Azerbaijan Shouldn’t Exploit the Memory of Khojali Victims

...but neither should Armenians

Azerbaijani refugees from Khojali, 1992 (Photo: Ilgar Jafarov/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, I proposed a thought experiment to the readers of the Armenian Weekly. I argued that if Armenians are truly committed to the pursuit of justice for the Armenian Genocide on humanitarian grounds, our concerns should extend to all those placed in similar situations today.

This week, the Azerbaijani government provided me with a unique opportunity to demonstrate the true magnitude of self-serving cynicism that comes with selective humanitarian outrage.

The 26th of February marked 27 years since Armenian forces captured the strategic Azeri-held town of Khojali during the Karabakh War. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 161 Azeri civilians lost their lives during the assault. However, Armenian and Azeri sources greatly differ as to how.

Since the mid 2000s, the Azerbaijani government has ramped up efforts to exploit this tragedy to erode international sympathy for Armenia’s claim of Jus ad bellum in the war. This campaign, allegedly pursued in the name of human rights, could not have been more bizarre. Capitalizing on public ignorance of this obscure episode, Azerbaijan has spent a lot of treasure astroturfing an international awareness movement. Where “petro-diplomacy” or “caviar-diplomacy” failed, “stealth-diplomacy” kicked in. The Heydar Aliyev Foundation sponsored the construction of “Khojali Genocide” monuments under the noses of unsuspecting local officials under the guise of charitable city-park revitalization programs. This gamble rarely paid off.

The strategy’s second prong sprung on the internet. Dozens of websites dedicated to the tragedy have been flooding Google search algorithms with inflated accounts of atrocities, doctored photographs and calls to indict Armenian officials for war crimes.

Conspicuously missing from this well-funded, centrally-planned struggle for justice is the support from reputable human rights organizations. Lobbyists and petro-dollars are driving this human rights campaign.

Curiously, few of the passionate condemnations appearing on Twitter accounts tied to the Azerbaijani government spare a thought for the human element of the tragedy, only the geopolitical ramifications.

A tweet by Hikmet Hajiev, Azerbaijan’s head of Foreign Policy Affairs, perfectly illustrates the industrialized detachment with which this campaign is orchestrated. Without skipping a beat, Hajiev accuses Armenia of genocide, then calls for the withdrawal of Armenian troops from Artsakh; as if the two were intrinsically linked.


This sentiment betrays a sobering reality about this campaign. These activists are not concerned with justice for 161 innocent people. They’re interested in gaining a favorable position in the Karabakh settlement. Why accept a military defeat when you can condense the result of a brutal six-year war into the events of a six-hour long battle? The only cost is the memory of 161 victims (plus an additional 452 fictitious victims for good measure).

The use of the term “genocide” in this tweet is not incidental either. In the last decade, Baku’s propaganda has deliberately favored the “g-word” over “massacre” when referring to the incident.

The darker purpose of this nomenclatural shift is to imply false equivocation vis-à-vis the Armenian Genocide. Such a Tu quoque stance serves the double-objective of validating the Turkish government’s policy of denial while promoting a self-serving agenda. “What about the AZERI GENOCIDE?”

…[W]e fought a war to prove to ourselves that we are not like them.

Of course, there is a good reason why genocide scholars don’t take these claims seriously. Even if the most incongruous claims about the event were accepted as valid, it would still not meet the criteria for a genocide. Researchers have yet to uncover any evidence of clear “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Naturally, for Baku such pedantic taxonomic hindrances are inconsequential. As discussed last week, Turkish President Erdogan pioneered the reappropriation of the term “genocide” to mean “any violent act committed against any Turkic people regardless of magnitude, plausibility or intent.”

Indeed, the deafening silence coming from Baku over justice for the victims of the Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad pogroms sheds doubt on its commitment to the universal application justice. Despite frantic calls to bring Armenian officials to justice, no sentences have been passed on those who perpetrated Operation Ring or the gruesome massacre at Maraga (the victims of which, Baku considers to be its own citizens).

Disquietingly, the Azerbaijani government’s disregard for the memories of its own people in the pursuit of political gains attracts the unwitting complicity of Armenians as well. In refuting some of the wilder accusations over the tragedy or justifying certain actions, we run the risk of participating in the dehumanizing process of the real victims.

Most sources agree on a number of details about that fateful day. Azerbaijani forces had used the heights of Khojali to cruelly bombard Stepanakert making it a legitimate military target. Armenian forces offered ample warning to the civilian population about the impending assault and provided an evacuation corridor. Retreating Azeri forces may or may not have used civilians as human shields during the evacuation. Be it through deliberate fire or sheer carelessness, Armenian bullets cut down scores of unarmed civilians.

According to Human Rights Watch, one of only two reputable international organizations to investigate the event, despite the precautions, Armenian forces still bear some responsibility for what is effectively a war crime. “The attacking party [i.e., Karabakh Armenian forces] is still obliged to take precautionary measures to avoid or minimize civilian casualties,” they argued. Of course, Baku’s official recollection of the event tends to ignore the fact that Azeri forces’ use of human shields and deliberately keeping civilians in a conflict zone constitute an even more serious war crime.

In engaging in this political tit-for-tat, we participate in the undeserving dehumanization of the victims. They cease being real people and become statistics to be debated on internet forums.

In any event, the fact remains that scores of civilians saw their lives cut short during a vicious war in an act that replicated countless times across the numerous valleys of Artsakh far away from the judges in Geneva. Though it certainly doesn’t meet the definition of a “genocide,” it does meet that of a “tragedy” and should be commemorated as such.

In engaging in this political tit-for-tat, we participate in the undeserving dehumanization of the victims. They cease being real people and become statistics to be debated on internet forums. The tendency for government officials in Armenia to suggest false-flag conspiracy theories does little to boost sympathy for the Armenian position either.

This scenario would repeat itself decades later in 2017 when a little Azeri girl was killed by a stray artillery shell. When the Azerbaijani propaganda machine immediately went to work sharing photos of the child’s bloody body to milk the tragedy, Armenians took to pointing out that Azerbaijan deliberately placed artillery batteries in an inhabited village. Few spared a genuine thought for the life of a toddler, who became the latest victim of a war she was born 27 years too late to understand.

The Artsakh conflict was a just war. It was a necessary war. It brought redemption for a nation who suffered the greatest humiliation of all: genocide. Political strategists in Baku do not account for the human cost of their diplomatic calculations. They do not care about justice. If they truly did, they would agree to a joint commission with Armenia to re-investigate the Khojali tragedy AS WELL as those of Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad, Maraga, Kedashen and countless other tragedies. If they do not care about their own, then maybe Armenians should, or at the very least, not help them exploit it. After all, we fought a war to prove to ourselves that we are not like them.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.

11 Comments

  1. There was no Khojali genocide. To counteract the Armenian Genocide, Azerbaijan and Turkey have wildly inflated the number of casualties of that battle. For the truth about Khojali, go to: JAM news (“Anniversary of Khojaly tragedy in Azerbaijan”, Feb. 26, 2019) and see two comments by David Davidian and Jirair Tutunjian.

    • Jerry is right: The Khojali incident is a slanderous accusation and a hoax, for the reasons he stated, and much more. There’s even reason to believe that the Azeri-Turks massacred the several hundred Khojaly civilians whom were leaving Khojaly, because they were killed in an area near Agdam, which was still within Azerbaijan’s zone of control. Azerbaijan found it easy to get their men in there to photograph the area of the massacre, because it was still controlled by their forces.

      Some of Harut Sassounian’s articles which document much of the slander, lie, fraud and venomous propaganda which has been exported from Azerbaijan. It has been in their character to slanderously lie about Armenians, since before the USSR was dissolved in 1991.

      I remember those years, before the Armenian Victory at Khojaly, in 1992, marked an important turning point in the Karabakh War (1988-1994). There was what was close to a news blackout about the war, and ethnic disputes over the region. The New York Times did provide brief blurb type summaries of the events, without any real details, and the BBC World Service did the same (with a little more detail).

      The People of Azerbaijan undeniably perpetrated pogrom type massacres at Sumgait (1988), Kirovabad (1988), and Baku (1990), then there was the massacre and looting perpetrated against Armenians at Maragha (1992); unfortunately, all of those were buried deep, and went nearly unnoticed; on the other hand, the incident at Khojaly got overnight widespread coverage from newspapers and magazines everywhere, with pictures of the carnage on Newsweek and Time Magazine Covers.

      Baku Azerbaijan was already using its connections to export propaganda about Khojaly worldwide, in 1992, and they’ve only sharpened and expanded their export projects for other things, as well as Khojaly. Azerbaijan uses Turkey’s influential position and NATO connections, as well as their own petrol oil exports to fuel their propaganda machine in the information war. In this respect,

      Armenians haven’t done enough to debunk Azerbaijan’s malicious lies.

  2. Hey Raffi,
    That’s called politics where do you come from mars. What do you expect the Azeris to do feel sorry for us. Actually we are to blame for that a bunch of kabab eating jerks who don’t even know the meaning of being a Sovereign government or state on the world stage. Still living in the past as servants of Turkish or Russian colonization.

  3. The khojaly incident has nothing to do with Armenians. It is the biggest lie of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over the formerly occupied ancient Armenian province of Artsakh, falsely referred to as karabakh, by the artificial Azerbaijan republic invented by the Soviets and their criminal Turkish collaborators a century ago on occupied Armenian lands as a Turkish outpost in the South Caucasus to pursue the failed pan-Turkic agenda, that is the elimination of Armenian kingdom off the map, and as a base for Soviet expansion into Persia and the Middle East.

    This incident was the work of the Islamo-fascist Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF) which used civilians as human shields towards a political goal. The goal was to use this incident to overthrow the first post-Soviet Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov to take control of his government and to blame the Armenians for the act. As a result, the president was deposed and found refuge in Russia. In an interview he clearly put the blame for this incident on the APF.

    The Armenian forces had given warnings and plenty of time to the town residents to evacuate before they entered the town to eradicate the Azerbaijani terrorist fighters there. A safe passage was also opened for evacuation and many had already left with no incident. The APF denied exit to the remaining residents and used them as human shields as Armenians moved in to eliminate these terrorists. In the chaos of the battle APF fighters also fired at the civilians escaping thinking they are Armenians. They used their own people to achieve their political aim which they did. One must be a fool to even pay attention, let alone believe, what racist and anti-Armenian Azerbaijani leadership has fabricated to divert attention from humiliating defeat in the battlefield. This is nothing but a ruse to paint Armenians as criminals when in fact Armenians fought the Azerbaijani criminals to liberate a piece of Armenian homeland from fascist and artificial Azerbaijan republic occupation for seventy years since it was illegally given away by Soviet criminals in 1921.

    The genocidal Turkey today is not only conducting a Turkish proxy war on the Armenians through fascist Azerbaijan but it is also using this fabricated story to divert attention from the mass extermination of 1,500,000 indigenous Armenians in 1915 and the confiscation of Western Armenian homeland (90% of total Armenian landmass) to invent the fascist republic of Turkey on occupied Western Armenian homeland in 1923. Two terrorist states, one invented through genocide by non-native Central Asian Turks, and the other artificially invented on occupied Eastern Armenian homeland in 1918 for the former homeless Caucasian Muslim Tatars!

    P.S. We must demand justice for all the Armenian civilians brutally murdered, corpses burnt and decapitated by racist Azerbaijani criminals in:

    Sumgait – 1988
    Kirovabad – 1988
    Baku – 1990
    Maragha – 1992

  4. A few weeks ago an op ed article appeared in the Jerusalem Post about this same incident, the Khojaly massacre. It was written by a certain Aryeh Gut who seems to be a regular pro-Azeri journalist. I did not see any response in the JPost from any pro-Armenian author. Why did not somebody from your staff or one of the Armenians living in Jerusalem write a response to Gut’s piece? The JPost likes to publish a variety of opinion pieces. They don’t pay but that isn’t important for you, is it?

    • That’s a question for Armenian authors to answer and I would like to know it too. Perhaps they already know this unscrupulous charlatan is in the pockets of the corrupt and criminal Azerbaijani leadership and could care less about what he says. Anti-Armenian Azerbaijani leaders are well-known for doling out petrodollars to anyone who is willing to print nonsense about Armenians and be the mouthpiece for their racist lies. But the more important question than that, and reasons to explore, should be why is it that this guy is so concerned about the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict so far away from home when he should instead be much more concerned about issues very close to home that have been going on for over half a century? He has no credibility. If he has any credibility why doesn’t he write about the mass extermination of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of genocidal Turks who today are busy conducting a proxy war on the Armenians through Azerbaijan, their criminal collaborator, for tenaciously pursuing the Armenian Genocide recognition in international arena and exploiting the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict to get back at Armenians because they have no other avenues to show their filthy Turkish character.

      Why doesn’t he write about the hypocrisy of the Israeli leaders who to this day refuse to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide despite all the moral condemnations they have received from their own people and intellectuals over the years? That they play political Ping-Pong with the Armenian tragedy. When their relations are fine with the Turks the Armenian issue is non-existant. But when their relations sour with the Turks they all of a sudden have a moral epiphany and use the Armenian Genocide to get back at the Turks. Why doesn’t he write about the fact that of all the nations in the world, Israel should have been the first to come forward and acknowledge this crime because what happened to Armenians in 1915 happened to their people a quarter century later. Why doesn’t he write about the recent $1.1 billion dollars’ worth of deadly weapons sold to Azerbaijan by Israelis which clearly is and will be used against none other than Armenians?

      I personally believe all this anti-Armenian nonsense has to do with friendly relations between Armenia and Iran and in Azerbaijanis he has found an Armenian enemy to exploit. He could care less about Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. He is more concerned about painting a bad picture of Armenia for having close relations with Iran. But this friendly relation between the two nations is nothing new and it has exisred throughout history. Such friendly relations between the two nations is even more important today than ever before because Armenia has been blockaded on both sides illegally by genocidal Turkey and by artificial Azerbaijan and Iran is the only stable outlet for Armenia since pro-Turkish Georgians can’t be relied on. It is no secret that Iran and Israel are arch enemies today so anyone who has any friendly relations with Iran has to be defaced. But regardless of what this scoundrel has to say about Armenia in favor of artificial Azerbaijan, in return for petrodollars, has no weight outside of Turkey and Azerbaijan and that’s why this unknown and insignificant duplicitous charlatan can only have exposure in anti-Armenian Turkish media to spew his nonsense. Any other media that would allow such one-sided filth by this nobody to be printed, their credibility should be questioned as well.

  5. It comes from the ridiculous Turkic mentality that the Armenian Genocide is a lie and they think if Armenians managed to “fabricate” their genocide then we can do the same. I know this will sound very bizarre but, despite the Azeri hatred towards Armenians, they actually love copying Armenians in almost every thing and this is not exception. The best way to fight propaganda is to be objective and reveal the truth, even if that truth might not fully serve your interests. The Armenian response so far has been either ignoring the Azeri propaganda or outright denial of any kind of responsibility. I think neither approach helps. We need to have committees both as part of foreign ministry and at parliamentary level to tackle this problem. The goal should not be to merely counter Azeri propaganda but to uncover the whole truth even if that means admitting some responsibility for the death of the few dozen Azeris who where used as human shield by their own soldiers. It is this kind of unbiased approach, preferably with the participation of impartial non-Armenian reputable organizations or individuals that will kill this Khojali “genocide” case once and for all.

  6. Ararat,

    Over here in Yerevan, earlier today, while watching the TV news, I saw highlights of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s visit to Tehran. He had also gone to visit Tehran’s Armenian community; and while delivering a speech to a large crowd of Armenians at a gymnasium in Tehran, they were all waving their Armenian flags. It was indeed a very pretty site.

    And what could possibly be the objective of that one particular commentator (who certainly isn’t Armenian) who is attempting to lure Armenian writers to go over to the Jerusalem Post? Why should an Armenian writer squander his or her precious time on an Israeli/Jewish website? Furthermore, Israel has recently become a supporter of Azerbaijan’s hilarious “Khojaly genocide” claim. By supporting this horribly silly claim, Israel is therefore attempting to minimize the significance of the Armenian Genocide (the first major genocide of the 20th century, as well as the first modern genocide in world history).

    What about those Jewish-American organizations, who for so many years, aggressively and successfully assisted Turkey in squashing any kind of Armenian Genocide public recognition by the United States government?

    What about Israel’s sale of at least five billion dollars worth of highly sophisticated military weapons to Azerbaijan? This therefore makes Israel an accessory to Azerbaijan’s continuous, brutal campaign of terrorism, directed against Armenia and Artsakh (in which so many precious Armenian soldiers have been killed by Israeli military weapons).

    • Yerevanian,

      I agree with you. No Armenian should dignify that charlatan by responding to his nonsense in the mentioned website because like I said any media that would allow such anti-Armenian filth be printed on its website has no credibility. I have read several articles written by this scumbag and watched video clips of his interviews and in every single one of them you can tell he is a bold face liar and an agent of Azerbaijan and Israel. It is the policy of these states at the highest level to distort events and history and present as facts against anyone and any nation that is not in-line with their interests and foreign policy in the region.

      I have no doubt this filthy character will sell his soul for a petrodollar and even though I agree with you that he should be ignored I still would not mind to see our intellectuals put him in his place and to reduce him to the dirt under their feet. I say this because politically illiterate and brainwashed majority Azerbaijanis, unlike most Armenians, will accept as fact anything negative and insulting that is spewed against Armenians by anyone and the reason for that, I believe, is the fact that to this day they are unable to digest the humiliation and the defeat handed to them by dedicated and patriotic Armenians in the battlefield.

      They say an apple does not fall far from the tree and this dirt bag surely is one of those rotten apples because he is the mouthpiece for the states he represents and will stoop to the lowest level to intentionally and deliberately denigrate any nation and state that does not follow their story line and is, in any capacity, associated with those they consider as their enemies yet they consider themselves exempt from what they preach to others!

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