We Must Reconcile if We Are to Avoid a Repetition of the Past.
31 years ago, I fled my hometown of Khojaly, Azerbaijan. A massacre in my village forced me to leave. Since that night, I have been a refugee – through squalid tent camps on dusty plains, to Canada for further study, and now San Francisco.
The massacre happened in the heat of a brutal war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the 1990s. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, ethnic nationalism grew as reformist Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the authoritarian grip of the Kremlin. Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory within Azerbaijan with a majority Armenian population but significant numbers of Azerbaijanis, became one of the flashpoints. The local Armenian authorities unilaterally declared they were uniting with Armenia in 1988, setting off the crisis.
By 1992, the war had moved from clashes between ad-hoc militias to grinding outright conflict and ethnic cleansing, taking place in the villages where Armenians and Azerbaijanis had lived together in harmony for decades. Khojaly, the village of 6,000 where I grew up, lay at a strategic crossroads. It had an airport, it was the only road connecting Armenia to Karabakh, and it offered high ground from which to seize the surrounding plains below, including Aghdam, an industrial city that once had been a leading armament supplier to the Soviet Union.
After months of siege, where supplies brought in by helicopters kept the community from starving, Armenian forces moved in on the night of February 25, 1992. Thousands of us gathered in freezing conditions to flee en masse through the snow-laden forest. When we reached an open plain on the other side, the Armenians opened fire killing 613 of us. 106 women, 70 elderly, and 63 children were among that number. A Reuters journalist in nearby Aghdam saw trucks loaded with corpses. Many were scalped and mutilated beyond recognition.
Anniversaries of such tragedies trigger reflection to establish a path forward. Over thirty years after the war, which left Armenians in control of close to a fifth of Azerbaijan whilst the area was ethnically cleansed of non-Armenian citizens, our communities are no closer to reconciliation.
This stands in contrast to other atrocities that unfolded before our eyes around this time. The genocides in both Rwanda and Bosnia occurred at a time when the international system was witnessing upheavels driven in part by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Yet, Tutsi and Hutus, and Serbs and Bosniaks, are far further down the path of reconciliation where a return to the horrors of the past seems unthinkable.
A necessary first step in both was a shared understanding of what had passed. Historical memory, whilst unlikely to align precisely between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, must at least overlap if we are to forge a common path forward.
This is a problem when some leaders in Armenia deny the massacre. Nikol Pashinyan, the current president of Armenia, once called Khojaly “a blatant lie,” claiming Azerbaijanis had in fact committed the atrocity. Confusingly, Serzh Sarkisian, another past president, has reveled in the massacre. He told Thomas de Waal, the pre-eminent historian of the conflict: “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We needed to put a stop to all that. And that’s what happened.”
Refuges like me are – or should be – prepared to reconcile. But for that to take place, there must be some recognition from Armenians of the Khojaly massacre.
However, this may be difficult given the resumption of hostilities in November 2020. A comparatively short conflict saw Azerbaijan regain some parts of its territory. A ceasefire ended hostilities, yet a durable peace deal remains elusive. In the reverse of the first war, the victor is perceived as Azerbaijan, making it understandably more difficult for Armenians to offer an olive branch.
Having had long experience in peace advocacy and negotiations for the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, I know terms such as victor or loser are unhelpful to reconciliation: it breeds hubris on one side and entraps victimization on the other.
Nevertheless, the onus should also fall on Azerbaijanis to light the path forward, rather than demanding the first move must come from the other side. Moreover, given widespread feelings of loss in Armenia, it could be dangerous for its citizens to put their heads above the parapet. When Pashinyan suggested recognizing Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory to unlock a peace settlement, he was denounced as a traitor. For ordinary citizens looking to reconcile communities, the risks of ostracization are similar.
As Azerbaijanis, we too must recognize what has passed before. Though not on the same scale, there were massacres that loom large in the Armenian imagination that too often have been given short shrift by some Azerbaijani leaders. The two most prominent were Baku and Sumgait, where mobs of Azerbaijanis attacked Armenians, murdering several dozen in each case. Despite some evidence that Russian provocateurs may have played a role in these incidents, for reciprocity, we too must accept and apologize for these atrocities.
There cannot be an eternal war. Nor can we change our geography. Either we forge reconciliation on mutual recognition of the past now, or we shall never learn from the mistakes of our common history.