Vol. 1, No. 8 (May 15, 2008)

Shusha – An Azerbaijani tragedy

Vagif Huseynov
Rayon Administrator for Shusha city 

Wars are usually discussed in terms of the decisions of politicians and generals and the movements of armies, but the tragedies of war occur at the level of individuals and places which seldom attract as much attention.  My city of Shusha, occupied in May 1992 through the combined efforts of the Armenian forces and the 366th Russian Motorized Rifle Regiment, has been full of individual human tragedies ever since.  And they deserve to be remembered alongside all the other horrors of that conflict.  

When Shusha was occupied on May 8th sixteen years ago, this was not the first time when our nation faced Armenian invasion in the modern period.  Consequently, it was not something that was either new or unexpected, but those aspects of this event in no way lessened the horror for the local people or their willingness to fight for their city then or in the future.  

When Armenians launched their first attacks in the war, at Khankendi on February 13, 1988, many Azerbaijanis fled to Shusha in the hopes of salvation.  The people of Shusha did what they could and also sought help from Baku and Moscow.  And we sent appeals to both capitals describing the problem and outlining what we believed needed to be done.  I was directly involved in the preparation and dispatch of these messages.  I wrote the appeal which was discussed by the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan about the illegal and unconstitutional efforts of the Armenians to liquidate the autonomous status of Nagorno-Karabakh.  And I prepared the telegrams on the same subject that we sent to the USSR Council of Ministers, to Mikhail Gorbachev, and to Mutallibov, as conditions in our city deteriorated even in advance of the Armenian and Russian attack. 

As early as June 1989, we in Shusha hosted a session of members of the USSR Supreme Council to familiarize them with  what was going on, pointing out that Armenian actions were pushing the Soviet Union toward the brink of disintegration.  And in December 1989, I and others in Shusha sent a telegram of protest to the radio and television committee of the USSR concerning the way in which Armenians were using the Khankendi television station to stir up hatred and passions against Azerbaijanis.

And then on December 16, 1990, I sent on behalf of Shusha's council of elders an appeal to the leaders of Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union.  Because this document says so much about the situation at that time, I reproduce it in full below:

An Appeal of the Residents of Shusha

Dear Compatriots.  We again turn to you.  The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh has deteriorated to the point of no return.  With the support of the center and the Armenian leadership, Armenians, armed to the teeth, every day torture, kill, take hostage defenseless and innocent Azerbaijanis.  

To keep our own people from rising up in response, the leadership of our republic has erected an information blockade and limited its response to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem to cosmetic measures.  And they are doing so even as Armenians strengthen their positions every day and prepare for new offensive actions.  The status of our army and the internal troops is a cause of serious worry.  The December 15 massacre in the village of three sons of Azerbaijan – Senior Lieutenant Mikayil Jabrayilov, militia sergeant Arzu Aliyev and local resident Ahmed Javadov – and the wounding of many others shows that the time has come for stepped-up action against the invader. 

The situation cries out for immediate and comprehensive measures.  Please know that the cruelty of our enemies has reached unimaginable levels.  At its very first session, the new parliament of the Republic must take decisive action.

Residents of Shusha and all the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh call on you for help.  It is a matter of honor.

[54 signatures of the aksakkals of Shusha]

But despite the hopes of the people of Shusha that someone would intervene to save us from the horrors of an Armenian occupation, we soon had to deal with it.  And both the events leading up to it and the occupation itself were even more horrible than we had feared.  In order to crush the resistance of the population, the Armenians used all possible means.  They destroyed the gas and water lines of the city, they took over the airwaves and broadcast anti-Turkish and anti-Azerbaijani programs, which besides denouncing all Azerbaijanis called on the local Armenian population to rise up and take revenge.  And to intimidate us, they reported that the unification of Nagorno Karabakh to Armenia was already a fait accompli.   

On December 12, 1991, the Armenians murdered M. Gyozalov, the head of the rayon's executive, something that spread terror through the population and made it more difficult for Shusha's Azerbaijanis to continue the struggle.  After his killing, the Armenians increased the shelling of the city.  The number of dead and wounded rose each day.  And on December 25, after Gorbachev handed power over to Yeltsin, the Armenians in our area were given all the Soviet military equipment and ammunition that had been held in Khankendi.  Two days later, Kyardzhidzhakhan, an Azerbaijani settlement near that place, was seized by the Armenians.  Many of the people there were killed.  Those who survived fled, or were brought to, Shusha.  The population was terrified, not least because they were left with only one way out, through Lachin, to escape.  And that 300 km long route, through Gubadly, Zangilan, Beylagan, and Agdzhabedi, was far from secure.  

Then on January 23, 1992, Azerbaijan's defense minister at that time T. Mekhtiyev arrived in Shusha and launched his attempt to retain the nearby village of Dashalty, which the Armenians were using as a fortified position.  When Mekhtiyev and his forces failed, spirits in Shusha fell rapidly because everyone felt that Shusha itself could not hold out many more days. 

A few days later, on January 28, the Armenians shot down a plane over the village of Khyalfyali, which was carrying more than 40 women, children and the elderly.  The pilot heroically guided the stricken plane down away from the populated points, but he couldn't save any of the passengers or himself and his crew.  None of them remained alive.  Shusha went into deep mourning.  But no reaction to this tragedy came from the republic authorities. 
On February 11, the Armenians occupied the village of Malybeyli near Shusha.  They burned it down.  I distinctly remember how the seizure of that village was reported by Moscow TV's Irina Mishina: "Today the Armenians occupied the village of Malybeyli of Shusha district; consequently, the path to Shusha is open."  But still the leadership of the republic did not take any actions, a lack that intensified the fears of those of us in Shusha.  Inspired by their "victory" in Malybeyli, the Armenians closed the single remaining "way out" that I mentioned above.  That road was first shelled more or less constantly and then closed.  And then panic began to spread.  
On February 25-26, the Armenians went on a rampage in Khodzhaly, which paved the way for the occupation of Shusha on May 8.  And thus the city, of which the late Heydar Aliyev once said, "Azerbaijan without Shusha is not Azerbaijan," passed under the control of our enemies, where tragically it remains to this day.

Now, more than 16 long years later, the residents of Shusha live dispersed in 55 districts of Azerbaijan, eking out the miserable existence of internally dispersed persons.  We do not have much, but we do have one thing: Each of us, regardless of his age or social status, lives with the hope that we will live to return to our native place.  Sometimes foreign visitors ask us questions as to whether we would in fact return.  Whether from ignorance or something else, those are terrible questions.  Of course, we will return and we will settle up with the Armenians who took away so many of the lives of our families, so much of our time, and our native places.  

To honor the dead and our country, we must do no less.  The land must be returned to its real owners.