I wish we could welcome you in Khojaly, and show you our hospitality.
I was 35 years old when I left Khojaly. My three children are all married and I have three grandchildren. At the time of the tragedy my children were between twelve and eighteen.
I remember thinking it could never be like this...
At nine in the evening they surrounded Khojaly with tanks. Like wars on TV, they started shooting from the tanks and people left their houses. The 366th Regiment of the former USSR had turned against those in the south of Khojaly. I had been working in the communal services just 200 metres from the army position.
My husband (Vasif Mammadov), aged forty two at the time, came home and told us they (the Armenians) were shooting intensively and then he went to warn the neighbours.
The way out of Khojaly was barred by the Qarqar River. We started towards the river to head towards Aghdam. The only other way in or out of Khojaly was by air; the roads were all blocked.
We were in a hurry to make our way to Aghdam. The river was wide, icy, deep (up to our chests). We had to break the ice, the river was frozen over, we couldn't swim, it was stony; a fast flowing mountain river. About 7,000 people were crossing, the whole town. The head of the Executive Authority encouraged people to leave; he said there was no choice...
Everyone wanted to escape. We were not wearing warm clothes and I cannot begin to describe how we felt. There were five in our family, including my wounded husband. Nobody could stay. Everybody left.
Once on the other side of the river we realised that many people were frozen. Sick people, old ones, children... The fit men were trying to defend the post. It was stupid. They couldn't fight tanks.
There were men in front, protecting us, and they were shot. In the forest at Nakhchivanly, an Armenian controlled area, more were killed. We had no alternative; we had to go past Nakhchivanly. The 366th tanks were there, shooting us.
By dawn, my husband was ahead and wounded. I was wounded. My twelve year old son Jeyhun was shot in the shoulder. I put snow on his wound. I could never leave him.
We became a group of four. I was with my child, and there was a man, Gafar Zeymala (52) and his daughter Sevinj Aslamova (18). All four of us were taken hostage by Armenians. I asked them not to take my child. I had my handbag with me with money, jewellery, my gold watch and I offered it. My head was bleeding. They still wanted to take my child.
They took us to an Armenian family who had a son in Baku needing help. I asked for medical supplies, medicines, and I cleaned my son's wound. It was now mid-morning.
(...The storytelling paused for tea with more apologies for not entertaining us in Khojaly...)
No one knew we were there. The teenagers in the Armenian family were forced out to fight. The Armenians wanted to do a swap. They had a son in prison in Baku (from Soviet times, before the Karabakh War).
The Armenian family were not very hospitable but they hid us, in hope of exchange for their son.
Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani sides had self-defence troops who would help an exchange to take place. I had hoped the man or his daughter would go to get the son to be exchanged. But the Armenians said I had to go. I had to leave my son with them.
After eight days with this family, I was released to go and get their Armenian son from prison in Baku.
My family were waiting in Aghdam to take me to Baku. They had thought I was dead. When I got to Baku the rest of my family couldn't believe I had left my son with an Armenian family.
Once in Baku I had to go from place to place - still the Soviet system - it took two months - various ministries to visit etc. My relatives helped me a lot. I saw the Armenian in prison. I only heard once about my son. The Baku prosecutor's office arranged a phone call. I talked to a son of the family and assured them I was making progress, getting authorisation.
Another woman with us in the interview starts talking and weeping about her husband shot as a hostage, talking about the problems of locating and burying corpses.
The Armenian prisoner was taken to Barda and I also went there. There were eleven prisoners, Armenians from the Soviet period, ready to be exchanged for Azerbaijanis. The prisoners went by train but I went by car via Aghdam. I went to Askeran with the Aghdam self-defence troops. My male relatives wanted to go instead but I wanted to go myself. I saw the prisoner in Askeran and assured him we meant him no harm. I took him, with Azerbaijani soldiers, for the exchange.
Allahverdi Baghirov, whose headquarters was in Aghdam, was responsible for exchanges. He was killed later by a landmine. Vitalik from Khojaly was arranging exchanges on the Armenian side. I said I would only exchange the Armenian prisoner for all three still with the Armenian family. I succeeded. The Armenian prisoner's name was Karlen Aynumyan.
That night of the tragedy my father-in-law and twenty close relatives died.
At the Askeran post, when I met my son again, I was like frozen and dumb. It was 28 April and the exchange took place between 9 or 10am and 1 or 2pm.
My son never joins these talks, when I tell my story it still stresses him. We would watch wars on TV; this was not like a war, there were no rules. No mercy for anybody.
An older son tells us that his mother was on TV in her efforts to get the Armenian released in exchange for her son.
We are being destroyed here without Karabakh.
Interviewed by Fiona Maclachalan
Story source: Book “Khojaly Witness of a War Crime - Armenia in the Dock”,
published by Ithaca Press, London 2014