body bags. Above, a survivor of the massacre holds a small photograph as he asks other families if they have seen his missing son.

Here you see family members outside the temporary morgue in Aghdam, waiting to bury the bodies of their loved ones in the park nearby. On the right, a survivor mourns as she waits to prepare her relatives’ bodies for burial in accordance with Muslim tradition.

This woman had just found her son and her husband disabled and killed.

Here a man in the southern village of the Karabakh supports his wounded brother who has been shot in the head by an Armenian sniper. Many people were shot directly in the head by professional snipers, who had often come from other countries to fight in the Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Following the February 1992 massacre, a makeshift hospital was set up in a school in Karabakh to tend to all of the wounded Azerbaijanis.

Back in the town of Aghdam, in March 1992, I witnessed Azerbajani prisoners who had been held captive by Armenian forces, being reunited with their families after being exchanged for Armenian prisoners. The man on the right was too weak to stand, suggesting harsh treatment while in captivity.

During 1992, I spent many days with these men from a unit of the Azerbaijani military based high in the south eastern mountains of Karabakh, following their struggle with Armenian military forces.

(I’m standing in the centre of this photograph.)

On May 8, 1992, the Armenian military then launched their operation to capture the city of Shusha. The region had been encircled by Armenian troops for a few months leading up to the invasion. Shusha was the historical and cultural center of the Karabakh region and Azerbaijan’s last strategic foothold in the Karabakh. They attacked from three sides, trapping Azerbaijani military units and civilians on the hilltop.

For hours Armenian armed forces shelled the town, killing and wounding hundreds of men, women and children. Above you see Azerbaijani soldiers in front of a fresco painted with a portrait of Khurshidbanu Natavan, one of the best lyrical poets of Azerbaijan and the daughter of Mehdigulu Khan, the last ruler of the Karabakh khanate.

I returned again to Azerbaijan in 1997, and here on the left, you see an Azerbaijani refugee herding sheep past abandoned oil plants in the refugee-filled hinterlands of Baku. He is evidently not a shepherd, but he has had to become one to make a living. On the right is Khan Mohamad, a teacher in his hometown of Zangilan, who started a school with his wife just south of Baku in an abandoned oil factory, for children of the 46 other displaced families from the Zangilan region.

Following the Nagorno-Karabakh war, all major cities in Azerbaijan have memorials and cemeteries for the Martyrs from Karabakh. In March 2011, I photographed the Karabakh Memorial in Sheki — a statue of a man who has fallen to his knees after several gun shots to the heart.

On May 9th, 2013, Jewish, Christian and Muslim representatives carry red carnations to the Alley of Martyrs in Baku, a cemetery and memorial dedicated to those killed during the tragic events of January 1990 and during the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

In the left-hand image above a group of Jewish representatives gather at the grave of the national hero, Albert Agarunov, to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of his death. Albert Agarunov (1969-1992) was a Mountain Jew from the Red Village who, at 23-years-old, became a tank commander in the Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Albert is remembered as an extremely quick and accurate shooter who emitted an aura of calm and confidence. Armenians feared him and even had a bounty on his head. They did not understand what a Jewish boy was doing fighting for Azerbaijan, but to Albert, who was born and raised there, it was his homeland.

He lost his life defending Shusha, a town in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was seized by the Armenian forces. Today, schoolchildren learn about Albert Agarunov as a national hero and his Tank, number 533, stands in the yard of the Saylan barracks in Baku.

In May of 2008, Mrs Leyla Aliyeva (the General Coordinator of the Islamic Conference Youth Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation) launched a new international awareness campaign with the motto, “Justice for Khojaly, Freedom for Karabakh.”

Last year in February, I attended one of their events in France, pictured above at the Wall of Peace in Paris, to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre.


* * *

Though time has passed, let us not forget the 613 civilians who were killed on 24th and 25th February, 1992, including 106 women, and 83 children. That night, 8 families were totally exterminated, 25 children lost both parents, and 130 children lost at least one parent.. 

Photographer Reza


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