By Thomas Goltz, Aghdam, Azerbaijan
The spiralling violence gripping the outer republics of the former Soviet Union gained new impetus yesterday with the cold-blooded slaughter of hundreds of woman and children in war-racked Nogorno-Karabkh.
Survivors reported that Armenian soldiers shot and bayoneted more than 450 Azeris, many of them women and children, who were fleeing an attack on their town. Hundreds, possibly thousands, were missing and feared dead.
Survivors who struggled across snow-covered mountains in sub-zero temperatures to Agdam in Azerbaijan said the massacre took place on Wednesday morning when up to 1,500 people were trapped in a gorge and surrounded by Armenian soldiers.
The attackers killed most of the soldiers and volunteers defending the women and children. They then turned their guns on the terrified refugees. The few survivors later described what happened: "That's when the real slaughter began," said Azer Hajiev, one of three soldiers to survive. "The Armenians just shot and shot. And then they came in and started carving up people with their bayonets and knives."
"They were shooting, shooting, shooting," echoed Rasia Aslanova, who arrived in Agdam with other women and children who had made their way through Armenian lines. She said her husband, Kayun, and a son-in-law were massacred in front of her.
A 45-year-old man who had been shot in the back said: "We were walking through the brush. Then they opened up on us and people were falling all around. My wife fell, then my child."
Helicopters had to abandon attempts to rescue survivors when they, too, came under fire. They returned with reports of "mountainsides filled with corpses." Others spoke of terrible mutilations, with many of the wounded being shot in the legs and groin.
The massacre has provoked fears that the already bitter fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly Armenian enclave surrounded by Azerbaijnai territory could flare completely out of control. Though more than 1,000 have died since civil war broke out four years ago, a massacre on this scale seems likely to lead to all-out war.
Fleeing Azeris massacred
The survivors said 2000 others, some of whom had fled separately, were still missing; many could perish from their wounds or the cold. Those who made it to Agdam, some carrying their dead and wounded, said many more bodies remained behind.
The massacre began with an Armenian assault on the town of Khojaly on Monday. "It started at around 10 at night," said Bahram Nigmatal, a deserter from the army who had been hiding in Khojaly. "They overran the airport and then attacked the town. We tried to help the women and children get out. I saw 12 of our group get killed. I don't know how many others died."
An estimated 500 people were killed, and it was at that point that Major Alef Hajiev, head of the local national guard, organised a break-out through Armenian lines to lead civilians to Agdam down the Askeron gap, a 10-kilometre-long ravine.
Hajiev rounded up 33 national guards, 30 airport security officials and volunteer militiamen to form a ragtag fighting force. "The major had the woman and children and other civilians go down into the bottom of the ravine while we ran cover for them on the hillside," said Asif Usubov, another survivor.
"At down, when we arrived in the middle of the gorge the Armenians opened fire from the ridges." The major was shot through the head and died instantly. Thirty soldiers and 19 airport guards were killed, leaving the column of woman and children defenceless, Usubov said. The soldiers then moved in, shooting and bayoneting at will.
By late yesterday, 479 deaths had been registered at the morgue in Agdam's morgue, and 29 bodies had been buried in the cemetery. Of the seven corpses I saw awaiting burial, two were children and three women.
Agdam hospital was a scene of carnage. Doctors said they had 140 patients who escaped the slaughter, most with bullet injuries or deep stab wounds.
Nor were they safe in Agdam. On Friday night rockets fell on the city, destroying several buildings and killing 15. Refugees fled towards Baku, the Azeri capital. "The Armenians won't stop until they get to Baku," said one fleeing government official. "That's when the real fighting will begin."
Article source: courtesy of the book “Khojaly Witness of a War Crime - Armenia in the Dock”, published by Ithaca Press, London 2014