The Memorial Human Rights Center / Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 18 June 1992

This report [1] deals with the events of late February – March 1992 in Nagorno Karabakh connected with the storming and occupation of the settlement of Khojaly by armed Armenian units – an event which had a huge influence in the military, political and moral aspects on the situation in Azerbaijan and Nagorno Karabakh[2].

The report makes use of material gathered in 1991-1992 by observers of the Memorial society who were in the conflict zone, mass media reports, materials placed at the disposal of Memorial by official representatives of the conflicting parties, as well as depositions by independent witnesses.

The Memorial society observers were in Nagorno Karabakh from 7 March to 5 April 1992 gathering information on both sides of the front: they recorded interviews with the victims of Khojaly (geographical names are given as in the 1988 maps), spoke with officials in Baku, Stepankert, Aghdam, received information from the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan, interviewed doctors in hospitals in Baku and Stepanakert, and also in the military medical train in Aghdam (there are officially certified extracts from the medical records of some of the wounded and other victims), spoke with hostages and prisoners (both on the Armenian and on the Azerbaijani side), with members of the armed units, including with those who took part in the storming of Khojaly, carried out an on-site visual inspection in the vicinity of the towns of Khojaly, Aghdam and Askeran…

EVENTS PRECEDING THE STORMING OF KHOJALY

Khojaly was virtually blockaded by Armenian armed units from autumn 1991 and it was completely blockaded after interior troops were withdrawn from Nagorno Karabakh.  There was no electricity in Khojaly from January 1992.  Some of the inhabitants left the blockaded town. However, no complete evacuation of the civilian population was organized despite the insistent requests from E. Mamedov, the head the executive authority of Khojaly.

The storming of Khojaly by armed Armenian units began on 25 February 1992.

THE ASSAULT ON KHOJALY

When Khojaly was stormed there were between 2000-4000 inhabitants there, including several hundred defenders of the town.  Khojaly was defended by volunteer militia, members of the special police squad of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan and soldiers of the National Army of Azerbaijan. According to information received from both sides there were in the town three pieces of armoured military hardware as well as an Alazan rocket launcher. Men involved in the storming of Khojaly and Nagorno Karabakh officials assert that there were also two Grad multiple rocket launcher systems in Khojaly. 

The attackers. “The National Liberation Army of Artsakh (NLAA)” is composed of detachments (companies) under territorial commanders who, in turn, are under the commander-in-chief and chief of staff who were appointed by a decision of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the “Nagorno Karabakh Republic”. Officials repeatedly told Memorial representatives that all Armenian armed detachments in Nagorno Karabakh were under a single command. The detachments do not have regulations or a common oath. There are army orders which are passed on to the men by the commanders. However, the Memorial observers’ impressions are that even the commanders often do not have written orders and that none of the rank-and-file at all has read them. Order No 1 of “the National Liberation Army of Artsakh” is the only document regulating the behaviour of members of armed units towards the civilian population of the opposing side. It categorically forbids any violence towards the civilian population of the opposing side or any defilement of enemy corpses but the Memorial observers in Nagorno Karabakh did not even manage to see the printed text of this order. The men know the contents of Order No 1 from what their commanders tell them.

The “NLAA” command ordered an inventory of all personal weapons of the men and officers and officials state that this has been carried out in the main.

“NLAA” sub-units supported by armoured military hardware – armoured personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles and tanks – took part in the assault.

Memorial observers did not manage to obtain any information about who specifically gave the order to storm Khojaly or who was in charge of the operation. But it follows from the statement by the “NKR” leadership that the situation in Nagorno Karabakh was under its complete control that it is responsible for both planning and implementing the operation to take Khojaly and for all other actions connected with resolving the problems of its population.

The involvement of servicemen of the Soviet Army’s 366th regiment. Practically all refugees from Khojaly assert that servicemen of the 366th regiment took part in the assault on Khojaly and that some of them entered the town.

According to information received from the Armenian side, fighting vehicles of the 366th regiment and their crews took part in the assault on the town, shelling it but not entering the town itself. The Armenian side asserts that the participation of servicemen in military actions was not authorized by a written order from the regiment command.

How the assault proceeded.  Artillery shelling of Khojaly began around 23:00 on the night of 25 February. The garrison, lying deep in a residential area, was destroyed first of all, as were defence outposts. Infantry detachments entered the town between 01:00 and 04:00 on 26 February. 

Reports by members of Armenian armed units say that armed resistance by the Khojaly garrison as a whole was soon broken. The destruction in Khojaly confirms there was artillery shelling but is not typical of the destruction and damage caused by stubborn street fighting.  

The last pocket of resistance was quashed by 07:00.

Some of the population started to leave Khojaly shortly after the assault began, trying to leave in the direction of Aghdam. There were armed people from the town garrison in some of the groups fleeing.

People left in two directions:

  1. From the eastern edge of the town to the north-east along the riverbed, leaving Askeran on the left (Armenian officials noted that this was the route left as the “free corridor”); 
  2. From the northern edge of the town to the north-east, leaving Askeran on the right (evidently the minority of the refugees left by this route).

Thus the majority of the civilian population left Khojaly and roughly 200-300 people remained there hiding in their homes and cellars.

An unknown number of civilians died in Khojaly as a result of the artillery bombardment of the town during the assault. The Armenian side practically has refused to provide information on the number of people who died this way. (I. Burgansky, a Gulfstream association cameraman, who was in the vicinity of Khojaly on 26 February, reported that a large part of the civilian inhabitants died as a result of mortar fire by sub-units of the defending garrison, but there are doubts over the credibility of this report since most of the circumstances of the assault described by Burgansky do not correspond to the information received from all other sources.)  

The Armenian side reports that up to 10-12 of the attackers were killed.

THE “FREE CORRIDOR” FOR THE POPULATION TO LEAVE

“NKR” officials assert that a “free corridor” was left for the civilian population to leave Khojaly. It began at the eastern edge of the town, continued along the riverbed and went north-east, leading towards Aghdam and leaving Askeran on the left. The corridor was 100-200 metres wide and up to 300 metres wide in some places. The Armenian armed units promised not to open fire on civilians and unarmed members of military units who were inside that “corridor”.

“NKR” officials and those who took part in the assault say that at the start of it the population of Khojaly was informed of this “corridor” through loudspeakers set up on armoured personnel carriers. But those who announced this information did not rule out that a large part of the population of Khojaly might not have heard the announcements about the “free corridor” because of the shooting and the low power of the loudspeakers.

“NKR” officials also reported that leaflets were dropped from helicopters on Khojaly a few days before the assault calling on the population of Khojaly to use the “free corridor”. But Memorial observers were not offered a single such leaflet by way of confirmation of that. Neither did Memorial observers find any traces of such leaflets in Khojaly. The refugees from Khojaly interviewed said that they had not heard anything about such leaflets.

Memorial observers interviewed in Aghdam and Baku 60 people who had fled from Khojaly during the assault. Only one of those interviewed said that he knew there was a “free corridor” (a “serviceman” from the Khojaly garrison told him about it). None of the detained inhabitants of Khojaly with whom Memorial observers spoke in the presence of Deputy R. Ayrikyan in Stepanakert detention centre (the conversation was filmed by an Armenian television cameraman) had heard about the “free corridor” either.

Several days before the assault, representatives of the Armenian side informed the authorities of Khojaly by radio communication time and time again about the forthcoming assault and called on them to completely evacuate the population from the town urgently.  Baku newspaper publications confirmed that this information had been received by the Azerbaijani side and passed on to Baku (Bakinskiy rabochiy).

The words of Elman Mamedov, the head of the Khojaly executive authorities, quoted in the newspaper Russkaya mysl on 3 April 1992, point to the existence of the “corridor”: “We knew that this corridor was intended for the evacuation of civilians…”

THE FATE OF KHOJALY INHABITANTS

The fate of the inhabitants who fled the town. Inhabitants rushed out of the town in a panic soon after the assault began. People did not manage to take the most essential things with them – many of those who fled were dressed lightly (which caused them to suffer frostbite to various degrees) and many of the refugees interviewed in Baku and Aghdam did not even have their documents.

People streamed out of the town along the riverbed (route 1 – see the section “How the assault proceeded”). There were armed people from the town garrison in some groups of refugees. These refugees travelling along the “free corridor” on territory adjacent to the Aghdam District of Azerbaijan were shot at and many people died as a result. The refugees who survived scattered. Those fleeing stumbled into Armenian outposts and were shot at. Some of the refugees managed, nevertheless, to reach Aghdam. Some, mainly women and children (it is not possible to ascertain the exact number) froze to death while wandering through the mountains.  Others, according to the depositions of those who made it to Aghdam, were taken prisoner at the villages of Pirjamal and Nakhichevanik. Inhabitants of Khojaly who already were exchanged testify that some of those taken captive were executed.  

The killing field where the refugees met their end, as well as the bodies of those killed, were filmed on video as Azerbaijani sub-units were carrying out a mission to ferry the corpses by helicopter to Aghdam. The pictures show that the bodies of those killed were scattered over a large area. The major part of the corpses filmed at the killing field were those of women and the elderly, and there were also children amongst those killed. At the same time, there were also people in uniform amongst those killed. The video showed several dozen corpses in all.

It can be supposed that it might have taken roughly seven or eight hours for the refugees from Khojaly to reach the killing field, taking into account the roughness of the terrain and the physical capabilities of most of the people (the route along the road running roughly parallel to the “free corridor” zone takes about two hours). Thus the refugees were shot at dawn.

Around 200 bodies were taken to Aghdam over four days. Several dozen corpses bore signs of mutilation. Doctors working in the medical train in Aghdam recorded at least four scalped bodies and one decapitated corpse. A state forensic medical examination was carried out on 181 bodies in Aghdam (130 male and 51 female, including 13 children).  The pathologists conclude that in 151 people the cause of death was bullet wounds, in 20 – missile wounds and in 10 – blows by a blunt object.  Moreover, a forensic medical examination was carried out in Baku on a number of corpses brought from the vicinity of Khojaly. “NKR” officials told Memorial observers that “120-130 corpses were taken to Aghdam with their permission”. Ninety-six bodies were buried in Aghdam. The bodies of the others were taken to relatives.

“NKR” official representatives and members of the armed Armenian detachments attributed the death of civilians in the “free corridor” zone to the fact that leaving with the refugees were armed people who fired at the Armenian posts and provoked return fire, and also to attempts to break through by the main Azerbaijani forces.   Members of the armed Armenian detachments said that Azerbaijani units attempted an armed breakthrough from the direction of Aghdam towards the “free corridor”. As the Armenian outposts repulsed the attack, the first groups of refugees from Khojaly reached their rear. The armed men amongst the refugees opened fire on the Armenian outposts.  One post was destroyed during the battle (two people were killed and 10 wounded). But the men at the other post, which the Azerbaijanis knew nothing about, opened fire at close quarters on the people coming from Khojaly.

In their statements (including those published in the press), the refugees from Khojaly said that the armed men in the stream of refugees engaged in exchanges of fire with the Armenian outposts but it was the Armenian side which opened fire first every time.  

Also fired upon were groups of refugees taking route 2 (see the section “The assault on Khojaly”) who left Askeran to the right of themselves.

Five hundred and ninety-eight wounded and frostbite victims (moreover, the latter were in the majority) are recorded in the log of the medical train in the town of Aghdam where practically all the victims and defenders of Khojaly were seen to. The case of a person being scalped alive is also recorded there.

In reckoning the general number of inhabitants of Khojaly who died, one should take into account the fact that people did not just die when the refugees were shot (some of the bodies of those who died in this manner were taken to Aghdam) but that they also froze to death as they tried to make their way through the mountains. Memorial observers spoke to a woman who lost three of her children that way. It is not possible to ascertain precisely the number of inhabitants of Khojaly who froze to death. The Karabakh newspaper reported on 26 March 1992 that the commission for helping the refugees from Khojaly had given out grants to 476 families of those who died.

The fate of the people left in the town. Around 300 civilians, including 86 Meskhetian Turks, remained in Khojaly after it was taken by Armenian armed units.

According to statements by inhabitants, by those who took part in the assault, by “NKR” officials and representatives of the mass media who were in the vicinity of Khojaly at that time, all the remaining inhabitants were taken captive and over three days were taken to Stepanakert (the detention centre and transport column building), the preventive-detention cell in the village of Krasniy and the solitary confinement block in the town of Askeran. By permission of the NKR leadership, some were taken into the private homes of Armenian families whose relatives were imprisoned on the territory of Azerbaijan.   

“NKR” officials state that all women and children were handed over without ransom to the Azerbaijani side within one week.

According to reports received from both sides, over 700 captive inhabitants of Khojaly, seized both in the town itself and on the road to Aghdam, had been handed over to the Azerbaijani side by 28 March 1992. Woman and children accounted for the majority of them.

At the same time, there are testimonies from inhabitants of Khojaly that women and children, and men as well, were held as a “means of barter”.  These are confirmed by the personal observations of Memorial observers: as of 13 March inhabitants of Khojaly were still being held in Askeran as hostages, including women and young girls. There is reliable evidence that women were being forcibly held in Askeran after that date too.       

CONDITIONS IN WHICH CAPTIVE INHABITANTS AND DEFENDERS OF KHOJALY WERE HELD

An inspection by Memorial observers of the detention centre of the town of Stepanakert where captive inhabitants of Khojaly and captive members of the Azerbaijani armed units are being held (they are all deemed to be “hostages” in the conflict zone) ascertained that the conditions in which they are being held are extremely unsatisfactory. The appearance of the Azerbaijanis being held in the detention centre showed that they receive very little food and they manifest clear signs of emaciation. Verbal information was received that the prisoners were beaten regularly. It should also be noted that the observers were given the opportunity to inspect only some of the prisoners.

The chief of the detention centre, Major Khachaturyan, forbade even brief one-to-one conversations with the prisoners. It was only thanks to chance that such a conversation was possible.

According to the testimonies of the inhabitants of Khojaly who were captured and then exchanged and also of defenders of Khojaly, men were subjected to beatings. Most of the testimonies say that women and children were not beaten, unlike the men. However, there is evidence of rape, including of minors, confirmed by doctors of Baku and Aghdam.    

THE FATE OF THE PROPERTY OF THE INHABITANTS OF KHOJALY

The inhabitants of Khojaly who fled did not have the opportunity to take with them even the basic minimum of their belongings. Those inhabitants of Khojaly who were taken out of the town by members of Armenian armed units were not given the opportunity to gather up even part of their belongings. Memorial observers witnessed active and unbridled looting in the captured town. Belongings which were left behind were carried away by inhabitants of Stepanakert and neighbouring settlements. The surnames of the new owners were written on the gates of many houses.

By a decision of the Supreme Soviet of the “NKR”, needy Armenians are being settled in houses in Khojaly and they are being allocated numbers for this.

THE REACTION OF NKR OFFICIALDOM TO INSTANCES OF VIOLENCE TOWARDS CIVILIANS

The “NKR” Supreme Soviet issued a statement expressing regret over instances of brutality during the assault on Khojaly. But no attempts were made to investigate the crimes connected with the capture of Khojaly.

Officials did not deny in conversations with Memorial observers that there could have been atrocities committed during the capture of Khojaly as there were amongst the armed Armenian detachments embittered people whose relatives had been killed by Azerbaijanis and there were also people with a criminal past.

ASSESSMENT OF THE INFORMATION RECEIVED

There was mass violence inflicted upon the civilians of Khojaly during the military operation to take this town.

The declared provision of a “free corridor” to evacuate the population from Khojaly may be regarded as either deliberate actions by NKR officials to “cleanse” the town of its inhabitants or as the acknowledgement by the “NKR” authorities that they are not capable of guaranteeing on the territory under their control the human rights of civilians regardless of nationality.

The information on the existence of the “free corridor” was not passed on to the majority of the inhabitants of Khojaly.

The civilians remaining in Khojaly after it was taken by Armenian detachments were deported. These actions were carried out in an organized manner. Many of the deportees were held in Stepanakert which clearly points to there being a relevant order on this by the “NKR” authorities.

The mass murder of civilians in the “free corridor” zone and adjacent territory cannot be justified under any circumstances.

The capture and detention of civilians of Khojaly as “hostages”, including women, clearly contradicts the declared readiness of the “NKR” authorities to freely hand over to the Azerbaijani side all Khojaly civilians. The conditions in which the “hostages” were held were extremely unsatisfactory and there was violent treatment of the detained inhabitants of Khojaly.

The inhabitants of Khojaly were illegally deprived of their property which was appropriated by inhabitants of Stepanakert and the surrounding settlements. The “NKR” authorities have legalized this appropriation of other people’s property, issuing warrants for occupying the houses belonging to the inhabitants of Khojaly who had fled or been deported.

Servicemen of the 366th motorized rifle regiment belonging to troops of the Commonwealth of Independent States took part in the assault on Khojaly. In the opinion of the Memorial human rights centre a special investigation is required into the facts of the involvement of CIS servicemen in the military operations and combat actions in the conflict region, and also into the facts of the transfer of military property to units of the conflicting parties.

The Memorial human rights centre states that the actions by the Armenian units of Nagorno Karabakh towards the civilians of Khojaly during the assault on the town are a gross violation of the Geneva Convention and also of the following articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948):

Article 2       proclaims that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration without distinction of any kind, such as … language, religion … national … origin …or other status”;

Article 3       recognizes that everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person;

Article 5       stipulates that no one shall be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment;

Article 9       stipulates that no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile;

Article 17     proclaims the right of everyone to own property and states that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

The actions by the armed units are a most gross violation of the Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict (proclaimed by the UN General Assembly on 14 December 1974). It stipulates:

         “Women and children belonging to the civilian population and finding themselves in circumstances of emergency and armed conflict in the struggle for peace, self-determination, national liberation and independence, or who live in occupied territories, shall not be deprived of shelter, food, medical aid or other inalienable rights, in accordance with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Declaration of the Rights of the Child or other instruments of international law.”

 

 


[1] Courtesy translation, from the book “Khojaly Witness of a War Crime - Armenia in the Dock”, published by Ithaca Press, London 2014. Original Russian version is available through Memorial Human Rights Center (www.memo.ru)  

[2] Note: Nagorno-Karabakh region is an internationally recognised part of Azerbaijan, occupied by Armenia together with seven adjacent districts. Armenia established a subordinate separatist entity in these territories in gross violation of norms and principles of international law. Terms like “Nagorno Karabakh Republic” or “NKR” used in this report represent this illegal separatist regime for which the Republic of Armenia is liable and do not denote anything more.