On my first visit to “the land of fire” a few months after the Armenians attacked the town of Khojaly in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan on Feb. 26, 1992, hearts were still on fire with the tragedy.
Some 613 Azerbaijani Turks, many of them small children, women and elderly were ruthlessly massacred as part of a pogrom-like extermination of Turkish identity.
Azerbaijan was burning. There was a deficiency of “national consciousness” as only a short while ago the land had been part of a huge Soviet empire. Many prominent Azerbaijanis were born in what became Armenia or Georgia. Apart from Turkey, Azerbaijan had no solid support, while Ankara’s support was mostly “moral” with a bit of military training and logistics. The so-called “rebelling Armenians” of Nagorno-Karabakh were indeed Armenian military units backed by the Russians. The infrastructure of Azerbaijan was terrible. The capital Baku had a shortage of drinkable water.
Thousands of Refugees were pouring into Azerbaijan proper from Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijanis were hosting relatives, friends and even people they had never met before at their homes, farms, sharing whatever scarce food and means they had in their hands to soothe the pain of the displaced.
In September 1993, days after the Surat Huseyinov-led coup against Ebulfez Elcibey, exhausted, hungry and thirsty after over a 12-hour drive returning the war zone, we knocked on the door of a farm house just outside Beylegan. It was about 3 A.M. and there was still about four hours’ drive to Baku. We were hopeless. “We have guests… We have guests…” shouted an old man. In the middle of the night we were provided an incredible feast. Soon we discovered they were from a village near Lacin, had escaped war and settled at that farm house owned by their relatives.
They were lucky, unlike some of the Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh who did not escape Armenian attacks. Of the people of Khojaly, unfortunately, only a few survived.
Those were very sad days. People who survived the pogrom had to build a new life in pain and were determined to return to their homes while not only them but the entire Azerbaijani nation learned the importance of independence and the value of homeland.
After his 1993 return to power, the late Haydar Aliyev steered Azerbaijan towards becoming a modern country with a dynamic economy and a powerful military force. Could Azerbaijan free its occupied territory by force and end the agony of displaced people living in temporary conditions for the past 26-27 years? No doubt. Today’s Azerbaijan is not the Azerbaijan of 1992-1993. But Baku has been demanding a negotiated Armenian withdrawal, restoration of its territorial integrity and to give Nagorno-Karabakh an advanced level of autonomy.