This year Azerbaijan commemorates the 23rd anniversary of the Khojaly massacre, one of the most tragic events of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
After 23 years, emotions on both sides still run high when the discussion comes to the scenario that produced the mass killings in Khojaly and the identity of the perpetrators of this war crime. What is it about the tragedy that still stirs intense feelings in both Azerbaijan and Armenia and how does it impact the prospects for peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
The town of Khojaly was located between Agdam and Shusha/Shushi, Stepanakert/Khankendi and Askeran towns within the frontiers of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan. According to the official sources of Azerbaijan, its population constituted over 7,000 people at the time of the massacre. Since the only civilian airport was situated in the territory of this town, ethnic Azerbaijanis from all over Nagorno-Karabakh had been fleeing to the town as the conflict escalated. The last helicopter arrived at the airport in Khojaly on Jan. 28, 1992, after which air communication came to a halt. Soon Khojaly came under siege on the Armenian side due to its strategic importance and as a result, hundreds of civilians were left stuck in the town and were later killed in a flagrant violation of the law of war between Feb. 25 and 26, 1992.
According to international humanitarian law, the killings of masses of unarmed civilians in Khojaly should be considered a war crime. Put simply, “crime is crime” and the dark reality is that the civilians were killed en masse. However, the massacre has been subject to different interpretations based on opposite stories by the officials and historians of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Bearing the number and ethnicity of the victims in mind, the Azerbaijani side argues that what occurred in Khojaly was part of a premeditated plan of Armenian armed forces against unarmed civilians. Therefore, the argument goes, the killings in Khojaly should be commemorated as an act of genocide and the culprits who directly and actively took part in this operation should be found and brought to justice under Article 6 of the International Criminal Court, which defines the crime of genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The Armenian side, on the other hand, claims that by establishing an evacuation corridor it provided a safe passage for the Azerbaijani authorities to move residents out of the besieged town on February 25 and that it was the failure of the latter to do so that resulted in the killing of civilians on February 26.
The Azerbaijani government has placed a growing emphasis on bringing the people and entities responsible for the crime to justice and organized commemorational campaigns called “Justice for Khojaly” in various countries to keep this issue on the international agenda and garner more support for this issue. One of the main objectives of these campaigns is to bring to light the possible role of Serzh Sargsyan, the incumbent president of Armenia, in the Khojaly massacre. Mr. Sargsyan was the defense minister and the chairman of the National Security Council of Armenia during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. He actively took part in the operations and conducted several battles in the war. Claims on the Azerbaijani side are partly based on Mr. Sargsyan’s alleged interview in which he justified use of force in Khojaly. Therefore, the focus of Azerbaijan’s lobbying abroad in the past few years has been to throw the spotlight on Mr. Sargsyan and ask the international community to recognize him as a war criminal.
Looking at the political process
However, as the experience from armed conflicts in other countries (such as in the former Yugoslavia or in Rwanda) demonstrates, finding the war criminals and trying them under the appropriate local court of a particular country or the International Criminal Tribunal is a separate part of the peaceful resolution of conflict. It is also important not to forget that those cases were investigated and executed at the judicial, not political, level. Like campaigns for recognition of the Armenian genocide by the Armenian diaspora, the efforts calling for the recognition of the Khojaly massacre is mainly a political process, which is unlikely to have any positive impact on the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
At this point, the question is how and when justice for this tragedy can be realistically attained. My personal belief is that justice will only be possible in the aftermath of a successful and peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Thus, the first step by both sides should be to find a compromise solution for a conflict that has paralyzed the economic and social development of the whole region. The next steps should include the reconstruction and restoration of the entire infrastructure of the conflict region, the return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their homes. This will be possible through realization of the reconciliation process among civilians of both societies.
Another part of this procedure boils down to establishing “truth commissions” with participation of representatives from both conflicting sides as well as regional and/or international (third party) actors. In general, truth commissions are formed under different names by conflicting parties for the purpose of providing evidence for perpetrated war crimes, acts of terrorism, genocide or massacre that happened during the war; and implementing judicial procedure for punishing or pardoning the culprits in post-conflict societies. As the Khojaly massacre occurred in and is understood through the prism of the broader Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, I believe this process will go ahead in future as part of a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
What steps can Azerbaijan take at this stage of the process? From my point of view, Baku should embark on a judicial investigation of this event to identify the people who were responsible for and who took part in the mass killing of Khojaly. The collected evidence and facts will be needed in the future by the joint truth commission investigating the crimes committed in the war over the disputed region.
What impact might such awareness campaigns on the Khojaly massacre (or Armenian genocide, for that matter) have on the resolution of the conflict? It has been more than 21 years since negotiations on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict through the mediation of the OSCE Minsk Group began, without any tangible success towards a peaceful solution. There has been little progress over the years and new generations in both societies have developed views of the conflict based on the dominant narratives of the older generation, which only makes a peaceful conclusion harder to achieve. This is the generation of young people who have not met anyone (or met few) from among their “enemies.” They primarily read distorted textbooks and books on the history and receive misconstrued or altogether false information about the opposite side on a daily basis. And these are the generations whose views about the history that political leaders of both conflict sides are eager to mold. In this regard, such campaigns serve to keep people’s minds under control and perpetuate feelings of hatred in them.
Bakhtiyar Aslanov is head of the Peace and Conflict Research Department in the Society for Humanitarian Research in Azerbaijan.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman. A leading newspaper of Turkey. Click here to go to the original.