Rufat Ahmadzada
Observing the Caucasus, Iran and Middle East

32 years on: Why we should remember Khojaly

Relatives of the Khojaly Massacre victim Abulfat Aliyev weep over his grave site during burial ceremonies in Aghdam, Azerbaijan- 1992. AP photo, The_Province_1992_03_05_page_13
Relatives of massacre victim Abulfat Aliyev weep over grave site during burial ceremonies. Source: AP/ Times_Colonist_1992_03_05_page_1

The 26th of February marks the thirty-second anniversary of the massacre of innocent Azerbaijani men, women and children in the town of Khojaly during the first Karabakh war. With the assistance of the 366th Russian regiment, Armenian forces engaged in systematic killings of Khojaly residents as they attempted to flee their besieged homes. Civilians were trapped in several locations in the town and surrounding mountains and forests in the middle of a harsh winter. The Armenian forces slaughtered 613 civilians, including 106 women and 63 children, and took 1,275 Khojaly residents hostage. To this day, 150 people are still missing. If they are considered to have died, the actual death toll stands at 763.

According to a report by Russian human rights group Memorial, many women and children froze to death in the mountains as they tried to reach safety in the Azerbaijani town of Agdam. Eyewitnesses described how forces of the irredentist Armenian entity based in Khankendi and directly controlled by Armenia deceived the fleeing civilians – they trapped them around the Askeran Gap and massacred them. Writing for The Independent, Helen Womack reported that survivors gave consistent accounts of how Armenians attacked Khojaly on the 25th of February, chased the civilians and shot them in the surrounding forests.

Khojaly fell victim to Armenia’s expansionist state ideology. Armenia sought to annex the Azerbaijani territory of Karabakh as part of its Miatsum (Unification) policy and to expel the Azerbaijanis. To this day Armenia’s constitution contains clear, open territorial claims against Azerbaijan. The sheer hatred underpinning Armenia’s annexationist policy against Azerbaijan culminated in the brutal killings of Khojaly civilians, some of whom were scalped and others, including babies, had their eyes gouged out. Survivors of the massacre who were captured by Armenian troops suffered extreme torture and humiliation, as many witness accounts indicate. Several captured Azerbaijanis were beheaded or disappeared.

Khojaly was looted and destroyed and renamed Ivanyan during the occupation of Karabakh by Armenia. Armenian authorities engaged in an ethnic demographic engineering policy and moved Armenian settlers into Khojaly. Azerbaijan restored its sovereignty over the town on the 24th of September 2023 by liberating the last swath of the Karabakh region following the Second Karabakh War. This year the 32nd anniversary of the massacre will for the first time be remembered in Khojaly itself, the site of the mass killing.


Unfortunately, Armenia is continuing its denialism to this day. Despite factual information, investigations and eyewitness reports, including by Armenian authors who participated in the massacre and admit that it was committed by the Armenian side, official Yerevan has chosen denialism and engaged in a shameless attempt at revisionism to evade direct responsibility for the brutal act of genocide against Azerbaijani civilians in Khojaly. In March 1997 in response to Armenia’s denial of the slaughter of Khojaly residents, Human Rights Watch refuted the Armenian Foreign Ministry’s claims and confirmed that the Armenian troops operating in Karabakh were responsible for the civilian deaths. Armenian writer Markar Melkonian in his book My Brother’s Road quoted his brother Monte Melkonian who took part in the Khojaly Genocide as saying that “Khojaly had been a strategic goal, but it had also been an act of revenge”. According to Markar Melkonian, two Armenian detachments Arabo and Aramo played a key role in the massacre. Former Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan openly admitted in an interview that the Armenian side perpetuated the massacre: “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.”

Denial of the genocidal killings in Khojaly is common among the Armenian public, officials and diaspora, with immoral claims such as “Azerbaijanis killed themselves” or “no civilian died” used to justify their position. In resorting to extreme denialism radical Armenian diaspora groups and their foreign friends engage in propaganda to whitewash this crime against humanity and further destroy the peace process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan engaged in blatant denialism on several occasions including at a panel organised by the Munich Security Conference in 2020.


A peace process is under way between Armenia and Azerbaijan following Azerbaijan’s liberation of its land, which put an end to the conflict over the former Nagorno Karabakh. It is important for the peace process that Armenia should cooperate in bringing the Khojaly killers to justice and admit its responsibility for the tragedy. This would be a historic and rational thing to do in order to create a durable and sustainable peace in the region and advance reconciliation efforts between the Armenian and Azerbaijani societies. Denialism and refusal to admit responsibility only create an impediment to peace and normalisation in the region. Admission and recognition of past tragedies can only create a positive environment for coexistence between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan should find the courage to bring those who carried out the Khojaly massacre to justice as Serbia did with the Srebrenica killers. It is not acceptable or realistic to expect Azerbaijan to forget the occupation of its lands, ethnic cleansing, massacres, massive destruction, contamination with landmines, urbicide and so on without acceptance of at least moral responsibility by Armenia, if not political and financial responsibility. Peace can only be achieved by addressing past wrongdoings and taking responsibility. Unfortunately, the international community, primarily the United States, France and Russia as co-chairs of the former Minsk Group, also share the guilt for doing nothing to hold the Khojaly killers accountable over the past three decades. Ignoring the victims of the Khojaly massacre is a grave injustice which paved the way for other tragedies such as Srebrenica and more recently Bucha. The continuing discovery of mass graves of the Khojaly victims in Azerbaijan’s liberated lands shows that it is our human duty not to forget these tragedies and to address their consequences accordingly.


About the Author
A native of Azerbaijan, I write extensively on political developments in the Caucasus, Iran and the Middle East. City, University of London graduate.
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