Azerbaijan International

Spring 2005 (13.1)
Pages 18-19

Khojali - 13 Years Later

Remember, But Be Sure to Preserve Your Souls
by Thomas Goltz

See other articles by Thomas Goltz:
Khojali: Eyewitness Account From the Following Day (1992)
Khojali: A Decade of Useless War Remembered
Khojali: Facts
Khojali: How to Spell "X-O-J-A-L-I"?

Without a doubt, no foreigner has the right to speak and be heard about issues relating to the Massacre of Khojali more than Thomas Goltz. As a war correspondent, he was one of the few foreigners to have visited Khojali just prior to the fateful attack of February 25, 1992, and was the first foreign reporter on the scene after the massacre occurred - even while the government of President Ayaz Mutallibov in Baku was denying that anything had happened there at all.

The facts reported by Goltz and then others - and particularly the graphic images shot by the late, iconic Azerbaijani journalist Chinghiz Mustafayev - soon brought down Mutallibov's regime when the people of Azerbaijan realized to what extent they had been lied to by their government. For a chilling blow-by-blow description of this period, see Goltz's "Azerbaijan Diary" (M.E. Sharpe 1998/99), especially the chapter entitled "Khojali".

Again this year - on the 13th Commemoration of the Khojali Massacre - Goltz was invited by the Azerbaijan Society of the United Kingdom to speak on this topic at the London School of Economics. The following is an edited transcript of his remarks on February 21, 2005.

Thank you, Taleh Heydarov, [President of the Azerbaijan Society of the UK], Mr. Ambassador [Rafael Ibrahimov], Professor Gholam Reza Sabri Tabrizi and my old friend Ambassador Roger Thomas [former Ambassador from the U.K. to Azerbaijan, 1998-2001], and all of you who have taken the time to attend this event.

I am honored to be here again to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the Khojali Massacre of February 25/26, 1992.

It seems such a long time ago, relatively speaking, although I remember it like yesterday. And I believe it behooves us to remember and mourn the victims of that time and to continue to comfort the survivors today.
I was honored to help mark the 10th year commemoration right here in this room at the London School of Economics, and I'm pleased to be here again although my message to you tonight may be a little shorter and of different mood.

A transcript of my remarks on that occasion and an except of the Khojali chapter from my book was sent to Betty Blair, a friend of Azerbaijan [Editor of Azerbaijan International], who then printed it at length in her magazine. I have taken the liberty to have copies made should any of you have use for my recollection and interpretation of the events surrounding Khojali at the time. Please leave the original magazine, as it is my last copy.

I do not really have much to add in any historical sense because there have been no new discoveries or developments or confessions of an historical nature.

The numbers remain the same: 613 killed. More than 1,000 hurt or wounded. More than 1,000 taken as Prisoners of War (POWs). 150 never accounted for.

These are, I should note, the numbers most recently used by Representative Dan Burton from the US state of Indiana in his February 17th presentation to his colleagues in the US Congress. This is a success for Azerbaijan to have had those numbers recorded on the official ledger [the Congressional Record]. Other recent diplomatic successes include the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) report condemning continued Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands.

But generally speaking, nothing has changed.

Indeed, what seems to me to have changed is the tendency of many of my Azerbaijani friends to turn the events of February 25/26 around the town of Khojali into a new type of Ashura - and, in saying this, I am quite aware that I might offend certain sensibilities.

The Ashura, of course, is the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram, which this year fell on February 20th, meaning yesterday.

As happens every year at Ashura, followers of both the so-called "Sevener" and "Twelver" branches of mainstream Shia Islam in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Azerbaijan as well as more obscure and even heterodox sects such as the Zaidies of Yemen and Alavites of Turkey and Syria display their historical memory of the events of 680 AD when, on the field of Karbala in today's Iraq, the Prophet's grandson Imam Hussein and much of his retinue and family perished at the hands of the cruel Yezid.

The manifestation of grief takes many forms, although the most famous is the ecstatic re-enactment of Hussein's suffering known as the "Matam", when participants beat themselves with chains and even slash themselves with knives and symbolic swords to draw blood.

Curiously, this spectacle, which formerly seemed to be the epitome of "Muslim fundamentalism" when seen through Western eyes and associated with Iran, was referred to as a "festival" this year when celebrated by the Shia of Iraq...

And the "festival" was made all the more dramatic this year by the all - too real threat of additional, real violence in the way of suicide bombers determined to interrupt the activities of the penitents.
According to today's papers, 91 Ashura penitents were killed yesterday, adding almost one hundred more deaths to the on-going litany of death and destruction in Iraq since the commencement of that war by George W. Bush almost two years ago.

The total killed and maimed in Iraq since March 20, 2003 utterly dwarfs the entire number of those killed and maimed in the Azerbaijan-Karabakh-Armenian conflict, and makes the Khojali Massacre seem like a mere drop in the bucket of global suffering over the past 20 years.
Iraq. Afghanistan. Palestine. Kosovo. Bosnia. Rwanda. Georgia and, of course, Chechnya - just to name a few countries scarred by un-natural disasters over the past two decades of international pain.
And in my own country, of course, there is "9/11" [September 11, 2001], an event that has unleashed a paroxysm of American anger and anguish and military-based irrational revenge unprecedented since the war in Vietnam, and arguably Pearl Harbor.

Where does it all end?
I am not sure and that makes me deeply pessimistic.

Thus, while we honor and remember the victims of Khojali, I would like to urge my friends from Azerbaijan to be very, very careful: the creation of a cult of suffering has its own pitfalls. One need look no further than where the Armenian cult of suffering based on the events of 1915 has led the Armenians as a whole: into a cul-de-sac of self-pity that is the least attractive national characteristic they collectively evince. I would urge my Azerbaijani friends NOT to walk down that same road.

Lastly, A Related Issue
A few years ago, my friend Elmar Mammadyarov, then First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Embassy in Washington and now the Foreign Minister of the Azerbaijan Republic, asked me to write an introductory essay to a collection of news articles drawn from major Western and American newspapers on "Black January", 1990. The point was to distribute the booklet to members of the US Congress in order to elicit sympathy about how the people of Baku suffered when "Soviet" or "Russian" military forces rolled on the city.

After thinking about it for a while, I informed him that while I would write the introduction, I would not sign my name. He was very surprised and asked why I was refusing to do so.

My reply followed along these lines: As a friend, I could not refuse to help or assist on any project related to Azerbaijan. But as a friend of Azerbaijan, I felt I had to tell him that I did not believe in this particular project.
My reasoning was as follows: IF we celebrate Azerbaijan's independence as a good thing, then we are obliged to celebrate the sacrifice of those who died on the road to that cause, including the victims of Black January.

Mourning for the victims of Black January more than ten years after the fact, I argued, was tantamount to wishing for the return of a USSR before it all went "bad"; returning to a period when an independent Azerbaijan was not desirable, in other words.

I hasten to add that by "celebrate", I do not necessarily mean setting off fireworks such as we do in the United States on the Fourth of July, but you get my point.
There comes a day when what WAS a national tragedy has to be embraced as part of the historical fabric of the nation, tears and all.

Where does Khojali fit into this picture?
Again, I am not yet sure, but I want to believe that while we must keep Khojali in our hearts, we should be careful not to let that memory distort, destroy or sour our souls.
"Allah rahmat elasin" [God rest their souls].
Thank you.

[In the following Question & Answer session, several members of the audience professed "shock" and disappointment at Goltz's remarks. Less publicly, many more approached him at the end of the evening to express deep gratitude and to share their concern about the growing tendency to celebrate "victim-hood" in Azerbaijan.]

Thomas Goltz, who lives in Montana, is the author of "Azerbaijan Diary" (M.E. Sharpe 1998/99) and "Chechnya Diary: A War Correspondent's Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya" (St Martin's Press, 2003). Search Goltz at

Back to Index AI 13.1 (Spring 2005)
AI Home
| Search | Magazine Choice | Topics | AI Store | Contact us

Other Web sites created by Azerbaijan International
| |