Human Right Watch (formerly Helsinki Watch) Report, pages 19-24 / September 1992

KHOJALY

On the night of February 25-26 Armenian forces seized the Azerbaijani town of Khojaly, located about ten miles from Stepanakert. As some of its residents, accompanied by retreating Azerbaijani militia and self-defense forces, fled Khojaly seeking to cross the border to reach Agdam, they approached Armenian military posts and were fired upon. The Azerbaijani government is currently conducting two investigations of the events, one carried out by a special parliamentary commission and another by the Procuracy. In addition, the Human Rights Center of Memorial, a prominent Russian nongovernmental organization, conducted an independent investigation of the incident in March 1992.[1]

According to Azerbaijani Procuracy officials, before the escalation of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, Khojaly had a population of about 6,000; its precise population in February is unknown since some residents may have fled earlier.[2] In 1988 Khojaly had only 2,000 residents and had the status of a village; its numbers grew as Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia were resettled there. The Azerbaijani government had also settled in Khojaly several hundred Meskhetian Turks fleeing persecution in General Asia. Finally, Azerbaijanis flocked there from other parts of Nagorno Karabakh, notably from Stepanakert, and continued to do so after Armenian forces overran their villages in the winter of 1991-92. It received the status of town from the Azerbaijani government only in December 1991, and, after Shusha, was the second most populous Azerbaijani Nagorno Karabakh.[3]

The only airport in Nagorno Karabakh is located in Khojaly. Since at least 1990, an Azerbaijani OMON militia unit was deployed in Khojaly, mainly with the purpose of defending the town and the airport. The exact number of militia deployed is unknown. Aiden Rasulov, who leads the Azerbaijani Procuracy’s investigation of Khojaly, puts the number at twenty-two, although displaced persons said that as many as forty militia men fled with the town’s population. In addition, Khojaly had self-defense group of about 200.

Armenian fighters maintain that they sent ultimata to the Azerbaijani forces in Khojaly warning that unless missile attacks from that town on Stepanakert ceased, Armenian forces would attack.[4] According to A.H., an Azerbaijani woman interviewed by Helsinki Watch in Baky.

After Armenians seized Malybeyli, they made an ultimatum to Khojaly… and that Khojaly people had better leave with a white flag. Alif Gajiev [the head of the militia in Khojaly] told us this on February 15, but this didn’t frighten me or other people. We never believed they could occupy Khojaly.

According to nearly all of the twenty-two Azerbaijani witnesses of the Khojaly events interviewed by Helsinki Watch, the village had been shelled almost on a daily basis during the winter of 1991-92, and people had grown accustomed to spending nights in basements.

The attack on Khojaly began about 11:00 P.M.[5] on February 25, with heavy shelling and artillery fire. Hassan Alahierov, a construction worker, told Helsinki Watch,

We were used to [hearing] shooting, but usually with machine guns. I was sleeping on the balcony and my son came to me and said that this was a different noise. I stood up and … saw BMPs [armed personnel carriers] and tanks were shooting from all directions. … When I went out I saw bombs falling everywhere.

Several refugees reported that they saw houses burning during the attack on Khojaly or while they were fleeing the village. Juleka Dunemalieva (whose sister died of exposure during their flight from Khojaly) said that at about midnight or 1:00 A.M. she saw neighborhood where Meskhetian Turks lived go up in flames: “Meskhetians lived in our neighborhood in Finnish-style cottages. When their houses were burned we got out right away.”

Most Khojaly residents remained in the town until about 3:00 A.M., some staying in basements in private homes. In addition, about 300 residents reportedly took shelter in the basement of one school. Some reported that they decided to leave at 3:00 A.M. because the self-defense forces were running through the streets shouting instructions to people to run away.

Residents fled the town in separate groups, amid chaos and panic, most of them without any belongings or clothes for the cold weather. As a result, hundreds of people suffered – and some died – from severe frostbite.

The majority of Khojaly residents went along a route that took them across a shallow river, through the mountains, and, by about dawn, towards an open field near the village of Nakhichevanik, controlled then by Armenians. It was here that the most intense shooting took place. Other people fled along different routes that took them directly by Shelli, an Azerbaijani village near Agdam. A number of Khojaly survivors wandered through the forest for several days before finding their way to Agdam’s environs.

Positioning of the Militia

Among one of these fleeing groups was the Azerbaijani OMON, led by Alif Gajiev, on retreat from the airport. Gajiev had, according to several Helsinki Watch interviewees, directed the group seeking shelter in the school basement to leave the village. At Nakhichevanik Armenians and troops of the CIS 366th regiment opened fire on the retreating OMON militia and the fleeing residents. All Azerbaijanis interviewed who were in this group reported that the militia, still in uniform, and some still carrying their guns, were interspersed with the masses of civilians. For example, Hijran Alekpera, a twenty-three-year-old former bakery worker, described a mass of civilians who moved along “surrounded by a ring of defenders. They tried to defend us. They had guns and they would try to shoot back.”

According to a twenty-one-year-old Azerbaijani woman whose toes had to be amputated because of frostbite damage, “The leaders of our group were men. The Armenians opened fire as we approached the village [of Nakhichevanik]. They surrounded us and shot. There was shooting between Armenian soldiers and ours.” S.A., a member of the OMON unit, told Helsinki Watch, “We were shooting and running in the pack, but it was not an organized retreat. We were all mixed together.”

Another young Azerbaijani woman, who suffered frostbite on her legs, also described the crossfire: “When Armenians saw us they began to shoot. We hid. At the same time Azerbaijanis shot back. They were Azerbaijani OMON. Some of them were with us when we fled.”

Firing on Civilians

Witnesses to and victims of the shooting at Nakhichevanik told Helsinki Watch of varying numbers of people who fell under fire, and described how they received their gunshot wounds.

Thirty-three-year-old Nigar Azizova, who worked in a vegetable store, told Helsinki Watch that when the crowd started falling over bodies, they turned back and fled in different directions.

The crowd was about sixty meters long. I was in the middle, and people in the front were mostly killed. At Nakhichevanik we saw that people in front were falling. They shouted and fell. I recognized their faces. I could see their faces as we stepped over them. We covered the children’s eyes so they wouldn’t see.

Mrs. Azizova listed eight people whose bodies she had to step over, and claimed that they had no guns: Elshan Abushov, Zelif Alekhpeliev, Tevagul Alekhpelieva, Sakhvet Alekhpeliev (who reportedly was nine years old), Elmar Abdulev, Etibar Abushov, and Habib Abushov.

A young Azerbaijani woman who was eventually taken hostage told Helsinki Watch, “It was a cultivated field. We approached it and saw that they began to shoot. I must have seen sixty people dead in the field. Those who were running away with me fell and died.”

Hassan Alahierov said: “First we ran to Nakhichevanik, but when they began shooting people we ran to the other side. There was a BMP standing on the road – I didn’t see it, I just saw the shells.” Alahierov’s eighteen-year-old daughter, who got separated from her father, said she saw the tank: “When the tank began to shoot we ran in all directions. I saw corpses scattered, and saw all the people surrounding them fall.”

Hijran Alekpera reported that:

By the time we got to Nakhichevanik it was 9:00 A.M. There was a field and there were many people who had been killed. There were maybe one hundred. I didn’t try to count. I was wounded on this field. Gajif Aliev was shot and I wanted to help him. A bullet hit me in the belly. I could see where they were shooting from. I saw other bodies in the field. They were newly killed – they hadn’t changed color.

Fifty-one-year-old Balaoglan Allakhiarov said:

We got Nakhichevanik at 8:00 A.M., and were in the middle of the field when they began to fire. They were shooting only from one direction – the forest. Then we ran off the field toward a canyon, where my wife and daughter-in-law were shot. They were shot from about twenty meters. My daughter-in-law was struck three times – through the skull, in her stomach and in her leg. My wife was hit from behind. [The Armenians] took off their rings.

At about 8:00 A.M. Nazile Khemetova received a gunshot wound in her left leg:

We were all crawling. Whoever stood up got wounded. I stood up to rest my legs and was wounded. I saw many people get shot, and we had to leave them as we crawled along. After I was wounded I didn’t see many people pass me; they hid in the forest. I stayed in the snow until 7:00 P.M. Members of the Popular Front came and helped me escape.

Beginning February 27, Azerbaijani helicopters brought in personnel who attempted to collect bodies and assist the wounded. Some of the rescue team were wearing camouflage clothing, and they were accompanied by a French journalist, reported that some of the corpses had been scalped or otherwise mutilated. One member of the group videotaped the mission. 

Death Toll

There are still no definitive figures on the number of civilians who were shot while fleeing Khojaly. According to Aiden Rasulov, more than 300 bodies showing evidence of a violent death were submitted for forensic examination. At the time of Helsinki Watch’s visit to Baky, the results of these examinations had not been completed, and the investigative team was in the process of tracking down the corpses of Khojaly victims that had been removed from Agdam by family members in the first days after the tragedy. Earlier figures made available by Azerbaijan and published by the Memorial group put the number of deaths resulting from gunshot, shrapnel, or other wounds at 181,[6] (130 men and fifty-one women, including thirteen children). In addition, an undetermined number died of frostbite. Namig Aliev, who heads the Department on Questions of Law and Order and Defense of the Azerbaijani Parliament and who is part of the parliamentary group investigating the Khojaly events, told Helsinki Watch in April that 213 Khojaly victims were buried in Agdam. Some of the bodies received at the makeshift hospital in Agdam were identified as combatants. Many male bodies that lacked all identification were not identified as civilian or combatant.[7]

Aliev also reported that of those bodies submitted for forensic examination, thirty-three had been scalped, had body parts removed, or had been otherwise mutilated.

One hundred eighty individuals from Khojaly are reported to be missing.

As noted in Appendix V to this report, the civilian population and individual civilians are not legitimate objects of attack in any armed conflict. The contending parties accordingly must distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants and direct their attack only against the latter. Moreover, the parties may not use civilians to shield military targets from attack or to shield military operations, including retreats. Thus, a party that intersperses combatants with fleeing civilians puts those civilians at risk and violates its obligation to protect its own civilians.

Although retreating combatants and civilians who assume a combatant’s role while fleeing are subject to direct individualized attack, the attacking party is still obliged to take precautionary measures to avoid or minimize civilian casualties. In particular, the party must suspend an attack if it becomes apparent that the attack may be expected to cause civilian casualties that are excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

The circumstances surrounding the attack at Nakhichevanik on those fleeing Khojaly indicate that Armenian forces and troops of the 366th CIS regiment (who were not apparently acting on orders from their commanders)[8] deliberataly disregarded this customary law restraint on attacks. Nagorno Karabakh officials and fighters clearly expected the inhabitants of Khojaly to flee since they claim to have informed the town that a corridor would be left open to allow for their safe passage. No witnesses interviewed by Helsinki Watch, however, said that they knew beforehand of such a corridor. In addition, although witnesses and victims gave varying testimony on the precise time the shooting began at Nakhichevanik, they all indicated that there was sufficient light to allow for reasonable visibility and, thus, for the attackers to distinguish unarmed civilians from those persons who were armed and/or using weapons. Further, despite conflicting testimony about the direction from which the fire was coming, the evidence suggests that the attackers indiscriminately directed their fire at all fleeing persons. Under these circumstances, the killing of fleeing combatants could not justify the foreseeable larger number of civilian casualties.

Source: Bloodshed in the Caucasus, Human Rights Watch/ Helsinki (formerly Helsinki Watch) Report, September, 1992, pages 19-24.

 


[1] See Report of the Memorial Human Rights Group on Massive Violations of Human Rights Committed in the Seizure of Khojaly during the Night of February 25-26, 1992. In Russian, available through Helsinki Watch, and reprinted in Nezavisimaia Gazeta, June 18, 1992, page 5.

[2] The investigative team of the Azerbaijani Procuracy in April was still trying to establish the exact number of inhabitants of Khojaly by checking passport registrations.

[3] For a description of life in Khojaly before the February 25 attack, see Thomas Goltz, “A Town Betrayed: The Killing Ground in Karabakh,” in The Washington Post, March 8, 1992, p.C1

[4] Helsinki Watch interview with A. G., a member of the PLAA, April 28, 1992.

[5] According to S.A., a member of the OMON unit, shelling of the airport began at 5:00 P.M.

[6] See below, under “Abuse of Medical Personnel and Transport.”

[7] See Appendix II for a list of these victims.

[8] The number of servicemen in the 366th who participated in the massacre of civilians is still unknown. The Azerbaijani Procuracy’s investigative team sent a delegation to Tbilisi, where the 366th was relocated after it withdrew from Stepanakert, to inquire how many men from the regiment had been killed, wounded, and missing during their service in Nagorno Karabakh. According to Aiden Rasulov, military officials refused to meet with the investigative team, claiming that they are answerable only to Moscow. As of  April, the investigative team had not asked for an accounting from Moscow military authorities.