This report addresses the events that happened in Nagorno-Karabakh in late February – March 1992, related to the storm and taking of the settlement of Khojaly by Armenian forces, an event that had a huge impact on the situation in Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh in the military, political and moral aspects.
The report used materials collected by observers of Memorial society in 1991-1992, who visited the zone of conflict, media reports, materials provided to Memorial by official representatives of the conflicting parties, and testimony of independent witnesses.
Observers of Memorial society collected information in Nagorno-Karabakh on both sides of the frontline from 07.03 to 05.04.92: they recorded interrogations of affected residents of Khojaly (geographical names are presented by the 1988 maps), talked to officials in Baku, Stepanakert, Aghdam, received information from Prosecutor General's Office and Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Azerbaijan Republic, interrogated doctors in hospitals in Baku and Stepanakert, as well as in the military ambulance train in Aghdam (there are officially certified case records of some wounded and affected), talked to hostages and prisoners (both on the Armenian and Azerbaijani side), to members of military formations, including those who participated in the storm of Khojaly, carried out direct visual inspection of the terrain in the area of Khojaly and Aghdam.
In the summer of 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict entered the stage of open war. Following the failure of the August putsch in conditions of paralysis of the Union authorities, and then the collapse of the USSR, Armenian forces launched offensives to liberate the Armenian villages of Nagorno-Karabakh deported in May-July 1991. Several villages in the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) and in the former Shahumyan region of Azerbaijan were liberated during the autumn. Azerbaijani units, leaving those villages, set them on fire in a number of cases.
At the same time, as a result of military operations by Armenian forces, residents of Azerbaijani villages had to leave. Those were the villages of Bashgeshlag, Shefek, Zeyva, Todan in the former Shahumyan region, Tug, Salakatin in Hadrut region of NKAO, Imeret-Gerevent in Martakert region of NKAO, Jamilli, Lesnoe (Meshali) in Askeran region of NKAO, Khojavend, Divanlar in Martuni region of NKAO. Some villages, for instance, Imeret-Gerevent, were burnt by the attackers. Several thousands of Azerbaijanis left the places of their residence (not counting the Azerbaijanis who were settled in Armenian villages deported earlier). In some cases, violence was used against civilians (for example, in the village of Meshali).
- From late September, residential districts of Stepanakert and Shushi were regularly shelled by artillery and Alazan modified anti-hail rockets. Stepanakert had much more civilian victims and destructions than Shushi. The explanation is in Stepanakert's location in the valley and higher intensity of shelling from Shushi. The intensity of shelling from the Azerbaijani side is to a great extent explained by the fact that the ammunition was received from the CIS army depots taken under control by Azerbaijani units (thus, 200,000 tons of ammunition was seized in Aghdam; in the words of colonel V. Simonov, cited by Moskovskie Novosti (Moscow News) newspaper on April 26, 1992, there were about 200 wagons of missiles there).
- On January 13, 1992, the Azerbaijani side for the first time used Grad multiple rocket launcher to shell the town of Shahumyanovsk (earlier the rocket launchers and shells belonged to the Soviet Army). Unlike the Alazan rockets that have a small hitting range, making it practically impossible to open aimed fire, Grad is intended for hitting large spaces and its rockets have a big destructive force. Starting from February, Grad began to be used to shell residential districts of Stepanakert. That resulted in huge destructions, the people practically lived in basements. (According to the NKR Ministry of Internal Affairs, 227 people were killed on the Armenian side in Nagorno-Karabakh from January 1 to March 17, 1992, 391 were wounded, 477 residential houses and state entities were destroyed, 487 residential houses and state entities were damaged. The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan made no analogous calculation).
- During the next offensive in late January, the Azerbaijanis occupied two Armenian villages, Farukh and Khramort. Independent observer A. Chechina was there at the time of fighting for the villages. Those defending themselves along with the majority of the civilians had to move away to the mountains. Chechina witnessed Khramort being plundered and the property being taken out by cars. Armenian forces retook those villages at night. Azerbaijani forces destroyed and burnt Khramort while retreating; six bodies of old men (men and women), residents of Khramort, were found in the village. They failed or did not want to flee the village. Chechina personally saw the mutilated bodies.
- The road connecting Stepanakert and Askeran and then leading to big Azerbaijani town Aghdam passes through Khojaly. The only airport of Nagorno-Karabakh is located near Khojaly. Since 1988, Khojaly has repeatedly become an epicenter of conflict. The Armenian side has repeatedly opposed the Azerbaijani authorities carrying out intensive construction there and settling Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia, as well as Meskhetian Turks. It considered that those were purposeful actions that aimed to change the demographic situation in the region. The population of the settlement increased from 2,135 people in 1988 to 6,300 people in 1991, including at the expense of Azerbaijani refugees from Stepanakert and some other settlements of Nagorno-Karabakh. Khojaly received the status of town. Azerbaijani Ministry of Internal Affairs Special Purpose Police Unit (OMON) was deployed in the town. It controlled the airport from 1990. There are many testimonies about violence and humiliation by OMON members towards Armenian passengers and pilots while the airport was operating.
From the autumn of 1991, Khojaly was practically blockaded by Armenian troops and after the internal troops were withdrawn from Nagorno-Karabakh, it appeared in full blockade. Electricity supply to Khojaly was stopped from January 1992. Some residents left the blockaded town, but the complete evacuation of civilians was not implemented in spite of persistent requests of head of Khojaly executive power E. Mammadov.
Storm of Khojaly
- 2,000-4,000 residents were in Khojaly by the time of the storm, including several hundreds of defenders of the town. Khojaly was defended by members of the militia, members of Azerbaijani OMON and soldiers of Azerbaijan's national army. According to reports from both sides, there were three tanks and one Alazan in the town. In the words of participants of the storm and NKR officials, there were also two Grad multiple rocket launchers in Khojaly.
- Units of National Liberation Army of Artsakh participated in the storm. They used armored equipment – armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles and tanks.
- Participation of the 366th regiment of the Soviet Army. As practically all refugees from Khojaly said, servicemen of the 366th regiment participated in the storm and some of them entered the town.
- According to reports from the Armenian side, combat vehicles of the 366th regiment participated in the storm. They shot at Khojaly but did not enter the town. According to the Armenian side, the servicemen's participation in the military operation was not authorized by a written order of the regiment command.
- Course of the storm. The shelling of Khojaly started around 11:00pm on February 25. The barracks, in the heart of the residential district, and defense outposts were destroyed first of all. Infantry units entered the town from 1:00am to 4:00am on February 26.
- According to reports from Armenian forces, the resistance throughout the Khojaly garrison was broken soon. The destructions in Khojaly confirm the fact of shelling, rather than street fighting.
- Some civilians began leaving Khojaly shortly after the storm started. They tried to escape to Aghdam. Some of the groups included armed people from the town garrison.
- The people were leaving in two directions:
1) from the eastern outskirts of the town to the northeast along the riverbed, with Askeran left on the left (this route was left as a "free corridor," according to Armenian officials);
2) from the northern outskirts of the town to northeast, with Askeran left on the right (evidently, fewer refugees went that way).
So, the majority of civilians left Khojaly, with some 200-300 people staying in the town, hiding in their houses and basements.
- An unknown number of civilians were killed in Khojaly when the town was shelled during the storm. The Armenian side practically refused to provide information about the number of people who died this way. (According to Gulfstream cameraman I. Burgansky, who was near Khojaly on February 26, most of civilians were killed by mortar fire by the garrison holding the line, but the reliability of the report is doubtable as most of the circumstances of the storm described by Burgansky do not agree with the information received from other sources).
"Free corridor" for exit of civilians
- In Aghdam and Baku, Memorial observers interrogated 60 people who had fled Khojaly during the storm. Only one person said that he knew about the "free corridor" (he was informed about it by a "serviceman" from the Khojaly garrison). The detained residents of Khojaly with whom Memorial observers had a talk in the presence of MP R. Hayrikyan in Stepanakert were unaware of the "free corridor" either (the interview was recorded by an Armenian television cameraman).
- Several days before the storm, representatives of the Armenian side repeatedly, by radio, informed the Khojaly authorities about the forthcoming storm and called on them to immediately evacuate the whole population from the town. The fact that the Azerbaijani side received this information and conveyed it to Baku is confirmed by reports in Baku newspapers (Bakinskiy Rabochiy). The following statement of head of Khojaly executive power Elman Mammadov, cited by Russkaya Mysl newspaper (April 3, 1992), also points to the existence of the "corridor:" "We knew that the corridor was intended for the exit of civilians…" [testimonies of Azerbaijanis which "were not noticed" by Memorial: Xocali.net]
Fate of Khojaly residents
- Fate of the civilians who fled the town. Shortly after the storm started, the civilians ran away from the town in panic. People had no time to take with them the most necessary things, many were lightly dressed (as a result, they suffered frostbite), many refugees interrogated in Baku and Aghdam had no documents.
- Some groups of refugees included armed people from the town garrison. These refugees, going through the "free corridor" on the territory close to Aghdam region of Azerbaijan, were shot and many people died. Those refugees who survived scattered. Those fleeing stumbled upon Armenian outposts and were shot. Some refugees managed to get to Aghdam; some, mainly women and children (the exact number is unknown), froze to death in the mountains; some were taken captive near the villages of Pirjamal and Nakhijevanik, according to those who escaped to Aghdam. Exchanged residents of Khojaly said that a number of captives were shot. [Journalist Viktoria Ivleva, who passed the whole way with the captured Khojaly civilians and was with them, did not mention that fact: Xocali.net].
- The place where the refugees died in great numbers, as well as the dead bodies were filmed when Azerbaijani units were transporting the bodies to Aghdam by helicopters. The records show that the dead bodies were scattered in a sizeable area. Bodies of women and elderly people were prevalent. There were also children among the dead. Also, there were people in uniform. In total, the videotape recorded several dozens of bodies.
- About 200 bodies were transported to Aghdam during four days. Several dozens of bodies had signs of mockery. Doctors of Aghdam ambulance train recorded at least four scalped bodies and one body with a cut-off head. A state forensic medical examination of 181 bodies was conducted in Aghdam (130 men, 51 women, including 13 children). According to experts, 151 people died from bullet wounds, 20 from shrapnel wounds, 10 people were hit by blunt objects. Besides, several bodies brought from Khojaly underwent a forensic medical examination in Baku. NKR officials informed Memorial observers that "with their permission, 120-130 bodies were taken to Aghdam." 96 bodies were buried in Aghdam, the remaining bodies were taken away by relatives.
- Official representatives of NKR and members of Armenian detachments explained the death of civilians in the zone of "free corridor" by the fact that armed people left along with the refugees, they shot at Armenian outposts and caused return fire, as well as by the Azerbaijani forces' attempt to break through. According to members of Armenian detachments, Azerbaijani forces attempted a breakthrough from Aghdam in the direction of the "free corridor." When the Armenian outposts were repelling the attack, the first groups of refugees from Khojaly approached them in the rear. The armed people who were among the refugees opened fire at Armenian outposts. One post was destroyed in the fight (2 people were killed, 10 were wounded), but the fighters of another post, about whose existence the Azerbaijanis did not know, opened fire from a close distance at people coming from Khojaly.
- According to testimony of refugees from Khojaly (including those published in the press), the armed people going together with the refugees exchanged fire with Armenian outposts, but the Armenian side opened fire first every time.
- Groups of refugees going by the second route (see Storm of Khojaly) and leaving Askeran on the right also came under fire.
- The register of Aghdam ambulance train, through which almost all affected civilians and defenders of Khojaly passed, registered 598 wounded and frostbitten people (the frostbitten people prevailed). It also recorded a case of scalping a live person.
- While estimating the total number of dead civilians of Khojaly it should be taken into account that the people died not only when the refugees were shot (some bodies of people who died this way were transported to Aghdam), but also froze to death while roaming in the mountains. Memorial observers talked to a woman whose three children died this way. It does not seem possible to determine the number of Khojaly civilians who froze to death. Newspaper Karabakh reported on March 26, 1992 that the commission for assistance to Khojaly refugees provided benefits to 476 families of the dead.
- The fate of the people who stayed in the town. When the town was occupied by Armenian forces, there were about 300 civilians, including 86 Meskhetian Turks, there.
- According to testimony of civilians, those who participated in the storm, NKR officials and representatives of media, who were near Khojaly at that time, all civilians who stayed in the town were captured and taken to Stepanakert within three days, to detention cell in Krasnoe Selo and isolation ward in Askeran. With the permission of the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership, some were taken by Armenian families whose relatives were in detention in Azerbaijan.
- According to NKR officials, all the women and children were handed over to the Azerbaijani side within one week. (Viktoria Ivleva also confirms this).
- According to reports from both sides, as of March 28, 1992, over 700 captured Khojaly civilians were transferred to the Azerbaijani side. They had been captured both in the town and on the way to Aghdam. Most of them were women and children.
Assessment of the information received
There was mass violence against civilians during the military operation to take Khojaly. (In our view, the evidence base of this thesis has insufficient facts: Xocali.net).
The declared provision of "free corridor" for the civilians' exit from Khojaly can be assessed either as deliberate actions by NKR officials to "cleanse" the town from its residents or as NKR authorities' admission that they are unable to ensure respect for human rights for civilians on the territory under their control, irrespective of their nationality. (The existence of the corridor was "declared" not only by NKR officials, it was also confirmed by the Azerbaijanis – both civilians and officials: Xocali.net).
The information about the existence of "free corridor" was not brought to the knowledge of the majority of Khojaly residents. (It represents a premeditated action by Azerbaijan: Xocali.net).
The civilians were deported from Khojaly after it was taken by Armenian forces. It was an organized action, many of the deportees were held in Stepanakert, which points to the fact that there was a respective order from the NKR authorities. (At that time, Stepanakert was the only settlement where it was possible to keep people, the rest of the settlements were plundered and devastated and unfit for living: Xocali.net).
Mass killing of civilians in the zone of "free corridor" and nearby cannot be justified by any circumstances. (It is beyond any doubt that the real perpetrators must be held responsible: Xocali.net).
Capture and holding "hostage" of Khojaly civilians, including women, clearly conflicts with the NKR authorities' declared readiness to transfer all Khojaly civilians to the Azerbaijani side. The "hostages" were held in extremely bad conditions, there was violence against the captured Khojaly civilians. (The report mentions the fact of quick transfer of women and children to the Azerbaijani side. It is strange that Memorial refutes its own statement several lines below: Xocali.net).
Khojaly residents were illegally deprived of their property, which was appropriated by residents of Stepanakert and nearby settlements. The NKR authorities legalized the embezzlement by issuing authorizations to occupy the houses that belonged to Khojaly residents who fled or were deported. (Abstracting away from a specific village and the fate of its residents, we would like to remind of the fate of Armenian-populated villages and their residents: Xocali.net).
Soldiers of the 366th motorized rifle regiment of CIS forces took part in the storm of Khojaly. Human Rights Center Memorial believes that the participation of CIS soldiers in military operations in the zone of conflict and the transfer of military equipment to the conflicting sides need to be investigated. (link – Xocali.net).
Human Rights Center Memorial states that during the storm of Khojaly, the actions of Armenian forces of Nagorno-Karabakh against residents of Khojaly flagrantly conflict with the Geneva Convention as well as with several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948).