Idaho-based Armenian-American activist and entrepreneur Liyah Babayan, a native of Baku, has released her first book, Liminal: a refugee memoir. Based around journal entries written by her at a young age and documenting her family’s escape from the ethnic killings of Armenians in Baku, Azerbaijan, Liminal takes readers into Babayan’s childhood perspective of war and violence during her most formative years, as well as her personal experience of how becoming a refugee shaped her. Below is an excerpt from Liminal, provided by the author, recounting the horrors surrounding Babayan’s aunt’s murder during the pogroms. Liminal is now available in paperback on Amazon.
“Every time I brush my teeth I remember her, I see her. My flashbacks and nightmares begin and end with Lola.”—Journal entry, age 15
The pogroms in Baku reached their peak in January 1990. From January 12, a seven-day pogrom broke out against the Armenian civilian population. Thousands did not escape and fell victim to the organized mobs rioting, torturing, raping, dismembering and killing of Armenian men, women, the elderly and children. The mobs were prepared with maps of Armenian neighborhoods and communicated with each other using hand held radios. The phone lines in the Armenian neighborhoods were cut and Armenians were instructed to stay home by their employers. The anti-Armenian pogroms lasted seven days until the Soviet Troops were deployed into the city. To be an Armenian in January 1990 in Baku was a death sentence. This ethnic genocide in Baku of Armenians is known as Black January.
Relatives and neighbors could be heard screaming for help as they were beaten, robbed, and raped during the Baku pogroms in January. Women were stripped and forced to dance naked in the streets then, beaten or killed. Women in the maternity hospital were attacked, stabbed and their unborn ripped out of their wombs and killed. Out in the open streets, bystanders and police watched Armenians being dismembered, beaten and set on fire alive. They watched as their remains were mutilated. Mass-distributed iron rods, knives and axes were used to break into homes in order to beat and kill Armenians. This was done without mercy for babies, children or the elderly. Our departed loved ones were not left without violence, their tombstones were vandalized, defaced and destroyed in the Baku Armenian cemetery. Whose religion allows this dishonor?
My aunt Lola was working for a military office and was living at our grandparent’s apartment of the eighth floor. My grandparent’s address was Rosa Luxemburg #19, 8th floor, home #21. Their house was packed; my grandmother was making arrangements to ship their belongings. My grandfather was on work assignment providing humanitarian aid to the Earthquake victims in Armenia. My uncle was stuck in St. Petersburg; no planes or trains were traveling to Baku due to the reported pogroms.
On January 13, the mobs were sweeping through the neighborhoods looking for apartments and homes marked previously with crosses, symbolizing where Christian Armenians lived. If anyone called the police, if their phone was on, the dispatch would say the police are on their way. The police would never show up, instead the mobs of men were tipped off where Armenians were calling in from. The mob entered my grandparent’s apartment complex, dragged and beat an Armenian man to death who lived a few floors above my grandparent’s floor. On January 11, my Mama spoke to my aunt Lola, my uncle’s wife, who was staying at my grandparent’s home, with concern about the dangers of increasing anti-Armenian violence in Baku. Lola said she was not going in to work, that she was told to stay home. This was the last time we would hear from her.
The day we found out about what happened to Lola seems so unreal, even after all these years. It replays in my mind. No matter how hard I try not to think about it, her death still haunts me. How could someone do such a thing? Commit such a hateful and inhumane crime against a young woman, a new mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s wife and innocent human. I first heard my uncle Abo, my Mama’s sister’s husband, say that Lola has been killed when he came home from work. He had to sit down because he could not handle even uttering the words to the rest of the family.
My aunt Lola was home alone when she heard the mob of men outside her door. The men broke down the door into the apartment as the neighbors just watched and no one did anything to intervene. As she screamed from the eighth floor for help, they tortured, raped and beat her. Then, while she was still alive, they threw her out of the eighth floor balcony into the streets. They left her to suffer and hold on to whatever little life that was still in her. Out of everyone in the street, and in the apartment complex, no one called for help or gave her medical assistance.
Some official documents stated cause of death as “head trauma, bleeding” while other documents fabricated dates and egregiously listed “natural cause of death” as the manner in which her life was removed from her. However, witnesses gave full detail about the brutal torture, rape, and beatings of her and other Armenians in the building. The Azerbaijan government falsified death certificates, spreading the dates of the deceased during the Baku pogroms. They wanted to hide any evidence of concentrated numbers of mass murders and ethnic killings taking place in Baku during that week.
My grandmother, under a fake Russian name and passport, was escorted back to Baku, to her house after the January pogroms. She entered the house and saw with her eyes where the violence had taken place. With the help of the KGB, she acquired official government documents, accounting the injuries, and the evidence of the torture our aunt Lola suffered and died from. The KGB investigator issued a document, noting the beatings, bruises on her legs, cigarette burns and markings on her body, and extreme impact to her skull from being thrown off the 8th floor balcony.
The Azerbaijan government would not allow our family to take her body. Her work colleagues assured our family that they gave her a proper burial, but we will never know. My uncle’s heart was forever left with an open wound after losing the love of his life. My cousin Elona was left motherless. Our aunt was murdered in cold blood. Our family was left without closure and without the honorable burial our culture demands for our loved ones. The Azerbaijani government got away with these crimes against humanity. With Armenian blood on their guilty hands, they shake the hands of world leaders today.
The beatings, robberies, tortures, rapes and murders in Baku terrorized our human wholeness, psychologically, mentally, and spiritually. The terrorism we experienced, physically left us homeless and emotionally deformed. As children it killed our childhood, traumatizing us into our adulthood. It traumatized our parents, grandparents, our entire family. No one person in my family was unaffected by the violent pogroms in Baku. Our family stories are exchanges of sadness, loss and despair. We used to be very humorous and happy – a very happy family. Now, the sadness overshadows any happiness. We are just one family, there are tens of thousands of Armenian families from Azerbaijan with murdered family members.
Before, memories of my Aunt Lola were full of joy. Her kindness and beauty drew me to her as a little girl. Her soft spoken grace and easy going personality was pleasant to me. She taught me how to brush my teeth as a child, cupping my hand to bring water to my mouth. Every time I brush my teeth I remember her, I see her. Reliving this simple memory brings back the horror that took her away from our family. My flashbacks and nightmares begin and end with Lola. The triggers are as simple as a toothbrush; the memories feel just as real as when they happened. I cannot get rid of these thoughts and images repeating in my head.
We experienced the worst human evil possible at such a young age. We were robbed of normal parent-child memories that are sweet, safe and secure. We were children in the middle of this hell. All I wanted was to be a child. I wanted to have my parents, not their trauma, to raise me. Now our family is wounded. My family is not well. We are all wounded, emotionally hollow, permanently scattered, fragmented and stuck in our family trauma. We are all dead inside, even if we are alive still. We will not have closure until we have justice.