An Armenian perspective on Khojali

Many civilians were killed in the war between the newly independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. But the disputed period raises larger questions of common suffering, says Gerard Libaridian, adviser to Armenia's president at the time, who reflects on one incident that casts a long shadow.

Gerard Libaridian
28 February 2014

It is very difficult for an Armenian to write about Khojali. 

Khojali represents a case when Armenians have been accused of atrocities against others, in this case against Azeris. Armenians are not used to being victimisers; being the victim is more of a pattern for us.

I do not know for sure and exactly what happened in Khojali on 25-26 February 1992, although I was, at the time part of the Armenian government as an adviser to the president of the republic. I know that Armenian authorities had neither authorised nor supported questionable activities. Still, Armenians do not speak about it and Azerbaijani sources are more interested in using Khojali for propaganda purposes than as a subject for serious study, thus they are unreliable.

When in 1999 and 2000 I was interviewing Armenian and Azerbaijani officials in Baku and Yerevan for my next book, Azerbaijani officials dismissed Sumgait and other cases of Azerbaijani atrocities, while Armenians ignored Khojali. I do hope that someday scholars will find out what happened exactly with the cooperation of all parties concerned.

Regardless, something unacceptable did happen, something that involved killings and mutilation of Azeri civilians by Armenian forces in Karabakh. Armenians deny or explain it away just as Azerbaijanis do with what was done to Armenian civilians earlier in Sumgait, Baku and other Azerbaijani cities. It would have been very proper and useful if Azerbaijan had recognised the pogroms against Armenians in Sumgait and other Azerbaijani cities. But recognition by Armenians of the wrong done by Armenians should not depend on a corresponding recognition of Azerbaijani wrongs against Armenians. We know that the conflict is still unresolved and ostensibly under negotiation. But human suffering should not be a matter of haggling as if we were in a bazaar. This is a matter of what values we adopt for ourselves and what values we would want others to adopt regarding our own history.

If Khojali can be explained as collateral damage, then anything done to civilians can be explained as collateral damage.  Why should we expect others to recognise a big crime committed against Armenians if we will not recognise what is a smaller crime - but still a crime - we have committed against others?

We need to separate the tragedy that we and others produced for civilians during that war - and for that matter in any past, present, or future war - from the larger responsibility for the militarisation of that conflict in 1991 which clearly rests with Azerbaijani and Soviet governments. 

Karabakh Armenian forces undertook military operations in Khojali and elsewhere to ensure a secure neighbourhood for their own people against Azerbaijani air-force bombardments and shelling of civilian targets. Still, as I have asked publicly before, is the Azeri grandmother who had to leave her home holding the hand of her granddaughter any less of a grandmother and her granddaughter any less of a granddaughter because they were Azeris? How are these two civilians different from their Armenian counterparts who had to leave their villages and towns in Karabakh because of the Azerbaijani attempt earlier at ethnic cleansing around and in Karabakh? In fact, how were they different from my own grandmother’s story, who had to leave her town in the Ottoman empire holding her grandmother’s hand in 1915? On the human level, they are all grandmothers and granddaughters first.

At the human, individual and family level it should not be the grand politics that matter. And the grand politics will remain immune to solutions until we recognise each other’s humanity. After all, what is or should be the purpose of politics and strategising and even of wars if not to establish a secure environment for one’s people; and no security is permanent and real unless it is also so for one’s neighbours. We need to decide whether we want to live in a state of permanent war or threat of war, or find a way out. We cannot continue doing politics based on our worst fears while reinforcing the other’s worst fears about ourselves, and thus not giving peace a chance.

We may feel good claiming our own humanity in our victimhood, but that cannot be morally valid until we recognise the humanity of our own victims, regardless of how and why we or they became victims. At the end, we have to decide whether it is sufficient to feel good claiming the higher moral ground while denying the humanity of others, or rather to come to terms with our own fallibility, even if on a smaller scale, and do good.

Doing good means finding ways to make all grandmothers and granddaughters safe. Otherwise all our slogans, all the principles - legal, international, moral, historical, political and other - are meaningless at best and recipes for future disasters at worst.

This article was published in Turkish in the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos (Istanbul), on 21 February 2014. This, by kind permission, is its first publication in Engliah

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