This is a revised chapter from the original "Azerbaijan: Requiem for A Would-Be Republic" (Isis, Istanabul, 1995), now re-issued by M E Sharpe, NY, as "Azerbaijan: A Journey of Discovery and Despair in a Post-Soviet State, 1997."

Not for publications elsewhere without prior consent of the author

20

KELBAJAR



sSKREEEeee!...

It was another GRAD missile screeching in, and everyone on the helicopter landing pad dove for cover that was not there. Some things were instinctive.

KRVROM! VROM VROm VRom Vrom vrom vro vr....

The echo reverberated down the canyon in undulating waves. Then it was silent again and everyone on the ledge called the Kelbajar got to their feet and wondered if the next missile would strike a little closer. There was not much to do, even if it did.

The GRAD is not a very accurate weapon. Rather, it is designed to instill fear and panic. It whistles and screams and screeches through the sky before smashing home, wherever that was, and keeps you hunkered down and frightened. It was doing a very good job of doing that right now: there were about two or three hundred people on the landing pad and we were all hunkered down and frightened.

The only reason no-one ran away was because there was nowhere to go except up. The only way to that was to get on a helicopter. That was how I had gotten in to this rat-hole, killing zone called Kelbajar, and I was cursing myself for having done so. I wanted to get back up and out very badly.

The night before, a GRAD had blown up the house where I was staying. If it had been a 152 mm shell or a 500 pound aerial bomb, I wouldn't be around to tell the story. But it was only a GRAD and so everyone in the house was able to escape, tumbling over burning chairs and mattresses and into the garden, glad we had only been hit by a GRAD and not something else.

This was, of course, of small consolation for the owner. His name was Shamil Askerov, and he was the curator of the local museum and an authority on the Kurds of Kelbajar and Azerbaijan because he was one--a Kurd, that is. So were most of the people living in and around Kelbajar. He was so outraged at was happening to his town that he wept.

"Forty Armenians--and they take Kelbajar!" he wailed. He was using the number 40 rhetorically, in the sense of '40 days and 40 nights,' 'Ali Baba and the 40 thieves' and even the 40 day period of mourning in Shiite Islam.

Ironically, from what I have been able to patch together in the aftermath of the Armenian assault, the real number of attackers was not much higher. Shamil's son Khalid, who worked as a cameraman for Reuters, tried to calm his father. But it wasn't much use. It was not the loss of the refrigerator or television that upset Shamil so much, or even the loss of the family pictures or the autographed portrait of Mullah Mustafa Barzani that hung on the wall. That in itself was a tremendously resonant keep-sake for a Kurd. I did not ask if it was really so--why underline the point of pain?--but I wanted to think the autographed portrait had been hand delivered by the spiritual father of Kurdish nationalism himself, the Mullah, during the course of his Great Retreat from Iraqi Kurdistan to the then-Soviet Union in the 1960s. Why not?

Shamil was not weeping about the loss of the Barzani portrait or autograph. He was weeping for his books. All thirty thousand of them. They might have been dog-eared, badly printed and maybe not even very interesting to anyone else, but they were Shamil's pride and joy. He had even made his own card catalogue to guide the odd visitor through the collection. It was nicely and neatly organized into thematic sections like History (Ancient), History (Modern), Local Lore, Geology, Geography, Fiction and Politics. There were lots of standard, mass-produced titles about Soviet culture, along with works of the sort of minority language poetry, literature and obscure language dictionaries that only state sponsorship such as that of the late-USSR could create: Russian-Kurdish-Azeri, Armeno-Georgian and even a Lezgin-Talish-Russian phrase book, if I remember correctly.

I was given a tour of the shelves by flashlight the night before it all went up in smoke, and uttered appropriate 'ooos' and 'aahhs' when an interesting, odd, or familiar volume showed up on the shelves. I was tempted to ask Shamil if I could take a few books out on loan. But he was distraught and the request seemed too disingenuous: borrow a book tonight because tomorrow it won't be here anyway? No, asking for anything would have been too much like asking our host to give up hope, even though we knew that when the moment came to ask or plead that Shamil part with this or that particular book so that it might still be saved, it would be too late. The unspoken hope was that when Kelbajar fell and the house got looted, the man who looted it would be a bibliophile and not just a looter and burner plain and simple. He would be a man, I wanted to think, who would claim the library as his own and then protect it as his own--just like the other looters who would claim the refrigerator, chairs, rugs and pots and pans would protect their booty as their own.

That was the unspoken idea, anyway, as we sat around the table that last night and drank the last bottle of vodka that was in the refrigerator that didn't work because there was no electricity and ate the remaining fruit preserves in the pantry. That was dinner. There were big bags of rice and dried beans in storage, but we couldn't cook them because there was no running water because it ran on an electric pump and there was no gas for the stove because that had been cut some time before. I guess we could have lit a fire outside, but that seemed like a pretty stupid idea when the enemy was looking for anything in the dark to train their fire on. So we just sat around and ate and drank and talked about everything else but the inevitable--such as the destruction of the library. That moment came near dawn while we were asleep in the living room, snuggling between thick, lice-ridden mattresses and thick, lice-infested blankets. The room was redolent with the uniquely pungent odor of dirty socks and unwashed feet, and resonant with the undulating rasp of five snoring men. I heard it and woke or I woke and heard.

sskKREEE!...

There was no time to duck or cough, only to seize my boots used as a pillow and hope the roof didn't cave before I made it to the door or the window or through the hole in the wall that had just opened before my eyes.

KvVROMP!

Where's the old guy, someone asked of Shamil as the house started the burn. In the library, said someone else.

One or two or maybe all four of us went back in and made our way through the detritus and smoldering rubble. We found our host sitting among his thirty thousand books, most of which had pitched from their shelves, dictionaries mixed with poetry and geology and local lore, all scattered on the floor. "I want to die!" cried Shamil. "Let me die with my life!" Some of the books were already starting to smolder, and it didn't seem like a very good time to argue about the merits of dying just because one aspect of one's life's work was about to go up in smoke. But Shamil said he would not, could not, leave without his books. Someone, maybe me, was about to try and reason with him when the next GRAD came crashing into the house. Actually, it crashed into the garden where we had all been standing a few moments before, hitting close enough to the outhouse to scatter shit and shrapnel all over everything outside and make us very glad that we were inside when the thing hit. Getting killed by shit and shrapnel--what a way to die.

There was no time for reflection, however. GRADs were shot in clusters and if we had picked up two there would soon be a third and then a fourth and maybe more. Someone grabbed the crying old librarian by one arm and someone else grabbed him by the other arm and we dragged him out into the morning, out past the outhouse and the garden and into the street.

ssskKREE...KVROMP!!

The house was ablaze now but we were running down the road toward the heliport. We passed soldiers stripping off their uniforms and pulling on civilian clothes that didn't fit, stray dogs sniffing at trash and whimpering at every passing human, looking for their master. There were suitcases discarded all along the road, plastic sacks filled with clothes someone had belatedly deemed unnecessary and lots of other junk: pots and pans, baby strollers, broken TVs.

Then another GRAD came slicing in and we were eating dirt again and I was wondering what in God's name I was doing here and how in God's name I was going to get out.

*

Actually, I knew perfectly well why I was in Kelbajar. I had asked for it--or at least not resisted the idea sufficiently to be able to complain a great deal about the outcome.

When I had returned to Baku from Armenia, the immediate crisis caused by Rahim Gaziev and Surat Husseinov's joint dismissal seemed to be over. The details, however, remained murky. What I was able to stitch together was that on the night of February 8th, Iskender Hamidov was on state TV, possibly to announce Gaziev's removal from office on charges very close to treason. In the middle of the live broadcast, Gaziev and a cohort of men had attempted to take over the station.

The government's response to Gaziev's action was to label it an "attempted coup." Although removed from office, Rahim was not even detained. To see a man accused of treason sulking around the streets was very strange indeed. More serious was the game played by Surat Husseinov, who had been dismissed as the 'generalissimo' at the same time that Rahim lost his job. His response to demotion was to pull his 709th brigade off the line--and retire to the headquarters of the Russian 104th division in Ganje.

The result of this insubordination was not long in coming. Almost immediately, the Armenians launched a great winter offensive against the Azeri positions, and bloodspots like Janyatak, Mekhmana and Dromboi fell like dominos. The Azerbaijani army suffered more casualties in retreat than when it was advancing. While I was in Armenia, Hicran had gone off on another of her one-woman, illegal tours of the collapsing front just in time to watch the Azeris pull back from the area around the Sarsank reservoir in chaos and confusion.

"It was not very pretty," she said with unusual understatement. (The tour was courtesy Fehmin Hadjiev, the former prison warden-cum-Baku Commissar. After May 14/15th, he had been rewarded with the position of commander of the Daxili Kurshunlar, or 'Internal Forces'--an army of policemen with heavy weapons. Fehmin had no authority to let Hicran in an area that should have been under the control of the General Staff, but he was an old friend and made certain allowances. In Hicran's case, he provided her with a seat in the side-car of a three-wheel motorcycle, and off she went.) Queerly, then, there almost seemed to be a sense of relief in Baku in the face of the debacle on the front. Perhaps this was due to what one might call the "Sadat Syndrome," when the late Egyptian President claimed victory in the 1973 October War by dint of having proven to the nation and the world that his army could mount an attack, even if then obliged to retreat. If it had taken the horrific and miserable sacrifice of hundreds if not thousands of young men to arrive at this conclusion, it was worth it because the blood reality would bring both sides to the negotiating table. According to this logic, it was time to bury the dead, and let international mediators to do their thing.

Or so thought Baku.

Then, on March 31st, the telephone rang. It was Arif Aliev, Elchibey's new press-spokesman. I assumed he was inviting me to yet another photo-opportunity with yet another a departing dignitary at the airport.

"Arif," I said. "I told you I do not have time for that sort of nonsense."

"No, no," he said wearily, "I am not calling to invite you to distract you from your very important work of opening a bar."

"OK, you heard about that," I replied, irritated that anyone in government had heard of my get-rich-quick-off-the-oilmen scheme. "Then what do you want?"

"The Armenians have launched a new offensive."

"Says who?"

"I say so, as the press spokesman of the President."

"You know my rule, Arif--if I don't see it, I don't write it."

"You tell me about it every time I talk to you," he said.

That was true--I must have been rather difficult to deal with at times.

"Get to the point. Why are you calling?"

"I am telling you we have arranged a helicopter to take the press to the front to see it all!"

"What part of the front," I asked, mocking him. "Ganje? Fizuli or maybe this time Baku?" It was a standing joke that "the front" now meant a visit to a restaurant in a town sufficiently far from the action so that one's overly-inquisitive minder would not feel afraid.

"No, Thomas--this is not like before."

"Well, where do you want to send me?"

"To Kelbajar."

A sick feeling began to fill my gut.

Kelbajar--the province that extended like a finger in a vice between Karabakh and Armenia. With access restricted to a logging road over a 12,000 foot pass over the Murov Mountains, it had been under virtual blockade for a month and was the obvious place where the Armenians would pursue the war next. That day had apparently arrived.

Kelbajar. Arif was right. This was no invitation to go see the front lines for an hour or two and then proceed to the rear. It was an invitation to drop into a hell. And after all my prima donna antics about having to be an eye witness before writing anything about the war, there was no way I could decline.

Still, I tried to do just that, cloaking my anxiety in terms of a need for more information. Accordingly, I started calling around to friends in high places to get a better read of the situation. Everyone seemed to be otherwise occupied with the affairs of state--like that all important discussion in parliament about the price of champagne.

Then Arif called again.

"The helicopter leaves in one hour--are you going to be on it or not?"

"Tell the pilot to wait," I said. "I need to make a few more calls to editors."

I packed my bags and told Hicran where I was going. She wailed and shrieked and demanded the right to come along, too. I said no, muttering something about life insurance that we didn't have to support children we had not made, and the need for being rational at moments like this. She ran out of the house, tearing her hair. Through the door walked my side-kick, Laura Le Cornu, the American correspondent I had encouraged to set up shop in Baku.

"Come with me as far as the taxi stand," I asked her.

"Why?"

"I've got a bad feeling about this one and I want to dictate something."

"A will?"

"Yeah," I said, not having thought about it in those terms. "A last will and testament."

Laura took down the various notes before I jumped in a taxi to take me to the heliport at the edge of town. There I found my old pal Mustafa, the ecologist-cum-guide from the Defense Ministry Information Department with whom I had traveled when the Azeri army was lurching forward in the summer. He was not looking very happy himself.

"Where are the locals?" I asked, referring to the Azeri press.

"They are afraid to go," Mustafa replied.

It seemed the only other journalist in the group was a religious Turk who wrote for a newspaper called Zaman, which had the habit of calling me a spy. What fun.

"Mustafa," I said as I got aboard the bird. "I don't like this."

"Neither do I," he replied.

We got aboard the MI-8 chopper and were airborne, flying North and West over awful gray tundra for an hour before putting down at Agdam, where we picked up a dozen or so green-horn soldiers and some ammunition. I did not like this at all.

"They told me this was a press trip, not one to bring in re-enforcements!" I shouted at Mustafa after we were airborne again. He shrugged. Our next stop was Yevlak, where Arif Aliev had told me that we would change the MI-8 for a Cobra, or armored helicopter. But there was no Cobra to be seen on the tarmac, only dozens of other MI-8s, coming in to off-load knots of weeping and stunned refugees before taking off again. Mustafa offered no explanations and none were needed. A disaster of magnitude was unfolding before our eyes. We were looking at the pathetic survivors coughed out of the vortex into which we were diving.

"Where's the armored bird?" I asked, referring to the Cobra that was supposed to protect me.

"This is our transport," said Mustafa, indicating the MI-8 we had come in on.

I stood on the tarmac and took another good look at the helicopter. It was a duck bird, and dripping oil. Worse, there were soldiers were on board, re-enforcements, making it a legitimate target to shoot down if there ever was one.

"Shit," I said to myself, but aloud.

"Are you coming?" Mustafa asked.

I had to be insane to yes.

"This is the last time," I said, and got back on.

The pilot gunned the engine, the rotors began to whirl and we were once more airborne. We climbed and climbed and then moved West, skirting the familiar landscape of northern Karabakh from what I hoped was a missile-safe distance. Then we climbed some more and the air grew thinner and the cabin grew colder. There was snow on the ground below, and jagged peaks ahead: the Murov Mountains. We drifted over them, and the pilots started to take what seemed to be evasive action, banking and dropping and lifting. I could see plumes of smoke rising from the valley floor. Then we descended into a canyon, and after a long, low swoop through a narrow gorge we were suddenly hovering over Kelbajar.

Something beyond any fear I had ever felt was tugging at my guts, but I came up with a formula to defeat it. I said to myself: you have had a good run at this thing called life, so don't feel too blue if it is over soon. You are dead until you get out of this mess you have let yourself into. I didn't hear the gun-fire until I got out of the air-craft--and then it was too late to get back in.

*

The first day had been chaos, the night hell and now, at noon on the second day, the situation did not look promising at all.

We had missed two helicopters that morning after running away from Shamil's house, and they had been the last two we had seen. Now, in addition to the growing mass of refugees crowding around the heliport, there were more and more soldiers waiting to get out. Some were wounded men lying on stretchers; others still wore their body armor, even though they had discarded their guns. They may deserted, but they were still faced with the same problem the civilians had about abandoning the town: the only way out was up.

"They're coming, they're coming!" cried one soldier from his litter as his friends carried him by. "Get out while you can!"

The man looked yellow and tired but had no obvious wounds, and urging everyone to flee seemed gratuitous if only because there was nowhere to flee to. The young man squatting next to him had only a stump for a right hand and was bleeding from his boots but was quiet aside from some shock-moans. I took a lump of chewing tobacco and stuffed it in his mouth and told him it would take the pain away if he didn't get sick. Fifteen minutes later an old woman came up and told me the soldier wanted to see me.

"More," he said, yawning his mouth open. I stuffed in another plug. It had been about a half and hour since the last helicopter and that seemed more like half a day, although when the GRADs weren't exploding, waiting was less desperate than boring. More people came, bringing their mundane collection of belongings: cheap suitcases, bulging with old clothes; blankets and sheets that had been converted into pack bundles, cinched shut with rope or twine; some had brought pots and pans and even plates, hoping to take the proverbial kitchen sink with them into exile.

That really was not too far off the mark. Some people actually had hauled televisions, refrigerators and even a primitive washing machine to the airfield, hoping to save the bulky junk from looters. The larger items had been hauled to the periphery by pack animals, and a small herd of horses and donkeys stood grazing on garbage and weeds that had sprung up on the edge of the tarmac. Maybe the owners thought they could get the animals out, too.

Then we heard it again: the distant droning of a motor and the sort of flutter-woosh of rotors wings beating back gravity, the sort of sound a pheasant makes when jumping from the yellow reeds of autumn or by a sudden covey of pin-tail ducks diving over a blind. Whoosh-Whoosh-Whoosh... The MI-8 came in on a zig-zag course, sometimes flying below the ledge of the gorge, sometimes above and then below again, disappearing from view, although the droning motor noise kept on getting louder. Then with a rush, it climbed out of the gorge and hovered like a big black fly over the strip, its rotor blades blowing back everything loose beneath it: dirt and rocks and hats and scarves and even the suitcases scattered around the tarmac that had not been immediately seized and dragged out to the center of the pad.

As the throng shielded their eyes against the blow-back, the chopper touched down and a short, thick-set man with no neck jumped out. He was wearing khaki fatigues and a khaki cap and had a pistol strapped to his side. Despite the desert purdah, I recognized him--or thought I did. No it couldn't be! The man turned; it was indeed him--the erstwhile Watermelon Merchant, the unspeakable State Secretary, Panakh Husseinov.

"What are you doing here?" I yelled over the helicopter roar. Panakh skewed his nose and gestured at the human mess seething all around us. He was going down with the ship. Whatever else they say about Panakh Husseinov, I will grant him this: he was the only ranking member of government to go to Kelbajar on what seemed a suicide mission.

"Where is Iskender?" I screamed. *

"Sleeping," shouted Panakh.

_________________________________________

* Iskender Hamidov, the 'Bozkurt' and native son of Kelbajar, had apparently gone into a state of shock. He certainly was never quite the same after the events of March 31-April 1 1993.


Then he was off, waving his pistol at the crowd to force them back while some men behind him in the helicopter began throwing out bread, shoveling the loafs out the door like coal. The loafs blew this way and that under the force of the idling rotor blades. It was pretty stupid, I considered, dumping out bread like that when the only ones likely to eat it would be the approaching enemy. They were probably traveling light and would be hungry once they got into the town if their forward spotters had not already penetrated the periphery and started looting the pantries of the outlying houses. The fresh bread would probably be a welcome addition to their diet.

A man tried to force his way by Panakh to get on the helicopter before all the bread had been dumped. Panakh pistol whipped him and the man fell down. Then he fired a few rounds into the air. Shooting in the air did not seem like a very good idea because that was where the rotors were. I had several questions: How many holes could propellers take? How well could wounded pilots fly?

The pistol reports stopped the crowd until the bread was off-loaded. Then the people surged forward again, clawing at the door while Panakh screamed at the pilot to lift off. The rotors tilted and the chopper lurched upward ten feet off the ground, revealing two men hanging from the bottom. One was doing a pull-up on the bottom of the door frame, while the other had latched on to one of the chopper's wheels. They dangled there while the pilot rocked the hovering bird back and forth with the use of the back rotor blade to make the men fall back to earth. When they fell, or dropped off while the chopper was still low enough to do so without killing themselves, the MI-8 seemed to jump a few feet, as if relieved of a tether. The straggling crowd surged beneath while the pilot coyly shuttled above the landing strip, looking for an empty place to land. Luggage heaved and skidded under the gale; anything light enough to get blown around got blown around, children included.

The chopper put down again near the soldiers at the far end of the field and the crowd of civilians ran after it. Some soldiers held back civilians while others hauled wounded soldiers aboard. Then the soldiers doing the loading got in themselves, followed by the soldiers holding back the crowds. Then the helicopter rose and started to bank away to take its dive through the gorge.

I was furious, and shaking my fist at the chopper and the men aboard. The unwritten rule of refugee operations is that women and children get out first, followed by the wounded, the elderly, village idiots--and then stranded journalists. The armed men are supposed to go last. But here, the men with guns were saving themselves first.

"I hope you crash!!" someone screamed at the departing helicopter, and I realized with a jolt that it was me shouting. I wanted to be on that helicopter very, very badly.

esSKREEEeee!...another GRAD crashed into the eastern slope of the gorge, and everyone was down on the asphalt again.

KRVROM! VROM VROm VRom Vrom vrom vro...

Once again, the missile echoed its impact in sharp, undulating waves up and down the valley.

KRRBRAAM!!!...

Another explosion rippled through the chasm. But it was too loud, too big for an impacting GRAD to make. And there hadn't been any preliminary scream: it was the chopper that had just disappeared over the rim. It seemed incredible that the Armenians were shooting at helicopters with GRAD missiles, and even more incredible that they had been able to hit one. It was kind of like throwing a rock at a distant crow on the wing: a lucky shot.

I walked--why run?--over toward the cliff edge to see. Maybe the helicopter had just crashed and exploded because it hadn't been able to regain altitude due to its load and had hit an outcropping; maybe it had just continued its downward dive and crashed at the bottom of the gorge because it was overweight. The choppers were designed to carry two dozen people, maybe three, but all those flying out of the field were carrying twice or three times that load so it wouldn't be too surprising if this one hadn't been able to clear a bluff or outcropping in the canyon. It was a miracle that any of them could make it at all.

A long, gray plume of smoke was sneaking over the ledge when I arrived, but another bluff at a bend in the river below blocked the view of the area from where the smoke was rising. Without getting around it and how many other bluffs that also might be in between, there was nothing to see but the plume of smoke and it was impossible to tell what caused it.

Maybe it was the smoke from the missile, or a house or barn it had destroyed. Maybe the chopper hadn't crashed at all, but was whirling its way north through the canyon like helicopters do in films, skimming near but never hitting the rocky outcroppings or trees or telephone wires along the way. I wanted to think it was so and kept on waiting for the chopper to appear from beneath the canyon walls as a distant speck, but it never did and there was no motor sound or even the flutter-woosh of the blades beating back anything anymore.

I picked up one of the bread loaves that Panakh Husseinov's chopper had dumped on the landing pad and started to chew it. Someone saw me and invited to east some eggs and cucumber they had brought with them from home. Mustafa appeared with the Turkish correspondent and we all hunkered down for a picnic lunch, right there on the landing pad, waiting to get saved. A few more missiles crashed into the town, but we getting used to it by now. I even took off my shirt to catch a few rays of sun on my chest, and napped a few hours. There wasn't much else to do.

When I woke, the sun had shifted West and people now had shadows. And there were many more people camped on the landing pad than before my nap. And still more were arriving. A trickle of folks were coming from the East, mainly in ones and twos, while from the South, along a trail by the river, we could see an animal caravan of donkeys and mules, piled high with bedding and sundry possessions, snaking its way toward us.

The caravan arrived. A few more missiles crashed into the town. Gunfire sputtered in the distance, closer now.

Then an old man got to his feet, hoisted his fat old wife on his back and started walking north toward the mountains. Then another man grabbed his suitcase and a single-barrel shotgun and joined the couple. The three were then followed by a group of five, then ten, then twenty others, and the entire field began to stir. Men lifted bundles on their backs and mothers cinched infants to their chests. Younger men went over to the pack animals and began strapping bundles on or taking them off, it wasn't clear which. Soldiers stripped off their uniforms, pulling on civilian clothes that didn't fit, and joined the exodus.

So it had come to this. We were going to hoof it out over the enemy lines, over the mountains, maybe. The prospect was not appealing. All of us, I am sure, could only think of one word and were praying that it did not apply to us: Xodjali. Would the Armenians massacre another batch of pathetic refugees? Why not?

"What do we do?" asked the Turkish reporter whom Mustafa and I had started calling 'Zaman' because that was the name of his newspaper.

"I guess we join them," I said.

"But...but..."

I understood what Zaman was trying to say. As a Turk, he was a little apprehensive about falling into Armenian hands. Word was they liked had a penchant for "doing an Andranik' on certain types of prisoners, which meant cutting off ears and things like that; the Andranik-style, so called. FN1

I tried to be helpful

"Do you speak any other languages than Turkish?" I asked Zaman.

"Some Quranic Arabic and a bit of French," he replied.

"If we are captured, you are my photographer, from Algeria." I said. "Just do not speak Turkish."

"Okay," said Zaman, relieved to be in the possession of the fiction. I didn't want to remind him that many Armenians spoke both French and Arabic; he might have freaked. Mustafa was going to be a different story, however. He would be dead meat if captured, and there was nothing I could think of to prevent it and live to tell the tale myself.

We picked up a couple of the loafs of bread still lying on the tarmac and walked across the field, passing the old man carrying the old woman on his back. He was already tired and had placed his wife on the ground while he caught his breath. He looked at us and we looked at him. There was no way he was going to make it 30 miles over a mountain with his wife on his back. He wasn't going to make one mile down the road. I would like to claim that I selflessly shouldered the old lady, but that is not true. Neither did Mustafa or Zaman. We passed them by. I know this for a fact became about a minute later we were running back past them toward the heliport. We had heard the distant buzz of a chopper, another chopper!

Others heard it, too. A huge, throbbing melee greeted us on the heliport pad, as panicked people sprinted across the field toward two helicopters, leaving a wake of material detritus behind them for others to stumble over. This time, however, I was not taking pictures of the crush around the choppers--I was in the middle of it. Mustafa, Zaman and I arrived before most others. But in a bruising instant, there were forty people between me and the door, fighting and scratching and shoving to be the first aboard.

"Let's go!!" It was Mustafa, near enough to the door to force his way aboard. But I couldn't do it. I could not be part of the mad-dog crowd, fighting with each other for a berth.

"Women and children first," I shouted at him, and shouldered my way free of the crowd. The truth of the matter was that I was more frightened about getting aboard one of the overloaded choppers than I was concerned about the fate of the women and children at this point, but it sounded good and brave.

Then I saw Mustafa struggling to get back off the helicopter. The stupid shit, I said to myself. I was ready to abandon him to the wrath of the Armenians if caught going over the mountains, but here he is refusing to abandon dumb-shit me.

"We can still walk out," I shouted as he approached. He was furious.

"Your job is to get the news out," he slowly shouted back, looking me in the eye. "The only way you can do that is by getting out of here--and you have just thrown away our last chance."

Indeed, the second helicopter was revving its engines for take-off, and then struggling into the air, massively overloaded.

"Where's Zaman?" I asked.

"I don't know...maybe up there," said Mustafa, referring to the choppers.

Silently, we watched the rescue vehicles become receding dots in the sky, and then disappear altogether. More gunfire crackled in the near distance. I felt awful.

We took a step or two and then froze. Once again, there was the tell-tale droning of a distant helicopter, that grew louder by the second. Two more choppers were coming in.

"Let's get going," said Mustafa, in a tone somewhere between an order and a plea.

The two choppers landed at different ends of the field, and Mustafa chose the one furthest away, near the edge of the gorge. Rather than trying to compete with the mass of people clawing at each other to be first in through the single door, we went around to the far side of the chopper and found ourselves staring at five porthole windows above the fuel tanks.

"This is it," said Mustafa, hoisting himself up. With a swift kick, he forced one of the windows open, and then slithered through the porthole, disappearing inside.

The pilot was gunning the engine and the rotors had begun to whirl. The machine began to lift off its springs, blowing back every piece of loose rubble beneath it with the force of the rotor-induced gale. The back wheel that was sunk in a divot in the tarmac began to rise. The moment had come.

"Lord in Heaven," I breathed a prayer.

Maybe I was trying to get aboard, maybe I was trying to avoid being crushed--I don't know. But suddenly I was up on the fuselage, stripping off my jacket and stuffing it and my camera through to Mustafa. I shot my elbows through the port-hole, clawing at the arms and legs and clothes of those inside to pull my way through, completing the maneuver with a sort of somersault and clear a path inside--and then I was in there, sprawling next to Mustafa on the floor. I looked at him and he looked back at me but there was no need to say the words on both our minds: there was no way out of this one anymore.

A pair of kicking feet were coming through the porthole, and a voice outside was shouting my name. It was Zaman. We grabbed him by the legs and yanked him inside; his face was about to explode with terror. The other portholes were being smashed in by others trying to flee, but there was no more room at all, so those who were already inside began pushing out the heads and feet of those trying to get in. Hands were still clawing at the open cargo door across the corridor and a man who looked like the navigator of co-pilot was kicking at the fingers to pry them free.

The rotors began to turn faster and the chopper lurched upwards, with every stomach aboard sinking an inch for every twelve inches climbed. When we were hovering about ten feet off the ground, the pilot started the shaking routine in order to jostle a few extra hundred kilos of humanity off the landing gear before putting the bird in forward motion. I couldn't see the extra passengers but I knew they were there and knew what would happen to them. They would fall and maybe die or at least get broken bones and then maybe die anyway. I felt badly for them but the pilots had a point. There was no point in killing one hundred people, yourself included, when you had the option of abandoning only twenty to their doom. Someone had to decide, and it was just too bad that it was the pilots who had to be the ones to do so.

They were brave guys, the pilots, because no one in their right mind would be here now, by choice. The pilots had chosen to fly in repeatedly, which meant they were either incredibly brave and dedicated or just dedicated and courageous in the sense that animals are when they walk wires and jump through flames. That was what they called training. And if commendable, the question remained whether it was courageous or brave or just stupid. I thought about that for awhile because thinking such thoughts kept my mind off the fact that I was about to die. We were all dead, I said to myself--and felt an awful tingle of adrenaline rush from my toes to my eyes. Then I told myself there was no point in being afraid of that fact that we were dead. The people who were afraid were afraid because they feared dying and the brave were only so because they were crazy enough not to fear death. But if you were dead already, why care? Everybody on the chopper was dead until proven otherwise, so it seemed stupid to get upset or worry about things like personal safety. Yes, we are all dead until proven otherwise, I said to myself, and found solace in that notion. Dead, dead, dead, I said, and then I smiled.

I wanted to share this insight with Zaman. He was a sight: squeezed between six or eight people, sweat was pouring off his face like he had just emerged from a Turkish bath. His lips were moving with what must have been a prayer. Others, too, appeared to lack a philosophical approach to the moment, and were suffering accordingly. An old woman squatting near my left was gasping for breath, her eyes rolling about their sockets, moaning as if she were in labor for her first child even though she wasn't pregnant or at least didn't look as though she was or could be because she looked too old to be so. Then she started vomiting over an old man sitting next to her, who was trying to hold her up and stay clear at the same time. It looked like Shamil, the librarian, but I couldn't be sure. A couple of other people joined in with their own retching and the cabin quickly took on an odor of puke and sweat and filthy bodies and wounds. What a way to die.

I forced my way to the cockpit to say a voiceless hello to the pilot, who leaned back to give me a thumbs-up sign. From his green eyes and blondish hair, he looked like he was a Russian. He also looked familiar from some place--the flight into Xodjali the year before? A Baku bar? It was difficult to place him but it didn't matter. Whatever context it had been, we were in a different world now.

The chopper was way off the ground by now and still climbing in the way that helicopters make their impossible climbs, groaning and shuddering as they defy gravity and common sense. Just that one little piece of metal, holding on the rotors, and should that snap...

Count the passengers, the pilot instructed me with hand signals, interrupting my terror-thought.

I turned around and tried to make the assessment he had asked for by twos, threes and then fives. I got up to 75 before I stopped. The MI-8 was designed to hold 24 people and their luggage, if fitted out for passenger service. We were at least three times that number, maybe four. The thought was about to fill me with fear until I remembered my vow of indifference and the fact that I was dead until I was alive again but this time it did not help at all.

How in God's grave's name are we going to make it over the pass?

The blue-white mass of the Murov Mountains was coming ever closer, ridges now distinguishable by individual patches of blue and white and now blue and black and gray and white. Below, through the Plexiglas of the cock-pit, I could see people, folks on foot and leading horses or donkeys or mules, all slogging upward toward some unseen pass. Just as the cliché has it, they looked like ants. Actually, they looked like people and animals the way people and animals look when you look down at them from a tall building and say that they look like ants because you don't know what else to say. Then the ants who were people and animals started to get bigger, growing to the point where you couldn't say they looked like ants anymore. They looked like tiny people. And the blue and gray and white blur of the snow field was coming into sharper focus, too. The rocks and boulders and sharp crags extended like stiff fingers from the bottom of a deep break in the mountain ridge: the pass.

Altitude, I said aloud, although no one could hear or understand me. The pilot was talking in his head set to the co-pilot or engineer or whoever the other guy in the uniform looking at the dials in the cockpit might was. Both sets of lips were moving, anyway, although the gauges seemed to stay the same. Altitude, I repeated, tapping the pilot on the shoulder. It would only take a few more inches to clear the ridge and wishing might be the way to climb up that last few feet.

An ominous clicking sound filled the cockpit over the motor roar as the chopper clawed for more sky. The pilot turned to me, trying to shout over the noise. Maybe he was telling me to jump, bravely saving the rest by removing my own body weight, allowing the chopper to soar. Or maybe he was telling me to jump and land miraculously on a deep pile of snow while everyone else smashed into the rock-face and died. I could not understand his instructions, so I stayed where I was. The dials remained frozen in place, the clicking in the cabin grated like a high-pitched rattle. The rocks and crags were so close I could have reached out and touched them. I closed my eyes.

You have had a good ride on this thing called life; you have no right to complain...

The helicopter lurched forward and down and my gut smashed through my brain. But there was no impact, and the clicking noise diminished by the second. I opened my eyes and looked at the green-eyed pilot and he looked at me. Sweat was pouring down his face, but he was smiling and the co-pilot was reaching for a cigarette.

I looked back. The distance between us and the black crags and rocks of the Murov pass was growing, second by second.

We had cleared the pass by five feet.

The chopper after ours didn't.

*

We landed at Yevlak, giddy for the fact of being alive. The evening flight to Baku was ready to leave, and we 'liberated' some seats with the help of Mustafa's Defense Ministry credentials and his gun.

But the closer we got to Baku, the more we sunk into a collective, evil mood. First it was listening to the idle chit-chat of the other passengers on the plane. Then it was the taxi driver, who thought it a fine time to lecture us about a war he had never seen. It got worse as we drove through downtown, watching young bucks and snazzy gals on parade, poking in and out of the myriad 'commercial shops.'

I hit the outside of toleration when I got home to discover our new landlord, a former Komsomol leader who was using our $400 a month in rental money to bribe his way clear of the draft, perched in the living-room, anxious that I pay a $5 electricity bill that had built up over two months. It seemed he was afraid I might die and leave him holding the bill. I kicked him out, poured myself a long drink and sat down to write the Kelbajar story. And that is when I started to go crazy. Not one editor I worked with was interested in Kelbajar because it was not on the AP or Reuters wire.

"Not on the wires!" I shouted down the international telephone line. "Of course it is not on the wires! No one else was there!"

"Okay, okay," came the response. "File away."

I did so. But the story did not run that night nor the next day. Nor the next. I called the next day to find out why.

"We were tight for space," said a sub-editor.

"Well, what about an up-date?"

"We have already done that here," said the sub. "We topped off your material with some wire copy coming out of Moscow."

"Wire copy from Moscow? That said what?"

"Well, the Armenians are denying there was any attack on that place you said you were," said the desk man. "In fact, they say they were being attacked. So we are using that instead."

I went ballistic. I said things that I almost regret having said, but not quite. I spoke about attaching my gonads to the bottom of helicopters to get a better view of things than any motherfucker sitting in Moscow was able to get. I said I was an idiot because I was risking my fucking life for original material that no one wanted because they preferred quoting official sources and western observers and other fakes and frauds. I slammed down the phone. I had had it, I was through, finito, done, cooked, finished, fucked.

It was a real déjà vu of the Xodjali Massacre story of a year before, but with a twist. Then, I had been under the erroneous impression that copy was being spiked because it went against the grain. I had been so, so wrong then: the paper that I had so publicly maligned--the Washington Post and its foreign editor, David Ignatius--had in fact run all the copy I sent them.

But now the newspaper in question was openly admitting to stalling and then spiking material. I have never been so disappointed in concept of "news" and the fecklessness of editors, before or since. Disappointed? Utterly aghast, amazed, driven-into-despair is more like it. You don't give a fuck about the fact that I nearly died to report about 60,000 hapless souls who you won't report about because it does not suit your political interests?

There are times...

*

But news of Kelbajar was beginning to trickle out.

One of the first things I did upon returning to Baku was to book a call Alexis Rowell in Tblisi to brief him on the situation in Azerbaijan. He was at a late night party, but I left a detailed note on his answering machine. I told him to get his ass in his car and drive south until he was at the top of the Murov Mountain pass. If he got there--and if he got my note-I promised him he would be the first correspondent to report on a replay of the Great Kurdish Exodus from northern Iraq in 1991. People cared about that one, then; maybe they would care about this one, too.

Around nine or ten o'clock the next morning, still sleeping off the exhaustion of Kelbajar and the drunk that had followed my fight with editors, I was awoken by the insistent ringing of the phone. It was Alexis, speaking broken Russian.

"Alexis, cut the crap and speak English to me."

A bitter laugh greeted me, and then a burst of words.

"I can't because I'm in jail in Ganje and they will only let me speak in a language they can understand!"

"What?"

"Get me out so I can file this fucking story!!"

A man interrupted us. He was a cop, he said, and would not allow us to pass secrets in the secret language...

"Give me Nino, the foreigner's assistant, you idot!" I screamed in Azeri.

"There is no need to talk like that."

"Put the woman on the phone!"

"Kak dyla, Tomas," said Nino, sounding totally drained.

"Talk to me."

Nino, in obligatory Russian, related the following: after driving all night and up the northern slope of the Murov range, Alexis had found tens of thousands of half-frozen and utterly exhausted people stumbling over the pass. Then he had turned around and sped to Ganje to file his report-only to be arrested by some policeman walking by the telephone booth because he was speaking in English. The government had issued a proclamation for a State of Emergency the night before, and the local authorities thought that meant censoring news reports and conversations in languages they did not understand. Aside from the one telephone call to me, Alexis was being held incommunicado.

I went into action immediately to free him. It required the personal intervention of President Abulfez Elchibey himself, although Alexis remained in jail for some six hours more. In the interim, the only news out of Azerbaijan was about the government cracking down on dissent with its new emergency powers, and when he finally filed his story, it was the state of emergency that was the news, and not the bitter fall of Kelbajar.

*

But Alexis was not finished. The relentless Rowell got back to Tblisi, then turned the corner and high-tailed it down to Armenia where that "interested" country bordered the Azerbaijani province of Kelbajar. There, he recorded impressions about the state of the roads in the area, such as the fact that they had been recently gouged with the sort of tracks usually associated with armored vehicles working through mud. From there, he pushed into Karabakh where, in addition to being given a tour of depots filled with televisions, refrigerators and rugs looted from Kelbajar, he was introduced to the Armenian commander who had spearheaded the Kelbajar expedition. The commander, a French national, said he had taken his Karabakh-based command--about half Karabakh Armenians and half Armenia Armenians--and the necessary equipment through the Lachin corridor into Armenia, traveled back up north to a parallel with Kelbajar, and then punched in from the west, where terrain was more suitable for an assault.

Once more, this was news that no one wanted. Armenia was still not officially involved in the conflict--and allowing their territory to be used even by a purely "Karabakh" force could only be regarded as involvement. FN2 But the Armenians got away with it again because no one wanted to know--not Washington, the UN or even Ankara. FN3 The weirdest and most shameless indifference to the plight of the victims, who were primarily Azeri Kurds, was displayed by international Kurdish organizations. Despite an appeal by Kurdish societies in Azerbaijan to "The Kurds of the World" for aid and assistance or at least condemnation of the Armenian assault, the ethnic cleansing of Kelbajar, like Lachin before it, remained a taboo subject. FN4

*

Meanwhile, on the northern slopes of Murov mountain, units of the exhausted and defeated Azerbaijani army, some of which had been on the road for ten days, were preparing to launch a last, desperate thrust over the crest in order to save the remaining refugees trapped on the far side. It had been several days since my own helicopter escape. Now it was time to go back and cover the aftermath.

I started in Baku, flew to Ganje on a death-plane, landed, got picked up a taxi driven by a man who was incredibly heroic until he saw a few wounded soldiers, and ended at a road sign announcing it was 36 kilometers to Kelbajar. Lined up behind the sign were nine mountain howitzers, a chuck wagon and a white Niva jeep, the personal property of a colonel who commanded of the howitzers. He told us he had spent 25 years in the Soviet Army as an artillery specialist, had returned to his homeland to take command of the Shemker Mobile Artillery Brigade and lead it up and over a very bad and snow-clogged dirt road into enemy turf, but he refused to tell us his name.

Perhaps he was embarrassed. His men had received two months of training and were as green as spring grass; their equipment, in contrast, was almost ancient--and of the nine 120 mm Howitzer units, only two of them had radios that functioned.

"Army, they call this an army," he muttered as the tankers checked their ordinance and waited for the orders.

Finally, it was time to climb.

"SHEMKERCILAR!" bellowed the colonel.

"XADIR!" shouted his adolescent troops, "Ready!"

"Fire your engines, and move out!"

The nine motors rumbled to life, and the kid drivers flipped open their steering hatches.

"Colonel," I said, "I want to go up with you."

He looked at me for awhile and smiled. It was against the rules and regulations, but he had already violated quite a few by allowing me to get this far.

"Get in," he said, gesturing at the white NIVA.

The colonel gunned the car to the front of the line, and proceeded to lead his men up-mountain. We ground our way through a mixture of mud-ice, dead sheep and household junk discarded by thousands of people too weak to carry even those pathetic possessions they had tried to salvage any further. Finally, in a bowl-shaped valley tucked beneath the last, snow-bound ridge on the north slope of the Murov Mountains, the commander commanded his men to halt and set up firing positions.

"Are you familiar with this equipment?" he asked.

"No," I admitted.

"Well, let me give you a little lesson in modern war," he said with a sardonic smile. "These machines are mountain howitzers. They have a range of five kilometers, because their shells go up and down."

"So how do you aim them?"

"With spotters, of course. But that is where we have a big problem."

"No spotters?"

"No, we have plenty of spotters--although I can't vouch for how good they are. The problem is that when we received the machines from the Russians, we discovered that they had stripped the radio equipment out of most of them."

"So?"

"So when a radio man sends down the coordinates of a target, we have to run them between one vehicle to the next."

"I see..."

"No, you don't. Because if you are giving fire, you are usually under fire and when you are under fire--especially if you are a young, untrained soldier like all these kids under my command--you like to fire back, even if you don't have coordinates."

"Meaning..."

"Meaning a lot of wasted ammunition, as well as a lot of self-inflicted deaths among our own front-line men when we bomb them instead of the enemy."

"In English, we call that friendly fire."

"Funny name for it."

We stood there looking at the guns crank up and down, and then the commander turned to me.

"Well, do you want to go on up and take a look at the rest of the mess?"

"Sure."

So we proceeded upward along the gouged and battered road. One strange sight was a Red Cross ambulance, shoved halfway off a ledge because it had been blocking the road. What was it doing up here? Another sad sight was that of a fresh helicopter wreck; clothes, twisted steel and bits of mangled body lay strewn across the snow: the chopper that crashed after ours had cleared the pass. Near the summit, we ran into a ragged company of ten soldiers collapsed on the ice.

"You cowards! Off your asses when you see an officer, or I will have you shot!" screamed the colonel, ordering them to march through the snow-fields to higher positions.

The weary grunts got up and muttered among themselves; I thought for a moment that they might turn on us--it was only their commanding officer and his pistol against the bunch of them. But when he ordered them to march through the snow-fields to higher positions to deploy, they shuffled upward and onward toward the Murov Mountain pass, and the lost town of Kelbajar on the far side. The last of the lot was a young man on a crutch, limping up-mountain behind his comrades.

"We are being sent to die," he said, and then clumped onward and upward. It was almost the saddest sight I have seen.

"They are only kids, I know," said the colonel. "Everyone else has run away."

The condemned soldiers moved off, turning into black dots in the glistening snow-field. Then above them, moving towards us, came three figures. Reaching the track that served as a sort of logging road, the three turned out to be five--an exhausted man in his early thirties, and two women in their twenties, carrying their infant children, aged three and six months. All were snow-burned and in semi-shock after their six-day-trek through forests and 9000 foot mountains passes.

"When we left we were about thirty people," said Settar Tagiev, the male in the group. "But we got split up during the journey and now we don't know what happened to the others. Maybe they are all dead." I thought I recognized him from the Kelbajar heliport, but could not be sure.

The Tagiev band were probably the last Azeri refugees to make it over the main, eastern pass from Kelbajar to the refugee collection center at Hanlar, which had already processed some 30,000. Another center at Yevlak had processed the 3,000 lucky souls who had flown out by chopper, while another center at the town of Dashkesen had processed around 6,000. Although Baku said that the normal population of the region was 60,000, local officials said that the real number was closer to 45,000--which still made for some 5,000 people unaccounted for--lost, dead or captured as hostages on the south side of the pass. Those left behind were the most vulnerable--the old, women and children. Even among those who had made it across a day or two before, there were numerous cases of severe frost-bite and more than 40 exposure deaths. With each day, the chances of survival for those stuck in the snow on the far side of the range dimmed--and even for those who made it across the snow-fields into friendly hands. Before my eyes, the Tagiev group was reduced from five, to four and then to three: the children the parents had carried in their arms over the pass were unwrapped from their protective bundles. They were all dead--and no-one, not even the parents, knew when they had expired. In fact, the woman of the group appeared to still think her children were alive and merely sleeping.

"Had enough?" the colonel asked me.

"Yeah," I said.

We drove in silence down through the mixture of refugee detritus, passed the mountain guns with no radios manned by soldiers who were kids and then finally arrived at the head of the valley where our journey had begun.

"Tell me," I said. "What's your name."

"Rahim," said the colonel. "Rahim Guliyev."

"Thanks," I replied, grateful for the front-line trust.

I walked down the road from Hanlar and managed to hitch-hike a ride with a truck full of sheep and refugees from Kelbajar. The Young Pioneer camps lining the road were now filled with refugees. Four T-72 tanks and a couple of GRAD launchers with accompanying fuel and ammunition trucks rumbled by, moving up. A man's name had been stenciled on the side of the tanks, advertising the loyalty of the men inside: SURAT.

I quivered with anger. Husseinov's 709th division was based less than 50 miles away--but it had taken him two weeks to send the equipment. Even more flabbergasting were the people who cheered as the armor rolled by, applauding dereliction of duty that bordered on treason. Stranger was the atmosphere at the nearby army HQ. While wounded men who hadn't slept in days were being sent over the Murov mountain pass to their doom, their comrades who had done so little to defend Kelbajar were sitting around, smoking, chatting and playing cards. I asked for the 'stab,' or staff office, and was directed over to a guest house among the trees. A man in uniform was polishing a black Volga in front. Suddenly, everyone snapped to attention: the regional commander, General Nejmettin Sadikov, was striding down the steps of the villa. He was dressed in his parade togs, replete with a red sash running down each pant leg, and carrying a snazzy cap under his arm with epaulets on the brim.

"Hello, General," I said. "Got time to talk?"

"Nyet," he snapped.

An aid opened the door to the back seat of the Volga, the general got in and the car roared off.

"Where is he going?" I asked one of the staff officers.

"To see Surat," replied the officer.

To see Surat, wool-merchant, descendant of the Prophet, Mafia don, traitor. Surat, whose armor had been two weeks too late in moving up to save the Tagiev family, Shamil's library and whatever and whoever else was lost in the course of the sell-out of Kelbajar. I thought of the kids on the mountains pass and wanted to puke. These people didn't need the Armenians for enemies. They had themselves.





NOTES to Chapter 20

FN1) Andranik Ozaniyan, the Armenian carpenter-cum-revolutionary who struck terror in the heart of the Ottoman authorities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His name is usually associated with the sustained Sasun revolt of 1899 in the district of Mush in today's eastern Turkey. Thereafter, he escaped to Russian Armenia and from there to Europe, only to reappear at the head of Armenian partisans fighting with the Bulgarians against the Ottoman Turks in 1912; following W.W.I, he continued his activities in and around Karabakh, and developed the art of keeping ears as proof of the number of enemy he killed. Not surprisingly, the Azeris also developed a taste for this sort of mutilation. Both sides maintain that the other started collecting ears first.










FN2) A year later, in Yerevan, I met an Armenian correspondent who was with the assault group. We determined that he entered Kelbajar at around the same hour I left it. And of course, he and the assault force had entered the outlying precincts of the town from the west, from Armenia.










FN3) "There is a great deal about the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict that reminds me of my childhood in Egypt," Mahmud Al-Said, the special Ambassador of the United Nations in Baku, wryly noted one day, referring to the multiple resolutions concerning Israeli aggression that built up over the years with no result.










FN4) Appeal of the Kurds Living in Azeraijan to the Kurds of the World. Baku, April 2nd, 1993: "We, the thousands of Kurds of Azerbaijan, have lived for centuries in peace and friendship with the Azerbaijanis. As regards the development of democracy in Azerbaijan, there is respect for our language, customs and practices. We print newspapers and books in our language, and have radio broadcasts as well. There is even a Kurdish cultural center. But during the past five years, the Kurdish people, like the other peoples of Azerbaijan, have suffered greatly due to continued Armenian aggression. The Kurds of Lachin were subjected to genocidal politics: hundreds of the elderly, women and children were killed or taken as prisoners and the honor of the Kurds grossly violated. Twelve Kurdish villages were erased from the face of the earth.

The politics that led to the expulsion of the Kurds from their lands at the hands of the Armenians continues to this day. The population of 60,000 civilians in Kelbajar have now been surrounded, and an even greater disaster than the Xodjali Massacre is now at hand. The Kurds of the region are now being slaughtered along with the Azerbaijanis who live there. Houses are being looted and then razed, and the people destroyed.

History cannot be allowed to repeat itself! Up until today, tens of thousands of Kurds have been repeatedly dislodged and hounded out of Armenia--1905, 1908, 1937, 1947-48. In 1988-89, over 20,000 Muslim Kurds were driven out of their ancestral homes in Armenia, of which 12,000 chose to settle in Azerbaijan. Now, once more, due to the unfounded territorial claims of Armenia against Azerbaijan, all the peoples living in Azerbaijan are bleeding as the result of yet another expulsion from their homes. We, in the name of the Kurdish community, wish to reiterate that Azerbaijan is our country, and that the Azerbaijanis are our closest friends.

Dearest kinsmen! Please inform all comrades of the disaster visited upon us by the Armenians! Accept the disaster visited upon the Kurdish men and women of Azerbaijan as your own! Let them know that the Lachin and Kelbajar disasters are merely a continuation of the Xodjali Massacre!

We call on the world Kurdish community to join us, the Kurds of Azerbaijan, to start a massive, international campaign of solidarity to free our country from aggression and occupation! We call on you to help us save our ancient homeland in Azerbaijan in the name of justice and peace!

Signed: 'Ronayi' Kurdish Cultural Center

To my knowledge, the document has never seen the light of day in any international human rights publications because it goes so much against the grain of conventional wisdom about the Kurds and the Armenians. The one exception to this conspiracy of silence is the (Iranian) Kurdish scholar Mehrda Izadi. Having surveyed the various Armenian sources about the Lachin and Kelbajar Kurdish 'revolts,' including estimates of the numbers of oppressed Kurds living in the area, he asked the simple question of why it was that there were no Kurds to be seen in those regions today. The heart-wrenching title of his article says it all: 'You Too, Armenia?' Cf. Kurdish Life, Spring 1994.


Used with exclusive permission from the author.
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