By Helen Womack in Aghdam, Azerbaijan
The exact number of victims is still unclear, but there can be little doubt that Azeri civilians were massacred by Armenian fighters in the snowy mountains of Nagorny-Karabakh last week.
Refugees from the enclave town of Khojaly, sheltering in the Azeri border town of Agdam, give largely consistent accounts of how their enemies attacked their homes on the night of 25 February, chased those who fled and shot them in the surrounding forests. Yesterday, I saw 75 freshly dug graves in one cemetery in addition to four mutilated corpses we were shown in the mosque when we arrived in Agdam late on Tuesday. I also saw women and children with bullet wounds in a makeshift hospital in a string of railway carriages at the station.
Khojaly, an Azeri settlement in the enclave mostly populated by Armenians, had a population of about 6000. Rashid Mamedov, Commandant of Police in Agdam, said only about 500 escaped to his town. "So where are the rest?" Some might have taken prisoner, he said, or fled elsewhere. Many bodies were still lying in the mountains because the Azeris were short of helicopters to retrieve them. He believed more than 1,000 had perished, some of cold in temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees.
Standing outside the Khojaly mosque, where woman beat their brests in anguish, a refugee, Rami Nasiru, described how residents at first thought the attack was no more than the routine shooting to which they had become accustomed in four years of conflict. But when they saw the Armenians with a convoy of armoured personnel carriers, they realised they could not hope to defend themselves with machine guns and grenades, and fled into the forests. In the small hours, the massacre started.
Mr. Nasiru, who believes his wife and two children were taken prisoner, repeated what many other refugees have said - that troops of the former Soviet army helped the Armenians to attack Khojaly. "It is not just my opinion, I saw it with my own eyes." He said.
So angry are the people in Agdam that it could be very risky for commonwealth forces due to withdraw from the enclave's capital of Stepanakert to drive through this town, as they must do to reach Russia. The 366th Motorised Infantry Regiment yesterday seemed to have postponed its planned pull-out. Commonwealth forces say they had to attack Khojaly because it was used as a base to attack Stepanakert.
Woman, many of whom had followed Azeri tradition and scratched their cheeks to give the impression of tears of blood, knelt at the graves, producing a high-pitched ritual wailing. Graves decorated with dolls were those of young men who were due to be married. A middle-aged man stood over the grave of his nephew, Abulfat Aliev: born 1963, died February 1992. "He went back twice into the forest to save woman and children. The third he got killed himself. Write the truth," the man said, expressing a common view that the Western Press has favoured Christian Armenia and been unfair to Muslim Azerbaijan.
The mosque and graveyard were harrowing enough, but worse were the railway carriages with the wounded. Dr Eldar Sirajev, from Baku, said 256 people had been treated since 26 February. Nubar Dunimalieva lay on her stomach with bullet entry and exit wounds in her back. She had been in the forest with her four children and elderly mother. Two children had disappeared, but the other three escaped with her. They were lucky in that they were shot close to Azeri-held territory and managed to crawl to soldiers from their own side.
Another surgeon, Satar Jagoubov from Baku University, appealed for antibiotics. Before Khojaly he had believed in the possibility of peace, but now the only solution was to clear Nagorny-Karabakh of Armenians, he said. "I cannot bear to see an Armenian any more." The urge for vengeance, even among people as civilised as Dr Jagoubov, bodes ill for the chances of settling this conflict.
On the way back, the fighters apparently decided to unnerve us by driving us into a cemetery whence they reconnoitered for Armenian snipers in the nearby fields. Seeing my fear, one of them said: "Are you scared? Now you now how our woman feel."
A team sent to the region by the medical aid organisation Medecins sans Frontieres said yesterday that up to 35,000 Azeri civilians were heading towards Azerbaijan's capital, Baku, to escape Agdam, which is under fire by Armenian fighters.
In Baku, the powerful Popular Front opposition yesterday called for President Ayaz Mutalibov’s resignation after the massacre. Azerbaijan’s parliament opens an emergency session today, where President Mutalibov is likely to face increased pressure to quit.
In the Armenian capital, Yerevan, survivors from an Armenian helicopter downed in Azerbaijan said it came under fire before plunging to the ground in flames, killing at least 14 people.