Spring 2002 (10.1)
Account From the Following Day (1992)
by Thomas Goltz
Goltz (same article below)
(magazine format) PDF 1.2 MB
See articles about Khojali by
Khojali: A Decade of Useless
War Remembered (AI 10.1, Spring 2001)
(AI 13.1, Spring 2005)
Years Later: Remember, But Be Sure to Preserve Your Souls
(AI 13.1, Spring 2005)
Khojali: How to Spell
"X-O-J-A-L-I"? (AI 10.1, Spring 2001)
Khojali: Quotes: Never
Forget Khojali and other Massacres by Photographer Reza (1999)
the Horrors of Karabakh: Chingiz Mustafayev
by Vahid Mustafayev (AI 7.3, Autumn 1999)
Documented in U.S. Congressional Record by Dan Burton (AI 13.1, Spring 2005)
Journalist Thomas Goltz was the first
to break the story of the Khojali massacre in the international
press when his February 27, 1992 article appeared in the Washington
Post. The day after the massacre, Goltz had visited the neighboring
city of Aghdam (estimated population 60,000) and witnessed the
Khojali survivors straggling in with tales of the horror that
they had just passed through. It's a tragic memory that will
never leave him, and a story that we think the world deserves
The following chapter, entitled "Khojali", is from
Goltz's book "Azerbaijan Diary" (M.E. Sharpe, 1998,
Armonk, NY). It appears here in Azerbaijan International with
the author's permission, in a slightly abridged form.
Above: Refugees from the Karabakh War, frantic
to get away from the invading Armenian troops. In their haste,
they had to leave almost all of their possessions behind. Scores,
hundreds, possibly even a thousand had been slaughtered in a
turkey-shoot of civilians and their handful of defenders. Aside
from counting every corpse, there was no way to tell how many
had died. Most of the bodies remained inaccessible, in the no-man's
land between the lines that had become a killing zone and a picnic
February 26th, 1992 seemed like a regular working day. Iranian
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati was back in Baku to finally
bestow diplomatic recognition on Azerbaijan, as well as to respond
to the recent comments by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker
III about the growing threat of Iranian influence in the Caucasus
and Central Asia.
The wiry Iranian emissary insisted that
it was not the Islamic Republic of Iran that posed a threat to
the region, but rather the United States of America. In addition
to being the country most responsible for the continued bloodshed
throughout the world, it was America, he proposed, that was actively
fomenting the conflict in Karabakh. By way of contrast, he noted
that the Islamic Republic was interested in peace between nations
and peoples. To that end, Dr. Velayati had brought a peace plan
for the increasingly bloody and senseless conflict in Karabakh
- and one that both Armenia and Azerbaijan had agreed to sign.
He himself was planning to visit Karabakh the next day.
Above: Karabakh's mountainous terrain proved
difficult for Azerbaijani troops, shown here in their Soviet
That was news. I was getting ready to file a story with the Washington
Post when Hijran, my wife, came rushing in. She had been on the
telephone with the Popular Front and had heard some very distressing
news. Sources in Aghdam were reporting a stream of Azeri refugees
filling the streets of the city, fleeing a massive attack in
There had been many exaggerated reports about the conflict from
both sides. I wondered if this was just another example, but
I thought it best to start working the phone. Strangely, no one
in the government answered. Perhaps they were all at the Gulistan
Palace having dinner with the Iranian delegation. I waited a
while, and then started trying to contact people at home. Around
midnight, I got through to Vafa Guluzade [an advisor to President
"Sorry for calling so late," I apologized. "But
what about this rumor"
"I can't talk about it," said Vafa, cutting me off
and hanging up.
An ominous feeling filled my gut. Vafa was usually polite - to
a fault. Perhaps he had been sleeping? I decided to call back
again anyway, but the number stayed busy for the next half hour.
Maybe he had left the phone off the hook, I thought. I made one
last effort. Finally, the call got through.
"Vafa," I said, again apologizing. "What's going
"Something terrible has happened," he groaned.
"There's been a massacre," he said.
"In Karabakh, a town called Khojali," he said, and
then he hung up the phone again.
I had been there before. Twice, in fact. The first time was in
September , when a number of reporters and I had staked
out the airport waiting for Russian President Boris Yeltsin to
come through. The last time had been just a month before - in
January 1992. By that time the only way to get to Khojali was
by helicopter because the Armenians had severed the road link
to Aghdam. I remembered that little adventure all too well.
Skeptical of the many reports coming from the Armenian side that
the Azeris were massively armed and that their helicopters were
"buzzing" Armenian villages, I had traveled to Aghdam
with Journalist Hugh Pope, then of the [London] Independent to
chat with refugees about their situation.
Refugees were easy to find in Aghdam. In fact, they were all
over the place. The greatest concentration was at the local airfield
for the simple reason that many of the refugees were tired of
being refugees: they wanted to go back home to Khojali. Pride
had overpowered their common sense. One was a 35-year-old mother
of four by the name of Zumrud Eyvazova. When I asked why she
was returning, she said it was better "to die in Karabakh
than beg in the streets of Aghdam."
"Why can't the government open the road?" shouted Zumrud
in my ear over the roar of the nearby chopper's engines, "Why
are they making us fly in like ducks-easy targets to shoot at?"
I didn't have an answer.
Then someone lurched toward me from across the airfield. It was
Arif Hajiyev, Commander of Airport Security at Khojali and the
gentleman who had saved us from the Aghdam drunks during Yeltsin's
visit three months earlier. He had been pretty chipper then,
but despite the broad smile that he gave me, I could see that
it was no longer fun and games. I asked him how the situation
was in his hometown.
"Come on," said Hajiyev. "Let's go to Khojali
- you'll see for yourself and you can write the truth-if you
Behind him an MI-8 helicopter waited, its blades slowly turning.
A mass of refugees were clawing their way aboard. The chopper
was already dangerously overloaded with people and foodstuffs.
There was even more luggage waiting on the tarmac, including
a rusted 70mm cannon and various boxes of ammunition.
"I'm not going," said Pope, "I've got a wife and
The blades began spinning faster, and I had to make a quick decision.
"See you later," I said, wondering if I ever would.
I climbed on board, one of more than 50 people on a craft designed
for 24, in addition to the numerous munitions and provisions.
"This is insane," I remember telling myself. "There's
still time to get off."
And then it was too late. With a lurch, we lifted off and my
stomach rushed up to my ears. I could see Pope waving at me as
he walked off the field. Somehow I wished I had stayed behind
with him on "terra firma". The MI-8 wound its way up
to a flight altitude of 3,500 feet-high enough to sail over the
Asgaran Gap to Khojali and avoid Armenian ground fire. Two dozen
helicopters had been hit during the past two months. In November
, one helicopter had crashed, resulting in the deaths of
numerous top officials.
Another "bird" had been hit the week before. Even the
machine we were flying in had picked up a round in the fuel tank
just a week before. That's what the flight engineer told me.
Luckily, the fuel supply had been low and the bullet had come
in high. This was all so very reassuring to learn as we plugged
on through the Asgaran Gap, bucking headwinds and sleet.
Through breaks in the cloud cover I could see trucks and cars
on the roads below. They were Armenian machines, fueled by gas
and diesel brought in via their own air-bridge from Armenia (or,
perhaps, even purchased from Azeri war profiteers). Finally and
I should add, "mercifully", after a journey that seemed
to take hours but really only lasted maybe 20 minutes, we began
our circular descent to the Khojali airfield. Any one who has
ever been aboard such a flight can appreciate the relief I felt
when the wheels touched ground.
"I'm alive!" I wanted to shout, but thought it most
appropriate to stay cool and act like I did such things twice
"How do you feel?" Arif Hajiyev asked me.
"Normalno," I lied in Russian, cool as cake.
Meanwhile, the chopper was mobbed by residents - some coming
to greet loved ones who had returned, others trying to be the
first aboard for the helicopter's return trip. Everyone had gathered
to hear the most recent news about the rest of Azerbaijan - newspapers,
No phones were working in Khojali. In fact, nothing worked there.
No electricity. No heating oil. No running water. The only link
with the outside world was the helicopter that was under constant
threat with each run. The isolation of the place became all too
apparent as night fell. I joined Hajiyev and some of his men
in the makeshift mess hall of the tiny garrison, and while we
were dining by the light of flickering candlelight on Soviet
army Spam with raw onions and stale bread, he gave me what might
be called a front-line briefing.
The situation was bad and getting worse, a depressed Hajiyev
told me. The Armenians had taken all the outlying villages, one
by one, over the previous three months. Only two towns remained
in Azeri hands: Khojali and Shusha, and the road between them
had already been cut. While I knew the situation had been deteriorating,
I had no idea it was so bad.
"It's because you believe what they say in Baku," Arif
jeered. "We're being sold out. Utterly sold out!
"Baku could open the road to Aghdam in a day if the government
wanted to," he said. He now believed the government actually
wanted the Karabakh business to simmer on in order to distract
public attention while the elite continued to plunder the country.
"If you write that and attribute it to me, I'll deny it,"
he said. "But it's true."
The 60-odd men under his command lacked both the weapons and
training to defend the perimeter. The only Azeri soldiers worth
their salt were four veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan
who had volunteered to try to bring some discipline into the
The rest were green horns. If the Armenians shot off a single
round, they answered with a barrage of fire, wasting half of
their precious ammunition. And thus we passed the night. Around
2 a.m., I was awakened by a distant burst of fire coming from
the direction of a neighboring Armenian town called Laraguk,
about 500 yards away from a part of Khojali called, ironically
enough, "Helsinki Houses."
The Armenian sniper fire was returned with at least 100 rounds
from the Azeri side, including bursts of cannon fire from an
old BTR, newly acquired from some Russian deserter. It was the
only mechanized weaponry that I saw in the hands of the Azeris.
The firefight continued sporadically until dawn, making it impossible
No one knew when the Armenians would make their final push to
take the town, but everyone knew that one night they would. Khojali
controlled the Stepanakert [Khankandi] airport and was clearly
a major objective for the Armenians. They had to take it. I remember
thinking to myself: "I would, if I were them." With
that thought came another that made me very uneasy: "What
would the residents do when the Armenians did attack?"
In the morning, people were just standing around - literally.
There was not a single teashop or restaurant in which to idle
away the time. Men stood in small knots along the mud and graveled
streets, waiting. The only person I saw actually doing something
was a rather fat girl who worked as a sales clerk in the one
fabric shop where there was nothing to sell. I spotted her waddling
in to work at nine that morning. She was so intense about what
she was doing that I decided to follow her into the shop. But
the next time I saw her was when I was viewing a video. She was
lying dead on the ground amidst a pile of other corpses - but
that would come later. The rest of the townspeople just hung
around, waiting for the ax to fall. I just prayed that it wouldn't
happen while I was there.
We wiled away the morning, hanging around the airport. A photographer
from an Azeri news agency happened to be around, so the military
boys put on a good show, rolling out of their bunkers and running
behind the old BTR, guns blazing.
"Let's do it again, but this time, let me take pictures
from the front," the cameraman had suggested.
I felt sick and refused to have anything to do with such theatrics.
"These guys are going to die," I told myself. "And
I don't want to die with them just because they're stupid enough
to be shooting at shadows that fire back."
Arif Hajiyev seemed to agree. We sat together in silence, watching
his men pose for the camera, running hither and yon, full of
"Let's try that one again!" crowed the photographer.
I felt sick and refused to take a single photo or write a single
Finally, around noon, I heard the telltale whine of the chopper
approaching from over the gap. Thank God! I let out a sigh of
relief while trying to look indifferent. Then I made my way toward
the airfield, just in time to see the overloaded bird disgorge
its cargo of food, weapons and returning refugees. One kid got
off with a canary in a cage, or maybe he was getting on. There
were so many people at the airport, trying to get on and off
that lone bird. I was merely one of them.
It seemed more were trying to get on than off. I desperately
wanted on myself. I didn't care that the chopper was carrying
twice or three times its weight limit, nor that part of the weight
was a corpse - one of Hajiyev's boys picked off by a sniper the
night before. I wondered if we had shared that Soviet-style Spam
dinner together by candlelight the night before, but thought
it too impolite to pull back the death sheet to stare. The engines
gunned and whined, and we lifted with a lurch - but this time
I was not afraid of the flight. I just wanted out. We climbed
and climbed, circling high in the sky and blowing over the Asgaran
Gap at 3,500 feet with tail winds. Maybe we took some ground
fire; I don't know. But I did know one thing: I would never go
back to Khojali again.
There was no need for vows. The last helicopter into Khojali
- that town that had already been surrounded by Armenians - flew
on February 13th.
The last food, except for locally grown potatoes, ran out on
the 21st. The clock was rapidly ticking toward doom. It struck
on the night of February 26th-the date that Armenians commemorate
the attack on Armenians at Sumgayit in 1988.
We left Baku by car at seven in the morning and drove as quickly
as we could across the monotonous flats of central Azerbaijan.
Brown cotton fields stretched along the horizon. As we roared
by, hunters standing along the roadside held up ducks that they
had just bagged. We stopped for gas in a town named Tartar and
asked the local mayor what was happening in Aghdam. He said he
didn't know anything. We stopped again in another town called
Barda and again took a moment to inquire about events and rumors.
Clueless looks greeted us.
We were starting to think that the whole thing was a colossal
bum steer when we arrived in Aghdam and drove into the middle
of town, looking for a bite to eat. It was there that we ran
into the refugees. There were 10, then 20, then hundreds of screaming,
wailing residents - all from Khojali. Many of them recognized
me because of my previous visits to their town. They clutched
at my clothes, babbling out the names of their dead relatives
and friends, all the while dragging me to the morgue attached
to the main mosque in town to show me their deceased loved ones.
At first we found it hard to believe what the survivors were
saying. The Armenians had surrounded Khojali and delivered an
ultimatum: "Get out or die." Then came a babble of
details about the final days, many concerning Commander Arif
Sensing doom, Arif had begged the government to bring in choppers
to save at least a few of the civilians, but Baku had done nothing.
Then, on the night of February 25th, Armenian "fedayeen"
hit the town from three sides. The fourth side had been left
open, creating a funnel through which refugees could escape.
Arif gave the order to evacuate: the soldiers would run interference
along the hillside of the Gorgor River Valley, while the women,
children and "aghsaggals" [gray-bearded ones - wise
elders of the village] escaped. Groping their way through the
night under fire, the refugees had arrived at the outskirts of
a village called Nakhjivanli, on the cusp of Karabakh, by the
morning of February 26th. They crossed the road there and began
working their way downhill toward the forward Azeri lines and
the city Aghdam, now only some six miles away via the Azeri outpost
It was there in the foothills of the mountains even within sight
of safety, that the greatest horror awaited them - a gauntlet
of lead and fire.
"They just kept shooting and shooting and shooting,"
sobbed a woman named Raisa Aslanova. She said her husband and
son-in-law were killed right in front of her eyes. Her daughter
was still missing.
Scores, hundreds, possibly even a thousand had been slaughtered
in a turkey-shoot of civilians and their handful of defenders.
Aside from counting every corpse, there was no way to tell how
many had died. Most of the bodies remained inaccessible, in the
no-man's land between the lines that had become a killing zone
and a picnic for crows.
One thousand slaughtered in a single night? It seemed impossible.
But when we began cross-referencing, the wild claims about the
extent of the killing began to look all too true. The local religious
leader in Aghdam, Imam Sadigh Sadighov, broke down in tears as
he tallied the names of the registered dead on an abacus. There
were 477 that day, but the number did not include those missing
and presumed dead, nor those victims whose entire families had
been wiped out and thus had no one to register them. The number
477 represented only the number of confirmed dead by the survivors
who had managed to reach Aghdam and were physically able to fulfill,
however imperfectly, the Muslim practice of burying the dead
within 24 hours.
Elif Kaban of Reuters was stunned into giddiness. My wife, Hijran,
was numb. Photographer Oleg Litvin fell into a catatonic state
and would only shoot pictures when I pushed him in front of the
subject: corpses, graves, and the wailing women who were gouging
their cheeks with their nails. The job required stomach. Now
was the time to work - to document and report: a massacre had
occurred, and the world had to know about it.
We scoured the town, stopping repeatedly at the hospital, the
morgue and the ever-growing graveyards. We moved out to the edges
of the defensive perimeter to meet the straggling survivors stumbling
in. Then we would rush back to the hospital to check on those
recently admitted who had been wounded. Then back to the morgue
to witness truckloads of bodies being brought in for identification
and ritual washing before burial.
I searched for familiar faces and thought I saw some but could
not be sure. One corpse was identified as a young veterinarian
who had been shot through the eyes at point-blank range. I tried
to remember if I had ever met him, but could never be sure. Other
bodies, stiffened by rigor mortis, seemed to speak of execution:
with their arms thrown up as if in permanent surrender. A number
of heads lacked hair, as if the corpses had been scalped. It
was not a pretty day.
Toward late afternoon, someone mentioned that a military helicopter
on loan from the Russian garrison at Ganja would be making a
flight over the killing fields, and so we traveled out to the
airport. No flight materialized, but I did find old friends.
"Thomas," a man in military uniform gasped, and grabbed
me in an embrace, and began weeping, "Nash Nachalnik..."
I recognized him as one of Arif Hajiyev's boys, a pimply-faced
boy from Baku who had described himself as a banker before he
had volunteered for duty in Karabakh. He was speaking in Russian,
babbling, but I managed to understand one word above his sobs:
A few other survivors from the Khojali garrison stumbled over
to me. Of the men under Arif Hajiyev's command, only 10 had survived.
Dirty, exhausted and overcome with what can only be described
as survivor's guilt, they pieced together what had happened during
that awful night and the following day. Their commander - Arif
Hajiyev - had been killed by a bullet to his brain while defending
the women and children. And about the women and children - most
of them had died, too.
Towards evening, we returned to the government guesthouse in
the middle of town searching for a telephone. There we met an
exhausted Tamerlan Garayev. A native of Aghdam, the Deputy Speaker
of Parliament was one of the few government officials of any
sort that I found there. Tamerlan was interrogating two Turkmen
deserters from the Stepanakert-based 366th Motorized Infantry
Brigade of the Russian Interior Ministry forces that had descended
on Khojali the week before. The last missing link of the tragedy
suddenly fit into place: not only had the doomed town been assaulted
by the Armenians, but the Russians had been undeniably involved
"Talk, talk!" Tamerlan demanded, as the two men stared
"We ran away because the Armenian and Russian officers were
beating us because we were Muslims," one of the men, named
Agha Mohammad Mutif, explained. "We just wanted to return
home to Turkmenistan."
"Then what happened?" Tamerlan wanted to know.
"Then they attacked the town," the other explained.
"We recognized vehicles from our unit."
The two had tried to flee along with everyone else in town and
were helping a group of women and children escape through the
mountains when they were discovered by the Armenians and the
"They opened fire and at least twelve men in our group were
killed," Mutif recounted. "After that, we just ran
Could such a thing have really happened: a Russian-backed assault
by Armenians on an Azeri town, which resulted in up to 1,000
This was news. But as we started to file our stories, we became
aware of something very strange. No one seemed interested in
the story. Apparently, the idea that the roles of the good guys
had been reversed was too much: Armenians slaughtering Azeris?
"You're suggesting that more people died in this single
attack in Karabakh than the total number that we have reported
killed over the past four years?" observed BBC's Moscow
correspondent when I tipped him on the bloodbath.
"That's impossible," he replied.
"Take a look at Reuters!"
"There's nothing on the wire."
Indeed, there wasn't. Although Elif Kaban had been churning out
copy on her portable Telex, nothing was appearing on the wires.
Either someone was spiking her copy, or was rolling it into a
larger, anodyne regional report of "conflicting allegations".
To be fair, the government and press in Baku didn't exactly assist
our efforts to get the story out. While we had been off in Aghdam
trying to break the news, the presidential spokesman was claiming
that Khojali's feisty defenders had beaten back an Armenian attack
and that the Azeris had suffered only two casualties. They were
pitching it as just an ordinary night in Mountainous Karabakh.
We knew differently, but it was the three of us against the Azerbaijani
State propaganda machine.
Finally, I managed to get a call through to the Moscow Bureau
of the Washington Post and told them that I wanted to file a
story. The staffers said they were too busy to take a dictation.
When I insisted, they reluctantly patched me through to the Foreign
Desk in Washington. I used the number of 477 people to indicate
how many had died. After all, that was the figure that had been
so carefully determined by Imam Sadighov. Though the figure turned
out to be low, the editors "dragged me over the coals."
Where had I gotten such a figure, since Baku was reporting that
only two people had died? Had I seen all the bodies? They cautioned
balance. Besides, the Armenian press was reporting that there
had been a "massive Azeri offensive."
"Why wasn't that in my report?" The editors wanted
I was about to defend my position that I had not written such
because it simply had not happened when suddenly the first of
many Kristal missiles started raining down on Aghdam and landing
only about a mile away from the Government Guest House that I
was calling from. Other missiles followed, and when one crashed
into the building next door and blew out all the windows in our
building, we thought it best to get down to the basement before
we were blown to smithereens.
An hour later, crawling out from under the mattresses, we came
up for air and decided we had better get out of Aghdam as fast
as possible. About 60,000 other people had the same idea, and
we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a mass exodus of
trucks, cars, horses and people on bicycles, all rushing to flee
east in the direction of Baku.
I broke the news about the Khojali massacre with a world-exclusive
story on February 27th. It made an inside page of the Washington
Post. London's Sunday Times took the story more seriously - maybe
because they were Europe - and gave it front-page coverage. By
then, the international hack-pack had started parachuting in
to count bodies and confirm that something awful had really happened.
The first Western reporter who managed to arrive in the killing
fields and perform the grisly task of counting the dead was Anatol
Lieven of the London Times. His companion was the late Rory Peck
of Frontline News - another cool professional and dear friend.
[Less than two years later, Rory would be shot to death in front
of Ostankino TV in Moscow on October 3, 1993, when Boris Yeltsin
decided to restore democracy in Russia through the barrels of
Others performed less well. One reporter from Agence France-Press,
best left nameless, arrived in Aghdam the night we left and found
the city "quiet," apparently confusing the silence
that followed the missile-induced exodus of 60,000 people with
an aura of peace and tranquility.
The government of Azerbaijan, meanwhile, made a complete about-face
on the issue. The same people who had remained inaccessible during
the early days of the crisis were suddenly asking me to provide
telephone numbers of foreign correspondents in Moscow whom they
could invite down - at government expense - to report on the
That didn't set well with me. I almost hauled off and assaulted
the Presidential Press Secretary, accusing him of lying. He,
in turn, started a rumor that I was an Armenian spy sent to Khojali
to ferret out "military secrets" during my January
visit to the doomed town. Consequence: I was temporally detained,
causing me to slide into a very black mood. When I was released,
I went downtown and found myself sitting at a shop with a bunch
of black marketeers, who were vaguely waiting for me to exchange
my dollars for rubles. Then the whole situation hit me and hit
The evening streets were still filled with light-hearted shoppers,
apparently oblivious or, perhaps, indifferent to the fate of
the citizens of Khojali. The men seemed to be all look-alikes
in leather jackets, and the women had far too much rouge on their
cheeks. They were all smiling and laughing and parading around.
I have to confess: I hated every one of them. Maybe they didn't
know what I had done. Maybe they did know but didn't care, lest
it drive them insane. It wasn't clear, nor was my brain.
I canceled the dollar deal, walked out of the shop and wandered
the streets. I think it was raining, but I can't remember for
sure. I meandered the streets, unable to stop anywhere or see
or talk to anyone for hours and hours.
"Ha ha," someone cackled, as he leaned toward his sweetheart
and switched on the motor of his car.
"Ho ho," another chortled, as he lurched out of a "Komisyon"
shop, a bottle of Finnish vodka under arm.
I wanted to slash their tires, smash their noses, burn their
houses. I wanted to do something - something violent. Instead,
I ended up wandering the streets in a daze. Finally, I arrived
home and sat down and poured myself a long drink. Hijran asked
me where I'd been.
"Khojali," I answered in a voice that I didn't recognize.
I had been in that dump of a town with ghosts and no food to
speak of, no water to wash with. And all the people from there
that I had known were dead, dead, dead. I broke down and cried
and cried and criedvowing that I would remember Commander Arif
and all the others, whose names I had never known, but whose
faces would be etched forever in my memory.
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