Karabakh and the Ban on Memory

In February of 1988, rallies took place in Nagorno - Karabakh demanding the unison of the region to the Armenian SSR. 

At the February 20 session of the Oblast Soviet of People’s Deputies of Nagorno-Karabakh, an address was adopted to the Supreme Soviets of the Azerbaijani and Armenian SSRs and of the USSR, requesting the authorization for Nagorno-Karabakh to leave Azerbaijan and join Armenia. 

The turmoil in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia instilled fear in ethnic Azerbaijanis in Armenia, and they began to relocate from their homeland en masse. Tom de Waal, quoting Azerbaijani witnesses, writes in his book Black Garden that the first Azerbaijanis began to leave Armenia as early as 1987.

All these events were fueled by various rumors and provocations from groups in both countries.

Bagrat Aleksanian is 35 years old. But previous to January 1990, Bagrat lived with his family in Baku, near Lenin Palace (now the Heydar Aliyev Palace), at Mirza Agha Aliyev St. 251, apt. 14.

In Soviet times, this was a district where Azerbaijanis spoke fluently in Russian, and Armenians in Russian and Azerbaijani. According to Bagrat, they lived decently well and had great, friendly relations with everyone. Previous to the Karabakh conflict, they lived like harmoniously, like normal neighbors. 

My mother worked as a saleswoman at a shop, my father was a chauffeur. I remember particularly close neighbors with whom we were like relatives, very close. People I’d known from birth, had become accustomed to and loved. They were simply wonderful…”, recalled Bagrat.

After the start of the Karabakh conflict, the situation changed: the massive expulsion of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, demands that Nagorno-Karabakh become part of Armenia, the pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait. The situation became unbearable. 

According to Bagrat, Armenians’ cars were blown up in the city, and Armenians were thrown out into the street, beaten, tortured.

“My grandfather was severely beaten in the tram, hit with a screwdriver. They wanted to force the driver of the tram to throw him under the tram and run him over. The driver was an Azerbaijani, but he didn’t agree to do it, and rather convinced the crowd to let the old man go. These people were ‘newcomers’.

(‘Newcomers’ were Azerbaijanis who were forced en masse to leave their homes in Armenia and come to Baku after the Karabakh issue began to gain steam. According to witnesses of the pogroms in Sumgait and the violence in Baku, the crowd of aggressors usually claimed to be ‘newcomers’).

At that time, Bagrat was eight years old. He remembers how neighbors hid and defended them, looked for ways to quickly and safely get the family out of the country.

“They understood that we might be killed. I was a child, but also understood that we needed to run. Everyone was worked up. You know, it’s hard to communicate some emotions to an eight year-old child, I simply knew that we needed to run; that we needed to leave and that this was necessary for our safety”. 

Bagrat was sent with his aunt on an airplane. After two or three weeks neighbors helped his mother and grandmother leave Baku and via a ferry to Krasnovodsk they made their way to Yerevan. Later his father and grandfather managed to leave. The Aleksanian family moved to Yerevan.

“Our lives changed. At first the whole family lived together in a temporary residence for refugees. Then we managed to somehow settle down. To this day, my family still lives in a dormitory…”, said Bagrat. 

Now he lives in Yerevan, in the capital of Armenia. He is engaged in human rights work. Bagrat remembers his neighbors with both warmth and sorrow.

“I remember the good natives of Baku, the intelligentsia, who for years lived in peace and agreement with Armenians. People my parents worked with. The parents of children with whom I studied at school. Neighbors, with whom we shared a piece of bread. How sad to remember people who, after the conflict, because of a feeling of safety, were afraid to help Armenians. In a way, they were also in the right. After all, they could later have been subject to harsh persecution. But it’s also pleasant to remember that there were nevertheless many who saved us”.

We found the street where Bagrat’s family lived. 

But unfortunately it was not possible to find the house and apartment where the Aleksanian family lived – the whole street had been remade in the Baku construction processes.

Ruslan Bagirov (name and surname have been changed) is almost the same age as Bagrat. He works in a confectionary. Ruslan’s family moved to Baku from Yerevan in 1988. At that time, he was nine years old. They followed the advice of relatives from Azerbaijan to trade their apartment in Yerevan for an apartment in Baku. In those years Armenians from Baku and Azerbaijani’s from Yerevan switched apartments. 

“My uncle worked in a ‘good’ place. He advised us to leave Armenia in the most advantageous way possible, said that we would be kicked out all the same. With the help of middlemen, we swapped our apartment, gathered our things and came to Baku”, explained Ruslan.

Ruslan remembers how the entire courtyard saw them off. All the Armenian neighbors, with tears in their eyes, accompanied the Bagirov family. “I remember how my auntie Asmik, a neighbor in the same stairwell, hugged my mother and said ‘bacı’ (‘sister’ in Azerbaijani). The men helped us onto the bus with our things. Until the moment of our departure, I was playing with the Armenian boys in the courtyard. When we all sat on the bus, our neighbors, crying, waved their hands until the moment when the bus disappeared from sight…”, recalled Ruslan with sorrow.

To the question, “how did you live in Yerevan previous to the conflict?” Ruslan’s reply was: just as we live now in Baku. 

We were children. We played in the courtyard. Mother was a housewife, sat in the garden pavilion and chatted in the summer. When the children asked for something to eat, but didn’t want to go home, one of the mothers would go up to the apartment and bring them all bread with sausage, cheese and water. Sometimes I returned from school and mother wasn’t at home, she had gone to the shop or out on other business. I always confidently went to our neighbor, an Armenian, whose daughter and son were almost my own age. She would ask if I was hunger, give me tea, and I would play with her children. Mother would come to get me, didn’t even need to thank our neighbor, since this was a natural thing that I would sometimes come over to her place”, Ruslan shared with a smile.

Ruslan says that he doesn’t know what would have happened if they had continued to live in Yerevan. But he says that his parents remember their home, neighbors and the life they had together, with sorrow.

47 year-old Nona Shakhnazarian was born and grew up in the Azerbaijani city of Mingechaur. Now a candidate of historical sciences, Nona spent her childhood and adolescence among Azerbaijani neighbors. She has warm memories of her uncle Tofiq, who brought them presents from East Germany, of a neighbor woman who wove a rug for her sister’s dowry. And Nona’s aunt by blood was so in love with the modern Azerbaijani author Anar, that she named her grandson after him.

When the massacre in Sumgait and the beatings in Baku began, the conflict touched her family. “One day, my sister’s teacher came into class and said that all the Armenian children should get up and go home. There are no lessons for them today. My sister was little, she was happy that there wouldn’t be lessons that day. When she told about this at home, my mother under stood that this was it… the end…”

The Sumgait Pogrom marked the end of life together. Even if after the refugees from Kapan and Yerevan it was possible to somehow live side-by-side, without getting involved in the Karabakh conflict, after Sumgait it became simply impossible for Armenians and Azerbaijanis to live together.

From February 27-29, 1988, around 100-150 people attacked the Armenian population of Sumgait. The crowd robbed, killed, burned and raped… According to official data from the Prosecutor-General’s Office of the USSR, 26 citizens of Armenian nationality and 6 of Azerbaijani nationality died in this massacre. More than one hundred people were injured. 

By decision of the Prosecutor-General’s Office for the USSR, which was agreed upon with the leadership of the country, a united, general judicial proceeding was not undertaken. The event was broken up into eighty episodes and examined in the courts of various cities. At first the decision was made to undertake all proceedings on the territory of the RSFSR. One proceeding actually did take place in Moscow (in the Supreme Court of the USSR), three in the oblast courts of Volgograd, Voronezh, and Kuybyshev; however, the Public Prosecutor of the USSR sent all the rest of the cases to courts in Azerbaijan, and the proceedings for them took place in Baku and Sumgait. 94 participants faced trial. Around eighty people were convicted. One of them, Ahmad Ahmadov, was given the death sentence.

The trial for Eduard Grigorian, who being an Armenian nationalist also participated in the massacre, took place in Azerbaijan. The public prosecutor, Aslan Ismailov, demanded that Grigorian receive the death penalty. In the end he received 12 years in prison, and he was later extradited to Russia and set free.

Many articles, reports and books have been written about the Sumgait pogroms. Many journalists and political experts from Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as international journalists, have emphasized the fact that the Sumgait pogroms were not an outburst of Azerbaijanis’ national hatred towards Armenians, simply ‘somebody really needed these events to take place…’.

Azerbaijani political expert Zardusht Alizadehm, who visited Sumgait ten days after the pogroms and spoke with witnesses, made the following comments regarding these events:

“30-40 thousand Armenians lived in Sumgait. If the peaceful residents of Sumgait had not defended, had not hidden their neighbors, there would have been not dozens, but hundreds of victims.”

Ali Muradov (name and surname have been changed) is 76 years old, a chemist by profession, and a pensioner. Mr. Ali doesn’t want to remember the Sumgait pogroms. But he allowed himself to be persuaded by our correspondent and agreed to a meeting. Near the entryway to his home, not wanting to talk at home or in a café, he told his story. “Our courtyard is very old. When Sumgait was built, young people from around the country moved here. Azerbaijanis, Russians, Armenians… On our courtyard there lived an Armenian named Natalia. Her husband had died, and her two sons, already grown up, worked at the chemical plant. She had good relations with everyone. When the pogroms of Armenians began in the city, Natalia hid at our place. She could have just confidently knocked at the door of any neighbor. Natalia knew that in this home nobody would give her up. I, my wife and children – together we heard screams from the street, and looked at one another in horror. At that moment, there were two nations for us – the nation of these killers from the street, and the nation of those who defended themselves or defended a friend, a neighbor…”

To the question of how he remembers his Armenian neighbors, Mr. Ali sighed:

“They were people, normal people. Now people say that’s it’s because of the Armenians that we lost land, that there were so many refugees. Many talk and remember with hatred. But I remember how many years we lived together, and nobody thought about Karabakh or about the fact that we are from different nations, religions… Those who suddenly and so forcefully called up Karabakh, which was the start of this bloodshed, ruined so many people’s fate…”

46 year-old Ruzanna Avokian was born and grew up in Sumgait. Her mother worked at the powder factory, her father in the building and construction department. When the tensions began, Ruzanna was 20 years old. She remembers how her family lived with neighbors in complete trust and peace, and how suddenly the situation changed in the city. “We had trusting and good relations. The rallies had already begun on February 26. Already on that same day several Armenians were killed between the bazaar and the 29th quarter. Many didn’t understand what in the world was going on, and what Karabakh had to do with it… The main pogroms began on the 27th of February and lasted through the 29th; for three days an enormous crowd rioted and there was no authority over them”.

Ruzanna herself and her family didn’t suffer. But a small incident happened to her mother.

“She was walking from work in the company of her Azerbaijani girlfriends, and suddenly, passing between the hospital and the 45th quarter, one Azerbaijani woman with whom she was acquainted said to her, ‘You’re still alive!’ Mother’s friends admonished this woman and they walked on.”

It’s particularly difficult for Ruzanna to forget the rape that she witnessed from the balcony of her home. “On Febraury 28, a truck drove into our courtyard, overflowing with people in black. They had iron bars in their hands. I observed all this from the balcony. In the family we decided that, in the case that neighbors gave us up, father would defend us to the last and I would jump from the balcony, from the fifth floor. But some neighbors from our building showed the pogromschiki a different building and said that Armenians lived there. They brought an Armenian girl named Olya out of the building. Brought her out naked. I saw all this from the balcony.”

Despite the fact that there were also ill-willed neighbors, there were those who stood up for Ruzanna’s family.

“One of our Azerbaijani neighbors brought us to his place. He didn’t let anybody give us up. One time I wound up in the midst of a crowd, but speaking good Azerbaijani I was able to break away. Then an Azerbaijani acquaintance came to me and led me home. On the way we saw how they were beating one old man. And in complex 4, Azerbaijanis stood with axes and wouldn’t allow the pogromschiki into the quarter…”

But it was dangerous to remain in the city. On February 29, Ruzanna left Sumgait together with her family. “On February 29 everyone was warned that if somebody hides Armenians they would meet the same fate. There was already no options for help. Pogroms were taking place everywhere, complex 8 was hit especially hard. The pogromschiki knew where they were going, they had addresses in hand. On the 29th they tried to come into our home, but a neighbor had warned us ahead of time, and so on the morning of the 29th we headed for Baku in a marshrutka. Our building didn’t get hit by the pogroms because of our neighbor, he saved our complex from the pogroms.”

It wasn’t just that the homes, neighbors and lives of people from both countries changed as a result of the Karabakh conflict. Their attitudes towards their common past also changed. So much so, that almost all respondents refused to say much about their families. They refused to show photos of those close to them, because they feared for their safety. The Azerbaijani Ruslan considered our discussion to be dangerous and detrimental for his work and life. He asked for full anonymity and explained his concerns as follows: “Don’t think that I’m a coward. I don’t fear for myself. I have a wife, children, brothers, elderly parents. And I’m here telling you how good the Armenians were. This cannot be said, because everyone believes there our enemies. I could be declared an enemy of the people, my relatives might be persecuted, terrorized as family members of an enemy of the people.”

Bagrat Aleksanian also pointed out that he might encounter problems because of this discussion…

Is the atmosphere of fear and hatred between citizens of these two countries truly so great that people are concerned about simply relating their memories? What factors put this sort of fear into people?

The famous Azerbaijani human rights defender Rasul Jafarov, who personally endured political imprisonment not long ago, believes that the reason for Azerbaijanis’ and Armenians’ fear of speaking about the Armenians that once lived in this country is the total repression against human rights defenders and the efforts of the two countries’ governments to monopolize the resolution process.

“The primary reason is that there exists an atmosphere of fear in society. If we recall the events of recent years, then we see that repressions towards civil society in Azerbaijan have touched not only organizations that are directly involved in peace-making work, but also all other NGOs independent of the government. And all these events took place in full view of the country’s population. People see that even representatives of specialized institutes are sometimes wary of speaking on this topic, and so they naturally don’t feel ready to openly comment on questions related to this conflict.”

Rasul Jafarov says that, on the other hand, both in Azerbaijan and in Armenia the government is using the conflict to get political dividends and for various forms of manipulation. “Via the mass media outlets and non-governmental organizations under their control, via the hands of ruling party deputies and by many other means, the government inhibits social initiatives from expressing an independent position on this issue.”

This article was worked on by:

Aziz Kerimov – Baku

Gayane Mkrtchian – Yerevan

Text: Günel Mövlud