The international legal definition of the crime of genocide is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” with acts that accompany that intent. As I read this online, I wondered about how the definition of genocide and ethnic cleansing is being debated right here on campus by a conflict that has made the abstract actual.
The conflict is felt by two student associations and ethnically-affiliated groups on campus who have hosted lectures about historically Armenian Nagorno-Karabagh’s independence and the current conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia, along with one specific event in the Azerbaijani-Armenian War from 1988 to 1994 that Azerbaijan calls the Khojaly Massacre, which was the attack of a village with a large Azerbaijani population.
The war and a series of attacks began because Nagorno-Karabagh, supported by Armenia, proclaimed a de facto independence when Azerbaijan felt that the land belonged to them because of Stalin’s assignment of land in 1923.
We have to ask ourselves the following: Does the definition of genocide and ethnic cleansing apply to the Khojaly calamity?
Firstly, preceding the Khojaly calamity that occurred from February 25-26 in 1992, there were a series of anti-Armenian pogroms led by the Azerbaijanis called the Sumgait, Kirovabad and Baku massacres. Each of these massacres was led by Azerbaijanis and took place between the time of 1988 and 1990, directly before the Khojaly event that Azerbaijan claims was an act of ethnic cleansing by Armenians. But even if we disregard these massacres and move on to the Khojaly massacre itself, there are several issues in calling the event ethnic cleansing.
During the time that the Khojaly calamity occurred, international sources point to the fact that Stepanakert, an Armenian town, was being shelled indiscriminately on a daily basis from Khojaly, Shushi and Janhasan. There were over 200,000 missiles fired from Khojaly. So did Azerbaijan anticipate that Armenians would not disarm Khojaly when they were being attacked?
And even then, why do international sources and Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov say that “the Armenians had, in any case, provided a corridor to let the civilians escape” when they could have shot them from a fortress called Askeran that they occupied that overlooks Khojaly, the very site that they were said to have “ethnically cleansed?” Why did Armenian troops allow civilians to reach another village by warning them in advance of an oncoming military assault, and why did the Azerbaijani government, who was aware of this attack, evacuate cattle before they evacuated their women and children?
Armenian troops warned Azerbaijan of their disarmament, even after being victims to a series of pogroms and attacks at the hands of the Azeris. They could have attacked but they allowed the civilians to escape. Is this ethnic cleansing?
Recently, the Azerbaijani government jailed and attacked a novelist for expressing sympathy for Armenians; promoted an Azerbaijani soldier for killing an Armenian in his sleep with an axe and exponentially increased their military spending while amplifying belligerent rhetoric against Armenia, threatening to shoot down civilian planes that fly into the Khojaly airport. All of these human rights violations stem from constructing an enemy out of a collective memory owned by the Azerbaijani government.
I call Azerbaijani students my brothers and sisters because we are global citizens of this world dedicated to fact, to truth, to justice, but I also wonder who has control over this collective memory of the Khojaly trauma?
At the last lecture hosted by the Azerbaijani Student Association, five armed security guards showed up and stood behind us because Armenian students were there, asking questions about Khojaly.
Azerbaijani peers, I mourn your losses and ours experienced during the time of this war. But I also ask that you question the blame you assign and question, as well as the very authority of the memories that have made me your enemy. Let’s speak for justice, but when we do, let’s also remember that justice can only be accompanied by the truth without fabrications, without physical force, without violations of our rights as human beings and global citizens.
Talar Malakian is a third-year English major. She can be reached at email@example.com.