Vol. 3, No. 5 (March 01, 2010)

The Khojaly tragedy as a collective trauma and factor of collective memory

Rauf Garagozov, Dr.
Leading Research Associate
Institute of Strategic Studies of the Caucasus

The Khojaly tragedy has many aspects.  Here I would like to consider three psychological and socio-cultural ones: that event as a collective trauma, the various ways in which Azerbaijanis could relate to the trauma, and how we may be able to overcome it.

To begin, I would like my readers to try to remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about Khojaly.  I am sure that for the majority of Azerbaijanis 30 years old or older, that moment remains very much fixed in their minds even 18 years later.  Psychologists call such recollections flashbulb memories.  They arise in response to events that shock us, and the destruction of the Azerbaijani city of Khojaly and its civilian residents by Armenian militants is exactly that kind of event.

In that regard, I want to stress in particular that this event was not only a psychic trauma for those who were the participants or victims of force but a trauma for the entire population, including even those who were not subjected to violence or immediate witnesses of such acts.  Specialists refer to such experiences as collective or cultural trauma, which arises because people feel a threat to their collective identity.  After the events of Black January in 1990, this was the second collective trauma of Azerbaijanis of this dimension.

A society, subjected to collective trauma, experiences various changes in its perception of the surrounding world, its emotional situation, and its behavior.  For example, when it experiences a shock, society can lose its customary confidence in its security and trust in its political leaders.  Another result of collective trauma can be the spread of panic and fear among the population for a certain time.  Indeed, at that time, we experienced a deep political crisis and panic seized part of the Azerbaijani population in the region that had come into contact with the Armenians.  

It appears that the particular cruelty of the Armenians in relation to the defenseless civilian population of Khojaly was intended to sow panic and fear among the local population.  Serzh Sargsyan, who at that time was one of the field commanders who attacked Khojaly and who is now president of Armenia, has said: “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that it would be possible to joke with us, they thought that the Armenians were not capable of raising their arms against the civilian population.  We were able to destroy this [stereotype].  That is what happened” (Waal 2005, pp. 134-135). 

That statement makes a mockery of Sargsyan’s recent statement at the British Royal Institute of International Relations that “We Armenians as a people who experienced a Genocide have a moral duty before humanity and history to prevent genocides.  We have done and will do everything for the further realization of the Genocide Convention.  Genocide must not agitate only one people, because it is a crime against humanity.” [1]  

Coming from the lips of a former field commander, these words sound like the apotheosis of hypocrisy but not only that.  In general, it is symbolic that precisely someone involved in carrying about a genocide should speak about “the moral duty in preventing genocide.”  Not only is this a classical example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but it is testimony to the weakness and shortcomings of international institutions which in one part of Europe condemn Radovan Karadzic, the former president of the so-called republic of the Bosnian Serbs and in another offer a tribune for speeches of this kind to a similar field commander and current president of Armenia Sargsyan.
Why is this happening?  Why is the West prepared to be so unprincipled or, more precisely, to apply its principles in one place but not another.  These are complicated questions and a response to them requires the consideration of many aspects.  Here I will take up only those moments which are connected with collective memory and identity.

In the history of each people, one can encounter events which give rise to collective trauma.  However, peoples vary in their relationship to collective trauma.  For example, some societies for whatever reasons “forget” about the trauma they have experienced.  Thus, in Soviet times, the majority of Azerbaijanis “forgot” about the destruction of the Azerbaijani population of Baku, Shemakha, Karabakh, and Zangazur by Armenian bands in the beginning of the 20th century.  Memory about these bloody days was preserved only in the stories of the older generation who had witnessed the events.  It is interesting that many of them later were afraid to speak about these events to their children and grandchildren.  They were afraid because these reminiscences contradicted the official history which was taught in our schools.  They did not see their memories as fitting into what sociologists refer to as “social frameworks.” 

The Soviet policy of memory, which was carried out under the slogans of the struggle with “Pan-Turkism” and “Pan-Islamism” was especially pitiless in relation to the cultural memory and historical inheritance of the Azerbaijanis.  As a result, the explosion of Armenian nationalism and separatism and the violence it entailed at the end of the 20th century was something unexpected for many of us.  Militant Armenian nationalism, which led to the rise of the Karabakh conflict and military aggression against Azerbaijan forced us to focus ourselves on Armenia-Azerbaijan conflicts more generally.  In that, the Khojaly tragedy was and is one of those traumatizing events which in a special way played a part in the formation of Azerbaijani collective memory.

But if one can be sure that memories about Khojaly will be preserved, the question of how and in what form they will be formed requires special consideration.  A response to this question is important because to a large extent it defines the perspectives of the development of Azerbaijani national identity and also the relationship of the international community to this tragedy.  

Dealing with traumatizing events, psychologists tell us, take two forms, “acting out” and “working through” the experience.  In the first case, the trauma is not forgotten.  On the contrary, what occurs is a process of cultivating and continually recollecting the traumatic event.  But at the same time, the society avoids or is prohibited from a free discussion of the causes, factors and consequences of that traumatizing event.  Indeed, that event is converted into a means for the achievement of some political goal or another.  Making sense and reevaluating the traumatic events in a full and genuine way is blocked.  As a result, the community which has not made the correct assessments risks experiencing similar traumas in the future.  

Having analyzed the particular features of Armenian collective memory, I can with full conviction assert that it is caught in precisely that form of response to the collective trauma.  Historically, the social framework for Armenian collective identity was at one time given by the Armenian Church, the clergy of which composed the first historical stories of that nation.  I do not have the opportunity here to focus on these stories, something I have done elsewhere, but I can say that the basic idea of these stories can be expressed as follows: “the Armenians are surrounded and persecuted by enemies” (Garagozov 2008).  As a result, the forms of Armenian collective identity serve not so much as a means of the productive overcoming of collective trauma as a source for the preservation, cultivation or even in a certain way a continuing attachment to its invented or real sufferings.

As a result of these qualities of collective memory, which put an accent on hatred to members of other peoples and confessions, these stories led to the flourishing of Turkophobia among the Armenians which led to tragic consequences.  Over time, having established an entire industry for the production of various stories about Armenian sacrifice and suffering, Armenian organizations have learned to play with skill on traditional stereotypes, prejudices and fears of the Western audience, to exploit the natural human feelings toward suffering and sympathy to the victims in order to achieve their political goals.

Western public opinion, which is not acquainted with historical details, often becomes the victim of the Armenian manipulation of facts and images.  As an example, it is sufficient to look at two reports from the American media, from the March 3, 1992, issue of the New York Times and the March 16, 1992, issue of Time magazine, in which, in the course of brief reports about the Khojaly tragedy, the authors talk about it as a conflict between “Christian Armenia” and “Muslim Azerbaijan” rather than as a violation of the universal laws of humanity (The New York Times 1992; Smolowe & Zarakhovich 1992).  In other media reports, the reporters suggested that the Armenians could hardly have committed the crimes of which they were accused because of their own national history.

The image of the victim is a winning image.  And consequently, Armenian writers do what they can to maintain it and to counter or at least minimize any suggestion that Armenians are the victimizers.  It is thus no accident that the crimes of Armenian militants committed in Khojaly are not admitted by the Armenian side.  Instead, the Armenians are trying to come up with different justifying stories, with some of them even insisting that the Azerbaijanis themselves committed the murders in Khojaly.  I do not think that this is the way the security that the Armenians seek can be achieved.  In fact, having committed these crimes, the Armenians have generated anger and hatred not only among the Azerbaijanis but also among all residents of the Caucasus, thus setting the stage for possible actions of revenge.

There is also another way of dealing with trauma – working through it.  In this case, again, the trauma is not forgotten but rather fixed by collective acts of memory.  The most important aspect of this way, however, is that society is able to show an ability and readiness to rework its understanding of the traumatizing events.  That requires broad and all-sided discussion of the traumatic events, in order to make sense of their causes, factors, and consequences and the definition of moral and legal responsibility for what took place.  As a result of this process, society obtains the opportunity to make sense and to draw lessons from its own experience in order to be in a position to avoid the repetition of such events in the future.  This approach thus represents a productive reworking of the trauma, its conversion into lessons for the future rather than simply a permanent pain.

If we want to overcome productively our collective trauma, we must have a broad and free public discussion of the Khojaly events, which will create the conditions for the appearance of new and more thoughtful interpretations and also for sincere and convincing histories focusing on individual human beings, their sufferings, emotions, and feelings and that will be capable of “awakening” the conscience of others.  Until now, the treatment of the Khojaly events, in the main, has been expressed in two forms: the formal and the emotional.  Rarely do texts contain both, but precisely such forms of presentation are the most effective, and on us lies responsibility to expose the wolves in sheep’s clothing that operate under the banner of Armenian nationalism.

International organizations need to display greater skepticism to the stereotypes, prejudices, and geopolitical and economic calculations which often form the basis for judgments about crimes.  No geopolitical system can replace or diminish the moral obligations and laws of human conscience.  Crimes must be punished and criminals must be judged.  Otherwise, shameful situations may arise when such people will have the chance to speak again from the tribunes of authoritative organizations.

[1] For the text of the speech (in Russian), see http://517design.livejournal.com/375395.html (accessed 25 February 2010).

Garagozov, Rauf (2008) “Collective memory: Patterns and Manifestations, Part 2”,  Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, Vol. 46, No. 2, March-April, pp.3-97.

Smolowe, Jill and Zarakhovich, Yuri (1992) “Tragedy Massacre in Khojaly”, Time, 16 March, available at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,975096,00.html (accessed 25 February 2010). 

The New York Times (1992) “Massacre by Armenians Being Reported”, The New York Times, 3 March, p. A3, available at http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/03/world/massacre-by-armenians-being-reported.html (accessed 25 February 2010).

Waal de, Thomas (2005) Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War, Russian edition, Moscow: Tekst.