Vienna, February 26 – Sixteen years ago today, Armenian forces, supported by Russian units based in nearby Khankendi, bombarded and seized the town of Khojali in western Azerbaijan, killed 613 of its residents, expelled the remainder, and then destroyed the infrastructure of what had been a peaceful wine-making center.
That event, the most bloody single day in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, immediately and since has done more than almost anything else to inflame Azerbaijani feelings, defining the meaning of their struggle and the image of the enemy in much the same way Guernica, Bataan and Malmedy did for others in earlier conflicts.
But until this year, recollections of this tragedy have been largely if not exclusively confined to Azerbaijanis and a few human rights groups, a situation many Azerbaijanis believe has weakened their cause given the ability of Armenia to attract attention to the losses of that community.
Now, however, as a result of the efforts of the Azerbaijani government and Azerbaijanis living abroad, people and governments in more than 70 countries are commemorating Khojali, a development that not only corrects a historic injustice but one that inevitably will have an impact on the resolution of the Karabakh conflict.
At the time of the massacre, Khojali attracted a certain amount of international attention, but the mix of Azerbaijani reports and Armenian and Russian denials led many to conclude that this was just one link in a single chain, generally lost in the fog of war (http://www.day.az/news/society/109472.html).
But over the next few months, as international attention turned to other events and to the larger competition between territorial integrity and national self-determination that the Karabakh issue involves, Azerbaijani scholars documented the particular horrors of Khojali.
Then, in 1994, President Heydar Aliyev declared the anniversary of Khojali to be a national day of mourning, and it has been one ever since, with officials, scholars, school children and ordinary citizens marking this event with ceremonies, films, books, and other expressions of public outrage.
Over the next decade, Azerbaijanis abroad and a few foreign governments added their voices to these cries of human hearts about an action so horrific that it stands out not only on the background of the viciousness of the Karabakh conflict but even in the long history of man’s inhumanity to man (http://www.azerizv.az/article.php?id=12661).
Now, as a result of Baku’s growing understanding of the power of events like Khojali to change the nature of the debate and the expanding activities of its diplomats and diaspora, ever more countries are commemorating the anniversary of this tragedy (http://mosaz.ru/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2487&Itemid=26).
Parliaments in Israel, Turkey and several European countries are discussing Khojali this week. International meetings of human rights activists in London, New York and Paris are also talking about it. And as a result, there have been more commentaries about Khojali and its meaning in the media than any time since 1992.
And as various officials and opinion leaders focus on this issue, often viewing pictures of the victims of massacre itself, they are seeing the Karabakh dispute in a new way, not in terms of abstract principles but in more immediate human terms, something that worked to Armenia’s advantage in the past but now be working for Azerbaijan’s.
To the extent that trend continues – and those who have been exposed what took place in Khojali are unlikely to forget it – that long ago act of violence may change the course of political history in the southern Caucasus more radically than almost anything else either those immediately involved or outside powers could do.