On Jan. 28, addressing the United Nations General Assembly on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Reuven Rivlin of Israel said: “On this day we must ask ourselves honestly, is our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing in Khojaly? … Are we shedding too many tears, and taking too little action?”
The town of Khojaly that Rivlin referred to might sound unfamiliar to some. But Khojaly was the scene of one of the most horrific tragedies in modern European history.
Twenty-three years ago, I watched in horror as TV screens in Azerbaijan showed the aftermath of a brutal event: dead women, children and elderly, mutilated bodies, frozen corpses scattered across the ground. This shocking footage was taken at the site of the Khojaly massacre. At least 613 Azerbaijani civilians, including up to 300 children, women and elderly, were ruthlessly murdered.
The massacre took place on Feb. 26, 1992, when Azerbaijani civilians, attempting to evacuate the town of Khojaly after coming under attack, were gunned down by Armenian troops as they fled towards the safety of Azerbaijani lines.
This brutal attack was not simply an accident of battle, it was part of Armenia’s deliberate policy of terror to intimidate others into fleeing the region, allowing Armenia’s army to occupy Nagorno-Karabakh and other regions of Azerbaijan. This was ethnic cleansing, pure and simple.
Such a calculated policy of terror was confirmed by the men in charge of it.
Serj Sargsyan, then one of the most senior Armenian military commanders and now the country’s president, told the British journalist Tom de Waal in 2000 that “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We needed to put a stop to all that. And that’s what happened.”
Ever since, Azerbaijan has striven for the Khojaly massacre to be recognized by the international community. And the world has responded: countries from Mexico to Peru and from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Colombia – as well as over 15 U.S. states, including Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New Mexico and Texas – have all recognized the Khojaly massacre and its brutality.
More than two decades after Khojaly, Armenia’s illegal occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory continues, and nearly 1 million Azerbaijani refugees remain uprooted. Armenia refuses to withdraw its forces from the occupied regions, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and in defiance of the international community.
This illegal occupation has not brought any benefits to Armenia – on the contrary, it has only weakened the country. Today Armenia is in dire straits. Its economy is quickly plummeting, it remains internationally isolated, and its population is dwindling as its desperate citizens flee the country to look for a better life abroad.
By contrast, Azerbaijan has undergone an impressive transformation from a weak, war-torn country to become the world’s fastest growing economy of the last decade and an island of stability in a turbulent region.
The country is a vital strategic partner for the United States, cooperating in the fight against terrorism, offering for more than 13 years a key transport corridor in support of American and other NATO troops in Afghanistan, and providing a much-needed independent supply of oil and, soon, natural gas for America’s European allies.
So Azerbaijan is looking toward the future. But neither the government nor Azerbaijani citizens can forget the tragedy of the Khojaly massacre. The perpetrators of this terrible act not only remain at large: many of them hold office and are feted as “war heroes” in Armenia, while justice for the victims of the massacre remains uncertain at best.
Azerbaijan will continue its long struggle to remember the innocent victims of Khojaly, and to increase the awareness about this tragedy in the eyes of the world so that such examples of callous human cruelty do not occur again.