The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is the oldest ongoing conflict in the post-Soviet area. While the root causes of the conflict lie in the centuries-long Armenian historical territorial claims against Azerbaijan, in early 1988 Armenians started aggressive actions against Azerbaijan to implement the long-standing plan to unilaterally secede Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan and annex it to Armenia. In late 1991 and early 1992, armed hostilities and Armenian attacks on Azerbaijan intensified. Khojaly, a town in the Nagorno-Karabakh region with a total area of 940 square kilometres and a population before the conflict of 7,000, mostly Azerbaijanis, became the target of one of these operations.
From October 1991, the town was entirely surrounded by Armenian forces. On 30 October, ground traffic was cut off and helicopters became the only means of transportation. When a civilian helicopter was brought down over the city of Shusha, killing 40 people, helicopter traffic also ceased. From January 1992, the town had no electricity. Khojaly lived on due to the courage of its people and the heroism of its defenders.
By occupying Khojaly, Armenia aimed to gain a strategic advantage and favourable conditions for capturing other cities of the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The idea behind the Armenian brutality was to break the spirit of Azerbaijanis to gain psychological advantage in subsequent military operations. They also aimed at wiping Khojaly off the face of the earth, since traces of history in Khojaly and surrounding areas represented historical evidence refuting Armenian territorial claims.
Over the night of 25-26 February 1992, following a massive artillery bombardment, Armenian armed forces and paramilitary units, with the support from the former USSR’s 366th Motorized Infantry Regiment, moved in to seize the town.
Once the assault began, around 2,500 remaining inhabitants tried to leave with the hope to reach the nearest area under Azerbaijani control. However, they hoped in vain. The fleeing people were ambushed and either killed by gunfire from Armenian military posts or captured near the villages of Nakhchivanly and Pirjamal. Others, mainly women and children, died from frostbite while wandering in the mountains. Only a few were able to reach the Azerbaijani-controlled town of Aghdam.
On 28 February, two helicopters with a group of journalists managed to reach the location of the massacre. The horrible scene shocked all - the field was fully covered by dead bodies. The helicopter’s task was to land in the mountains and pick up bodies at sites of the mass killings. Despite the escort of the second helicopter, it was able to take only four dead bodies because of Armenian intense firing. On 1 March, when a group of foreign and local journalists reached the place, the sight that they witnessed was even more terrible. The dead bodies were mutilated and scalped.
In the words of the journalist Chingiz Mustafaev, who was one of those that visited the area, among the dead were “dozens upon dozens of children between 2 and 15 years old, women and old people, in most cases shot at point blank range in the head. The position of the bodies indicated that the people had been killed in cold blood, calculatedly, there were no signs of resistance of attempts to escape. Some had been taken aside and shot individually; in many cases whole families had been killed. Some corpses displayed several wounds, one of which was invariably to the head, suggesting that the wounded had been finished off. Some children were found with severed ears; skin had been cut from the left side of an elderly woman’s face; and men had been scalped. There were corpses that had clearly been robbed”.
Undoubtedly, what happened in Khojaly was the largest massacre of the conflict. In all, the assault and capture of the town took the lives of 613 of its people, including 106 women, 63 children and 70 elderly. 1275 were taken hostage, while the fate of another 150 people remains unknown. The town was razed to the ground. In the course of that tragic night 487 inhabitants of Khojaly were wounded, including 76 children; eight families were completely wiped out; 130 children lost one parent; and 25 children lost both parents. Of those who perished 56 were killed with particular cruelty: they were variously burned alive, beheaded or had eyes gouged out, while pregnant women were bayoneted in the abdomen.
Khojaly is an outrageous case for several reasons. Firstly, it was a completely civilian settlement without serious military equipment and fortifications. The assault with heavy weapons no way be militarily justified because it provided no military advantage. Therefore, the act clearly constituted unnecessary and excessive use of force. Secondly, when the attack broke out it was just the beginning of the interstate phase of the military hostilities; so undoubtedly, Armenia intended to intimidate Azerbaijani civilians to gain psychological advantage for pursuing its subsequent acts of aggression. The unprecedented degree of brutality, including killing at point-black range and with special cruelty and subsequent desecration of corpses by Armenian invaders, can lead only to this conclusion.
Another important point is related to the Armenian claim of an existing “corridor”. Armenia claims that it had allegedly left “humanitarian corridor” open for the peaceful population to leave the town. One may ask a reasonable question: why had Armenia left this exit open for people to escape if they aimed at wiping off the whole town? The answer is simple: Armenia did not leave it open for humanitarian reasons as they claim – it was either unable to block the last exit or deliberately left it open to claim afterwards that they have allegedly offered a choice for the civilian population and they had no intention to kill them.
The corridor claim is vague and easily refutable in the light of well-established evidence, including eyewitness testimonies, as well as international reports and even Armenian officials’ own confessions. They demonstrate that people fled the town unintentionally, chaotically, without any guidance or first-hand information. If such a “corridor” had existed, people would have been aware of it. Furthermore, if the intention was to provide a humanitarian exit, then Armenia should explain why its militants ambushed and killed the fleeing people along the route - in that “corridor” - soon after they set off to reach the Azerbaijani controlled town of Aghdam.
Although it is the bloodiest and largest massacre of the conflict, the Khojaly Genocide is not an isolated case. In fact, mass slaughters in other Azerbaijani settlements committed by Armenia immediately before this massacre, including in Jamilli, Meshali, Kerkijahan, Malibeyli and Gushchular villages, should be regarded as operations designed to pave the way for laying siege to Khojaly.
Along with Khojaly, Armenia occupied other Azerbaijani territories of the Nagorno-Karabakh region and seven adjacent districts. It conducted ethnic cleansing of the seized areas, expelling about one million Azerbaijanis from their native lands and committing other serious international crimes. Finally, it established a subordinate, ethnically hogenous separatist entity in the occupied Azerbaijani territory.