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Azerbaijan: 20th anniversary of Baku pogrom and Black January

Categories: Central Asia & Caucasus, Eastern & Central Europe, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Citizen Media, Ethnicity & Race, History, International Relations, War & Conflict

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices [1].

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Black January [2], the day when the fledgling independence movement in Azerbaijan was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops ostensibly to curtail inter-ethnic tensions between ethnic Armenian and Azeris living in the capital, Baku. A week earlier, following an anti-Armenian pogrom in Sumgait [3] which left at least 32 people dead in February 1988, dozens of ethnic Armenians were killed [4].

Last year, Global Voices Online summarized the chronology of events [5] as well as reaction to the 19th anniversary.

As stories of mutual violence between the two ethnic groups continued to circulate, the situation quickly escalated, and on 13 January 1990 another anti-Armenian pogram broke out in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. Figures vary, but anywhere between 48 and 66 — or possibly more — ethnic Armenians were killed.

By 19 January, most of the city's Armenian minority had fled, and the next day Soviet tanks and thousands of soldiers had already moved in ostensibly to stem the ethnic violence which had reportedly subsided. Until this day, questions linger as to why it took so long for Moscow to react, but Human Rights Watch alleges that the military incursion had been planned long before.

With at least 130 people killed as a result of the Soviet incursion, the week of 13-20th January 1990 remains etched in the hearts and minds of both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Given the war over the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh that it would soon usher in, and the independence that ethnic conflict would soon define, both sides naturally recount events selectively.

Armenians, for example, allege that more of their ethnic kin died while believing that the crackdown by Soviet troops was for their protection. Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, see the intervention only as a means to prevent their country from seceding from the former Soviet Union and rarely, if ever, mention the anti-Armenian pogroms which preceded it.

Blogs by foreign travelers with experience of the region, however, set events arguably in their proper context. Changes and Colours, for example, notes the violence that spared no one and left many caught inbetween [6].

[…] Twenty years ago when the movement for independence from the Soviet Union was gaining momentum, a wave of nationalistic pogroms erupted in the country. In a city once known for its multinational culture people turned on each other “man against man, neighbor against neighbor.” Some chose to become hunters, some, not given a choice, became hunted. People were killed and those who weren’t fled the city. On the night from the 19th to 20th of January 1990 Soviet troops entered Baku and again innocent people were killed. […]

Twenty years have passed but the memories of those days are still throbbing. One woman told me how she and her small kids huddled in the bathroom close to the floor because so many people were killed by stray bullets. “I still remember the crack running in the center of my tiles,” she said. The other told of the painful realization that people whom you knew could so easily turn against you. “We were neighbors, you know,” she kept repeating, even after 20 years shaking her head in disbelief.

Whenever I listen to people talk about those days – I inevitably notice the faraway look of souls lost in the past and when after a pause they return to conversation, they say, “Let’s not talk about it, it was so long ago” and then there is silence.

These selective interpretations and accounts of January 1990 from Armenians and Azerbaijanis, however, are not only perpetuated through the local media, but also carried through on blogs. Of course, the loss to both sides was painful and this is perhaps to be expected. Marika, for example, marked the 20th anniversary of the Baku pogrom simply [7].

[…]. It was on January 13th 1990 when «cleansing» of Baku from Armenian population statred and resulted in 400 Armenians killed and 200 thousand exiled.

Meanwhile, the blog of the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy doesn't mention the pogrom at all [8] and instead concentrates only on the Soviet intervention, using the anniversary to also talk only of reported ethnic violence against Azerbaijanis by Armenians.

It was 20 January 1990 and it was time to respond Azerbaijanis. The response became the expected horror – violence! 26.000 Soviet troops were sent to Baku. Not for settling the conflict. Because the conflict was occurring in Garabagh.

Meanwhile, Yerevan Journal quotes media reports [9] on violence and attrocities against ethnic Armenians in Baku while Window on Eurasia analyzes events [10] and says that, as in Armenia, January 1990 represented the “Karabakhization” of internal politics in the country.

[…] it is a reminder of the continuing sensitivity of the events of a generation ago in the Caucasus now, an impact that any who are seeking to address the problems there must not only acknowledge but also face up to, all the more now because these feelings have been allowed to fester so long.

Even among young bloggers in Azerbaijan, barely old enough to remember the events of those days, Black January remains an event stuck in their consciousness. Fatalin's Blog, for example, admits that it was too young to remember much, but those days appear alive enough to warrant an extended post [11].

It’s been 20 years since the tragedy, and I’m not a four-year-old who knows what bullets were used on January 20th anymore. But I know for sure, that I wouldn’t want my kids to know what is tracer bullet at the age of 4, to watch their mom edit scary footages of tragedy, or hear their dad calling from the KGB, war zone, or a demonstration.

[…]

It’s been 20 years since the tragedy of 20th January, which killed 130 and injured around 700 people.

Allah rehmet elesin.

Flying Carpets and Broken Pipelines also feels the same [12].

It was the middle of the night, January 19th 1990, tanks started passing by our house… I remember… My mother screamed so loud that I still hear the sound of her voice in my ears every time I think of that night… I was standing by the window, trying to make out the huge machines that were coming… Back then I didn't know what was going on, I was only 7 but I knew it was not good. My mother's concerned face wasn't good. She was afraid and so were many others that night.

That night Soviet troops crashed barricades storming the capital. There was shooting everywhere.

Yet, if Azerbaijanis fail to mention the anti-Armenian pogroms which gave Moscow what Human Rights Watch alleges was an excuse to intervene, and while Armenians inflate the death toll and fail to mention the pogroms as part of a mutual downward spiral into inter-ethnic violence, one regional expert and analyst considers both the Baku pogrom and Black January to be part of the same tragic event [4].

[…] Thomas de Waal has called this pogrom the first part of “Black January” a tragedy with about 90 Armenian victims. According to him, at first a large crowd collected in the Lenin Square of Baku, and at nightfall different groups separated from the Azerbaijani Popular Front demonstrants, and started to attack Armenians. […] Several eyewitnesses told Helsinki Watch/Memorial that they “approached militiamen on the street to report nearby attacks on Armenians, but the militiamen did nothing”.[10]

With the onset of independence for the two South Caucasus countries stained with blood, The Armenian Observer instead criticizes both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, implying that that a selective or subjective account of history does nothing to ease the pain or resolve an ethnic conflict which still continues to this day [13].

Twenty years ago today seven-day pogroms broke out against Armenians in Baku, with various sources citing a death toll of 48 to 400. Tens of thousands of Armenians, or, according to some Armenian sources, as many as 200 thousand were exiled from their homes. Baku was effectively cleaned of Armenians. Evidence suggests, that the action was organized by Azerbaijani authorities, as the attackers had lists of Armenians and their addresses.

This is one of the many bleeding wounds caused by the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. And as with most other ongoing conflicts, Armenians and Azerbaijanis try to distort history and tilt it in their own favor. Quite expectedly, Armenian media is full of articles today about the pogroms. Some have gone so far as to liken the pogroms in Baku to the Genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman empire.

This approach, however, is not acceptable to me. Pogroms of Armenians in Baku were most tragic events. Fuss, lies, exaggerations and attempts to score political points here are completely inappropriate. Stating bare facts is so horrible, that there is no need to exaggerate anything. And I don’t see the point in pressing the wound so hard – it doesn’t heal that way. Let’s just prey in silence. RIP

Unfortunately, however, few other bloggers on both sides appear to agree with one Azerbaijani blogger writing over Skype that accounts are determined only by what is taught in schools or published in the local media. For now, at least, it is perhaps therefore understandable that most blogs continue to toe the same line.

This post is part of our special coverage Caucasus Conflict Voices [1].