This chapter is from Tatul Hakobyan’s book – Black and Green; Karabakh Diary
Russian language and literature teacher, Nelly Ghukasyan had moved from Baku to Armenia in November of 1988, when the massacres of Armenians and the ethnic cleansing of Gyanja and other locations in Azerbaijan were under way. She settles in a hotel in Etchmiadzin and sometime later, at the ‘great appeal’ of Vezirov, together with tens of other families, returns to Azerbaijan.
However, a short time later, Ghukasyan is forced to once again abandon her city. In January 1990, the Armenian neighborhoods of Baku become a new theatre for massacres of Armenians. Unlike the other highly Armenian-populated regions in Azerbaijan, thousands of Armenians still remained in Baku. Over the previous two years, they could have exchanged their apartments or simply saved their lives, but up until the end they believed in Baku’s internationalism.
“I was secretly peeping out of my window and watching what was happening in the streets. They were lighting bonfires and looting vehicles carrying the property of Armenians. Alla Khachanyan lived on the second floor of our building. When they started to break down her door with an axe, she [Alla] threw herself out of the window on to the street; they were throwing people and furniture out of the windows of high-rises. It was a horrific picture. When we requested assistance from the soldiers, we were told that they did not have any such orders. Azerbaijani refugees from Yerevan hid us in their apartment when the Popular Front assailants were breaking down the apartment doors of Armenians. With the assistance of our Russian daughter-in-law, my husband and I reached the port in Baku, and from there, Krasnovodsk (present-day Turkmenbashi)”, recalls Ghukasyan with horror.
The media of the time recorded: “The Soviet Georgia ferryboat approaches the port of Krasnovodsk and tired and exhausted people step down the ship’s gangplank. ‘In the first few days it was horrible to see barefoot, beaten, beleaguered people. Two individuals, a man of 85 and a woman of 90 who had been beaten, had died on board from their wounds. We sent some of them to the local hospital,’ said one of the heads of the Krasnovodsk police, Karmazin. The secretary of the city committee, Muravyova said, ‘We received more than ten thousand refugees. We sent almost all of them to Yerevan by helicopter. It was a terrible sight.’
Just as in Sumgait, the actions of the attackers were particularly striking in their viciousness. They were throwing people off their balconies in high-rise buildings; the mob was attacking with iron rods and knives, killing Armenians and appropriating their apartments and property. It is impossible to say exactly how many Armenians were killed during the massacres in Baku; the Armenians talk about 150 – including those who were injured and died several days later in Turkmenistan and other places. Azerbaijani researcher Arif Yumusov mentions 86.
In December of 1989 they were already dismissing those Armenians remaining in Baku from their places of work. The names of those more disobedient or slow directors who wittingly or unwittingly were not fulfilling that demand, were posted on special notice boards on Lieutenant Schmidt Street, in front of the residence of the Popular Front. The names of hundreds of other Armenians who were still working in Azerbaijan’s Communist Party and within the KGB structure of Azerbaijan where also posted on those boards. In addition, similar announcements were posted on the old columns of a former synagogue, which had been pronounced Rashid Beybutov’s Theater of Song, several years earlier.
The Komsomolskaya Pravda Moscow newspaper wrote: “On the eve of June 13th, about 50 thousand people, on leaving the rally in Lenin Square, separated into groups, massacred, caused destruction, lit fires, tortured and killed. There were no citizen of Baku in those arrested; they were all from Armenia, NK and Nakhijevan: ‘Yerevani Azeris’.”
In June 1990, one of the leaders of the Popular Front, Etibar Mamedov said, “I myself witnessed them killing two Armenians near to the railway station. The mob assembled and poured petrol on them and set them alight. The Nasim area police station was two hundred meters away; there were 400 to 500 soldiers there, who passed by just 20 meters from the charred bodies and did nothing to disperse the mob.” After describing this horrific scene, Mamedov vindicates the Popular Front. “It was our activists who surrounded the area and demanded that the police disperse the mob.”
The massacres of Armenians in Baku were taking place at a time when the Popular Front was striving for power in Azerbaijan. On the one hand, the leadership of the Azerbaijan communist party, in order to maintain its authority, was expecting Moscow’s assistance against the Popular Front and on the other hand was cooperating with it.
“Coverage of a meeting between a factory worker and the First Secretary was broadcast on December 11th 1989. The worker asked Vezirov what was to become of the Karabakh issue. Vizirov replied excitedly, ‘Everything is going to be fine. You will see soon. The Communist party and the Popular Front are uniting for the sake of Karabakh.’ What did Vezirov mean by saying, uniting efforts? At one time, he refused our proposal of cooperation with the restructuring-supporting Popular Front and now he is prepared to unite with the slaughtering, trouble-making Popular Front. Was he aware that there was a massacre being prepared? That he was to be removed and a coup d’états was being planned? Or was he so removed from reality that he could not see the obvious? Or was he aware of everything and was pushing forward with Moscow’s gambit to destroy the Popular Front?” asks Zardusht Alizadeh.
Prior to the massacres in Baku, negotiations were being conducted between, on the one hand Vezirov and his deputy Polyanchiko, the leader of the NK’s Organizational Committee, and on the other side, the Popular Front triad, Etibar Mamedov, Neymet Panahov and Rahim Ghaziev. An agreement is reached to create a National defense council [NDC] with the aim of organizing the mass deportation of NK Armenians. The announcement of the creation of the NDC presided over by Abulfaz Aliyev (Elchibey) was made on June 13 in Azadliq (previously Lenin) Square. The other members of the council were: Mamedov, Panahov, Ghaziev and Khalig Bahadr (an unknown journalist and radical nationalist). The rally passed with a spirit of patriotism, with anti-Armenian slogans. During the rally the speakers announced that some Armenian had axed an Azerbaijani to death. The rally ended with the call ‘Death to Armenians’ and the crowd dispersed. Sensible people hurried home but the thugs scattered throughout the city, as they already had names and addresses.
“At night, the day before the massacres, the other hero of the nation appeared with his entourage on the television screen: Panahov, who had only six or eight years of education. Hatred and evil; these were familiar and common. What was new and unexpected was his reasoning concerning Vezirov: that he should be respected as a leader, that those calling him Veziryan(Armenian second names end with yan) were traitors to the nation. This belated alliance did not help Vezirov against those whom he had considered whelps seeking power. A few days later he [Vezirov] became a refugee, just like the hated Armenians had been for him,” writes Irina Mosesova in her eye-witness memoirs.
The role that Polyanichko played during the days of the Baku bloodshed is conflicting. Logic, and the position he held, led to the assumption that Polyanichko would not cooperate with the anti-Russian Popular Front, moreover, with the extreme wing of this party: which he was in fact doing. Further, not only was he keeping close contact with the leaders of the Popular Front, but he was offering them important advice. He insisted that the Popular Front should be developed as a national and Islamic movement, otherwise the nation would not believe in it. On his advice, the colors green and blue were added to the flag.
“The Koran was Polyanichko’s favorite book. Whenever he was welcoming anyone, the Koran, its pages well dog-eared, would be on the table,” Leyla Yunusova, one of the former leaders of the Popular Front has said. Polyanichko’s habit of keeping the Koran close by him has also been noted by the USSR ambassador in Afghanistan, Nikolai Yegorichev. He called it “Building socialism with Lenin in one hand and the Koran in the other.”
Gorbachev declares on Soviet central television that the events in Baku have become tragic, “slaughter, killings, they were evicting innocent people from their homes and deporting them”. The first and last president of the Soviet Union, as in the case of Sumgait, avoided calling a spade, a spade. As in Sumgait, so also in Baku, the army are called in only after the slaughter of the Armenians has ended. It seems the army might not have been called in at all if Soviet authority had not been at risk.
“In Azerbaijan, the activities of the extreme groups were increasingly taking on an anti-state, anti-constitution and anti-democratic nature. In some areas the legal bodies of authority were dismissed, government structures were destroyed. The technical-engineering structures along hundreds of kilometers of state border were destroyed. In practice, the issue of seizing authority by brute force was not concealed. Things could not go on like that,” said Gorbachev.
On January 10th, Alakram Gummatov contacts Etibar Mamedov from the town of Lenkoran which is in the south-east of Azerbaijan and populated predominantly by Farsi-speaking Talish, to inform him that the Popular Front is preparing to seize power. Towards the end of 1989 the Popular Front had seized power in an attack on Jalilabad (also in the south-east, close to the Iranian border). That could be considered the first time in the 70-year history of the USSR that a Soviet authority was overthrown. Panahov who was in the front line of those who seized power at Jalilabad, rushes to Nakhijevan so that he can participate on December 31st in the destruction of barbed wire and watch towers on that section of the Soviet-Iranian border.
One of the leaders of the Nakhijevan division of the Popular Front, Arif Rahimoghlu later recounted how people, full of exuberance and anger, were destroying the barbed wire. Previously the Popular Front had decided to clear the border of barbed wire in the first ten days of December, but Elchibey instructed the destruction of the borders on December 31st. The KGB of the USSR avoids putting up any resistance. In its one-year of power, the Popular Front proclaimed December 31, World Azerbaijani Solidarity day.
On January 15, while the slaughter of the Armenians was continuing in Baku, the USSR’s Supreme Council passed the ‘State of Emergency in NK and several other regions’ decree. A State of Emergency was imposed in NK, and neighboring districts of Aghdam, Lachin, Mirbashir, Kelbajar, Jebrayil, Fizuli and Ghubatlu, and later, Shahumyan. A stage of emergency was announced in Baku only on January 19th when, in reality, the slaughter of the Armenians had ceased and there were no Armenians left in Baku.
Moscow, using the Armenian massacres as a pretext, sent troops into Baku to destroy the authority-seeking Popular Front. The Soviet troops, led by the colonel Alexander Lebed, commander of the Parachute division of the Airborne Troops of the USSR reached the capital of Azerbaijan on January 19th. The operations were coordinated by defense Minister Dmitri Yazov. Several days later he admitted that troops had been sent into Baku “with the aim of preventing the Popular Front from seizing power from the Communists.”
Over a hundred demonstrators and assailants were killed, some of whom had taken part in the slaughter of Armenians in Baku. Several dozens of civilians were crushed under the tracks of soviet tanks and also hundreds were injured. Over twenty soviet soldiers were also killed during the clashes, which mean that battles took place in the city.
“If we are talking about the truth, then the activities of the extremists were of a widespread violent nature. The violence expressed itself in that both Armenians and Azerbaijanis had been arming themselves for a long time. Not just small divisions, but military defenses, regional military commissariats and Ministry of Internal Affairs bodies were being looted. The state border had been destroyed by violence,” Yazov said.
After a long period of silence, Heydar Aliyev once again enters the arena. After his expulsion from the Politburo, he had continued to live in Moscow. When forces entered Baku, Aliyev criticized that step in the Azerbaijan representation in Moscow and sometime later, returned to his place of birth, Nakhijevan.
During an interview with Russian journalist Andrei Karaulov in September 1990, Aliyev touched upon the January events, saying that there had been no need to declare a state of emergency and send troops in to Baku. “All conflict between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis had ceased a few days before that tragic evening and no Armenians were left in the city. The question arises: Who were the forces protecting and against what?”
Aliyev says only this about the Armenian massacres, which in their size, duration, violence and number of people killed, were unprecedented even in totalitarian Soviet Union, “a conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis.” Instead he focuses only on January 20th, which he considers “an act of violence against the people of Azerbaijan.”
During the meeting with the American journalist Thomas Goltz Aliyev spoke about the perpetrators of the events Black January. “It was the KGB. It was the Moscow KGB and the Azerbaijan KGB. And the entire leadership of Azerbaijan. They were all involved in the attacks on the Armenians in Baku on January 12, 13, and 14 and then again on January 20th, when Azerbaijan was attacked by the Soviet army. It was all in accordance with the plan prepared by Moscow with the complicity of the Azeri leadership – Vezirov and Mutalibov.”
Only one month later does the Armenian communist leadership refer to the Armenian slaughter in Baku. On February 13th the supreme council condemned “the massacres of Armenians in Baku and other regions”, deeming them “the continuation of the genocide of the Armenian nation”.
16 years after the tragic events in Baku, Gorbachev has admitted that the troops entered Azerbaijan on his orders. “The situation in Baku had become ungovernable. The Supreme Council and the Communist party were paralyzed, two hundred kilometers of state boundaries had been destroyed, and attacks against local bodies were taking place. I urgently sent Yevgeni Primakov and Andrei Girenko to Baku, and they proposed declaring a state of emergency and sending in troops. Today, I still consider that by doing so, even more bloodshed was averted.”
Elchibey and the Popular Front succeeded in overthrowing Vezirov with great bloodshed, after which the issue of evading the blame came to the fore. Etibar Mamedov urgently left for Georgia, then Moscow and met Aliyev for the first time in the Azerbaijan permanent representation. The Moscow OMON prevented an attempted press conference by arresting Mamedov. Instead, “KGB general Aliyev held the press conference and condemned the killing of innocent people in Baku by the soviet leadership.”
The other hero of the bloody instigation, Neymet Panahov, after a few days of skulking in Baku, went to Iran where he spent a few months and, if we are to believe his words, the Iranian intelligence service arrested him. He allegedly managed to escape the Iranian prison and cross over to Turkey. Later, returning to Baku, Panahov was no longer in the front ranks of events and merely executed trivial tasks set by Heydar Aliyev.
Rahim Ghaziev was arrested and detained in Lefortovo [Moscow prison], near Mamedov. While still on trial, they are elected deputies to the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan. Gummatov, who had ‘overthrown’ the soviet authorities in the south, hides at first in the Talish mountains and then leaves for Georgia, returns to Azerbaijan and is arrested in the Popular Front offices. He is tried, receives a symbolic sentence and returns to Lenkoran.
Those killed by the soviet troops in the events of January 20-22 are buried in the martyrs’ cemetery Martyrs’ Avenue.
Later, those killed during the Karabakh war were also buried here. January 20th became the day of mourning for already-independent Azerbaijan. Every year different events take place on that day and Martyrs’ Avenue has entered the protocol of the country. Presidents on official visits go there and place wreaths.