Shamil Alekberli (on the right)

Shamil Sabiroghlu, also known as Shamil Alekberli, chairman of the Association for Recognition of the Massacre in Khojaly, came to meet me in Baku on 19 October 2011.

I was the first source of information and took many photographs. I was the first journalist to get the information into a newspaper, the 'Sheher'... My wife is from Khojaly, and I went voluntarily to Khojaly during the time of the troubles.

Although I was only 23, our newspaper had a reputation for its serious approach. In 1990 a million copies were published. It carried the news when Baku was invaded by the Soviet troops. So my reports were taken seriously.

In 1990, Shamil explains, Khojaly was given city status. This meant that there was construction there; they were building Finnish-style wooden houses for Azerbaijanis fleeing from Armenia and the neighbouring city of Khankendi.

I worked on the construction because that was my background, as well as journalism. The Azerbaijani government funded the work.

I witnessed the build up of aggression.

Even before the tragedy, the Armenians would taunt us, as we were doing the building work, saying 'it's ok, you can go ahead and build, but know that you will leave'. They would shoot at us while we were working.

Sometimes we had to travel to Aghdam by bus, passing through Askeran. Azerbaijanis lived in Aghdam and there were Armenians in Askeran. On the way back the Armenians would throw stones at the windows and break the windows, sometimes injuring those on the bus. They threatened us and would argue that it was their land and that Khojaly was theirs. I remember this was around November 1991. I was on the bus when this happened.

Bit by bit the Armenians were making it impossible to get around. They blocked the Askeran Tower. It was through this tower (an arch went underneath it) that traffic went to Shusha from Askeran. The tower had been there for 250 years. Little by little, Khojaly was becoming isolated.

Meshali, Jamilli, Karkijahan and Kosalar were all satellite villages of Khojaly and were taken by Armenians. On 15 December 1991 they occupied Jamilli and killed four Azerbaijanis. On 23 December 1991 they burned Meshali and on 28 December 1991 they burned down Kosalar. Many people died as a result. One awful result was that in Meshali a schoolboy, aged 14, was burnt alive in the school.

I felt I was witnessing the shrinking of Khojaly and I began to get the unpleasant feeling of Khojaly being occupied.

On 28 January 1992, Armenia shot down a helicopter en route from Aghdam to Shusha, thus effectively blocking the air routes. With air routes and roads blocked, Khojaly was isolated. With no supplies getting through there was soon a lack of water and lack of electricity as well as a lack of food.

Construction had stopped. I had volunteered as a teacher in Jamilli, taking people to Aghdam then Barda when Jamilli was occupied.

Things were getting desperate. All sorts of awful things were happening; I could tell you so much.

A small village called Garadaghli was occupied by Armenians. It wasn't a big village, but 70 Azerbaijanis were killed and buried in silage bins.

There were two brothers, one named Alov (the name means burning fire) and one named Atesh (the name means fire as in gunfire). They were burned and shot respectively, according to their names.

An Armenian called Melkenyon killed a pregnant woman then took out the baby.

I was in Aghdam, I felt Khojaly would be next.

On the morning of 26 February 1992 I was in Shelli. I met up with wounded people who were coming out of the forest and I found out what had happened. Even from a distance we had seen and heard the gunfire. We went into the forest to look for wounded. Young volunteer Azerbaijanis in the area helped. We had no weapons. The Armenians kept shooting. We could hear screaming from the forest.

We reached the petrol station. The whole area was full of wounded people, people had scattered but had still been shot. We had to leave the dead and take the wounded to Aghdam. Local people let us use their vehicles to carry the wounded.

There were three groups of people in Khojaly, the local Khojaly people, those who had moved there from Khankendi, and the Ahiska Turks. The Turks were living in the Finnish houses and had been shot first because their houses were wooden and less substantial.

All that day I was in shock and couldn't believe what had happened. By evening I remembered that I was a journalist and I had to contact Baku. I went to the post office centre in Aghdam to use their phone lines. When I told Baku that over a hundred people had been killed, they didn't believe it.

Later I learned that Azertaj (the state news agency) were saying that only 2 people had been killed, but I was able to confirm it was over hundred. All the newspapers followed Azertaj but my newspaper carried my headline.

On 27 February 1992, after Thomas Goltz, other journalists came to Aghdam. A special military helicopter was hired for them and they were able to see the destruction and what Armenia had done at first hand.

But still Baku did not believe what had happened.

I developed the film from my camera. It wasn't a professional camera but I sent the photographs anyway. On 4 March my newspaper published 'Azerbaijan Red with Blood' and used my photographs.  

The local authorities in Aghdam seemed scared to help us and we felt that they were embarrassed because they had been unable to stop the tragedy.

Shamil continued to explain the situation and offer his observations.

Khojaly people are known in Azerbaijan for being hardworking and good at agriculture. There are labyrinths there like the more well- known ones in Gadabey, meaning that Khojaly is most definitely Azerbaijani.

It's a major issue that no mercy was shown to children. A father was tied up in rope and set on fire in front of his eight year old daughter. His name was Tevekkul Amirov.

Faig Almammadov, a student from Baku, went to Khankendi and was shot in prison there.

613 people were killed in Khojaly. 63 of them were children. 150 people are still missing, unaccounted for.

The population of Khojaly had been about 7,000 but at the time of the tragedy there were only about 3,000 there, as many had left. This means that almost one in three suffered physically. Remember that many more were wounded or injured in some way.

1,275 people were initially taken prisoner, some were returned. There is unofficial information that prisoners were taken to Armenia, then on to Libya or Syria where their organs were sold. Some were taken through Georgia.

Eight families were completely wiped out.

The figure of 613 dead is probably higher when you consider the 150 still not accounted for... and early deaths caused by stress.

Armenia has defied all the relevant UN resolutions. The UN's resolutions on Karabakh have not been fulfilled. The whole world has been told about this but the occupation continues. It has to be stopped.

Armenia has a dream of their country reaching from sea to sea, from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. And it seems that Russia, France and the USA are helping Armenia to achieve this dream...

What we want is support from the international community. There is still a danger of war. We want the Khojaly tragedy to be assessed at global level. We want the 26 February to be a day of mourning in Azerbaijan.

We want the Armenian presidents, current and former, to stand trial. Serzh Sargsyan (President of Armenia at the time of interview - ed.) admitted in France two years ago that he had participated in the Khojaly tragedy. Seyran Ohanyan (Minister of Defence of Armenia at the time of interview - ed.) was in charge of the 2nd Battalion of the 366th Regiment. He was its commander-in-chief.

We want them to be tried in a European Court, because they were directly involved and are to be blamed. They admit that they caused this tragedy.

Shamil's last words are poignant: 

I would like to see a world without borders, where people understand each other. If people are indifferent to one other, that is the end of the world. We must put a stop to this indifference, and stop fighting.

Interviewed by Fiona Maclachalan
Story source: Book “Khojaly Witness of a War Crime - Armenia in the Dock”,
published by Ithaca Press, London 2014