A Genocide Gone Unpunished
Pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait (February 1988)
As it happened
Pogroms, beatings and murder of Armenians in Sumgait, which is a town 30-minutes drive from Baku, took place in broad daylight as passersby kept looking. The crimes committed by Azeri thugs reached their high point on February 27-28. These events were proceeded by a wave of anti-Armenian rallies that shook entire Azerbaijan in February 1988. Almost the entire territory of the city with a population of 250,000 became an arena for unobstructed mass pogroms of its Armenian population. Azeri thugs broke into apartment buildings with prepared in advance lists of Armenian tenants residing there. Azeries were armed with iron rods (armature pieces), hatchets, knives, broken bottles, rocks and gas tanks. The number of these thugs can be determined by a simple fact that according to many witnesses, 50-80 people attacked each apartment. Similar crowds (numbering up to one hundred people each) went on a rampage in the streets.
Dozens of Armenian were killed (according to verified but incomprehensive data, number of murdered Armenians reached at least 53), majority of whom were set afire alive after being beaten and tortured. Hundreds of innocent people recieved injuries of different severity and became physically impaired. Women, among them minors, were raped. More than two hundred apartments were robbed, dozens of cars were destroyed and burned, dozens of art and crafts studious, shops and kiosks were demolished. Thousands of people became refugees. At best Azeries kept silence, some, calling themselves the intelligencia or the "salt" of Azeri nation, tried to justify what happened. These were Sumgait's true colors, which put the first mark on the long list of crimes against humanity committed by Azerbaijani authorities during the past decade.
Pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait amounted to genocide organized on the governmental level. In his address to the Supreme Council of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Region, a leader of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan Mr. Hidayat Orujev, stated days before the massacre of Armenians in Sumgait: "If you do not stop campaigning for the unification of Nagorno Karabakh with Armenia, if you don't sober up, 100,000 Azeris from neighboring districts will break into your houses, torch your apartments, rape your women, and kill your children." The same Orujev is currently the State Advisor for Ethnic Policy in Heidar Aliyev's presidential staff.
This crime was not given its adequate political and legal evaluation. Not only its organizers and primary executors were set free, but also until today their names remained unknown to the world. Despite the fact that everything possible was done to conceal the circumstances of the crime committed in Sumgait and to distort its nature, there are enough documents, witness accounts and other facts that lead to one and only conclusion: the pogroms were organized and executed on high governmental level. Moreover, prime organizers and executors of the crime were the authorities of then Soviet Azerbaijan and certain nationalistic pro-Turkish Mafia circles linked in different ways to Azerbaijani authorities.
During 18 October-18 November 1988, the Supreme Court of the USSR reviewed one of the eighteen criminal cases filed after the Sumgait atrocities, in which, as the prosecution stated in its conclusion, "hundreds of people of Azeri nationality" participated. During the investigation many witnesses were questioned, the testimony of which stated the unusual cruelty and their organized nature of the crimes. Enraged mobs threw furniture, refrigerators, television sets and beds out of balconies and set them afire. Tenants were dragged from their apartments. If they tried to run and escape, the mob attacked them. The mob used metal rods, knives and hatchets, after which bodies were thrown into the fire. "He was still moving, trying to escape from fire, but five young men were pushing him back into the fire with metal rods" (witness A. Arkhipov). The Internal Ministry troops did nothing. Witness S. Guliyev revealed during the trial how they reacted to pogroms and killings: "A man was being beaten near the windows of a police station. The police gave up the town to dishevel. It was not [present] in town. I did not see it [there]." "The Police knew everything", -- stated witness D. Zarbaliyev, a son of an Internal Ministry major himself.
Division of one organized crime into separate and independent cases testified to the fact that the trial was biased and had an aim to conceal true organizers and perpetrators of the crime. The court qualified mass murders of Armenians as murders committed by hooligans. Moreover, during the trial, the criminal idleness of local party and soviet structures as well as the military regiments present in the city was not taken into consideration. By February 29 the army troops were in Sumgait. However, they were not defending Armenians, but rather defending themselves from the enraged mob, which was throwing rocks at the army troops.
Mass rallies, which gathered thousands and where direct calls to kill Armenians and begin with pogroms were made, also allow concluding that tragic events in Sumgait were organized. So does the obvious assistance of Sumgait law enforcement bodies to the mobsters and murderers, and later the involvement of officers of the Azerbaijani Interior Ministry and the KGB in the sabotage of criminal investigations and covering of criminals. The weapons of murder (sharpened armature pieces, spears and knives) were manufactured at Sumgait factories, rocks were delivered to the areas of pogroms in advance, roadblocks were installed on the escape routes from the town, lists of Armenian residents were given to the mobsters, telephones were disconnected by the workers of the local telephone company, electricity was shut off in entire blocks and neighborhoods of the town during the days that the pogroms took place, the mobs were well disciplined and subordinated hierarchically to one another. All of these contradict to the allegations that the crime had a spontaneous nature. It should be noted that immediately after the pogroms, following the orders of the Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers (Prime Minister) of Azerbaijani SSR G. N. Seidov and an Azerbaijani Communist Party's Central Committee official Ganafayev, the belongings of Armenians, which were thrown out of their apartments to the streets, were hastily removed, yards and building entrenches were wash, and mobbed apartments and public buildings were frantically repaired. Seidov headed the government delegation that arrived to Sumgait on March 1, 1988. Thus, the physical evidence of the crimes was destroyed, which noticeably hampered the investigation. The bodies of many victims were later found in the morgues of Baku and other towns near Sumgait. During the May 21, 1988 plenum of the Central Committee of the Azerbaijani Communist Party, the former Secretary of Sumgait Committee of Communist Party D. M. Muslim-Zadeh blamed the authorities of Azerbaijan for the Sumgait tragedy.
The policy of silence around the genocide committed in Sumgait as well as the permissive attitude of the international community towards the Azeri perpetrators of the Sumgait genocide allowed the organizers and active participants of pogroms to avoid criminal punishment. Thus, the bloody campaign continued and soon embraced the entire territory of Azerbaijani SSR, reaching its high point in January of 1990 in Baku, when hundreds of Armenians fell victim to the pathological hatred of Azeri nationalists. In May, 1988 the Shushi regional Communist Party Committee initiated deportations of Armenians from Shushi. In September 1988, tragic events took place near Kojalu village (Nagorno Karabakh), where several Armenians were wounded and killed and the last Armenian residents were expelled from Shushi. In November-December of the same year, Azerbaijan was swept with a wave of Armenian pogroms. The most brutal of them tool place in Baku, Kirovabad (Gyanja), Shemakha, Shamkhor, Mingechaur and Nakhichevan Soviet Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan. In Kirovabad, for example, Azeri mobsters burst into a retirement living community, took its residents away to the outskirts of the city and brutally murdered twelve old men and women, of which some were disabled.
The Sumgait tragedy and its bloody repetitions in Azerbaijan in 1988-1991, led to the disappearance of a 450,000-strong Armenian community of Azerbaijan and the military aggression against the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh in 1992-1994. Although this has been commonly perceived as the main and only reason for pogroms, the roots of this tragedy are to be found not only in the unique mentality of the Azeris as a people, which, allegedly, could not do otherwise but to answer with pogroms and murders to Karabakh Armenian's peaceful demands for self-determination. Certainly, psychological and historic motives, which determined the social climate in Azerbaijan, are very important in order to understand why all of a sudden thousands of people grabbed hatchets and started killing their harmless neighbors.
Certain social climate, which would trigger a psychosis of murder, had to exist in order for an explosion of aggression and violence of this magnitude to occur. Recollections of a famous French writer of Azeri descent Um-al-Banin, who spent her childhood in Baku is a good illustration of this. Her writings demonstrate how an atmosphere of massacres (pogroms of Armenians in 1905-1906) can affect a child's mind. This is how she describes the games of Baku children in her book entitled "Caucasian Days": "On holidays we used to played a game called "Armenian Massacres", which we preferred of all others. Drunk with our racist passion, we would sacrifice Tamar (whose mother was Armenian) on the altar of our atavistic hatred.
First we would arbitrarily accuse her of killings of Muslims and then immediately shoot her several times over and over in order to renew our pleasure. Then we would tear off her limbs, tongue, head and innards and threw it to the dogs to show our disdain for Armenian flesh." In this environment several generation grew up - fathers and grandfathers of people who live today. It was then that the foundation for mutual hatred, which would burst into flames during the times of change in 1918-1920 and in 1988-1991, was cemented. But the serious reason, which led to the massacres, continued to exist. They were implicit but real.
Beginning from creation of Azerbaijani state in 1918, genocide was and still remains a tool in the arsenal of Azerbaijani politicians. The organizers of the Armenian genocide in Azerbaijan (1920-1991) were certainly inspired by the results of Turkey's anti-Armenian policy - a country, in which more than one and a half Armenians were killed by local nationalists as a result of an unpunished genocide of 1915-1923.
Today, just as ten years ago, it is obvious that the architects of the Azerbaijani state were concerned the least with the issue of ensuring prosperity for its national minorities. Instead they continued their policy of Turkization in all aspects of the state. This can be seen in the numerous public statements of top Azerbaijani state officials, including those of President Heydar Aliyev. Denial of the guilt of Azeries and Turks in the organization and execution of the Armenian genocide, shifting the blame to Armenians themselves, the policy of steeling the cultural heritage created by Armenians during many centuries in their homeland and territorial claims on a large part of Armenian historic lands put in doubt the possibility, which is expressed in the West, of co-existence of Azeri Turks and Armenians in the same state in the foreseeable future.