Thirty years have passed since January 20, 1990 events, which went down the history of Azerbaijani people as Bloody January tragedy. The atrocious act of terrorism committed in that day by military machine of the former Soviet state against the people of Azerbaijan, will always remain as a black page in history of civilization, and as one of the worst crimes against humanity.
Acting upon the orders of Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary the USSR and Communist Party leadership, 26 000 Soviet troops, heavily armed and equipped with military combat vehicles, attacked Capital city Baku to punish people rallying on the streets, protesting against violations of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and demanding freedom.
As a result of punitive actions more than 130 civilians were killed and 700 wounded, hundreds of people were arrested and subjected to various forms of physical pressure.
Among victims were children, women, young and old men and civilians of different nationalities in Baku. On that night without preliminary announcement of a state of emergency, Soviet troops invaded Baku and some regions of Azerbaijan.
The invasion of Baku by a large contingent of units of the Soviet army, internal troops and Special Forces was accompanied by cruelty. The brutal massacre was committed over the peaceful population, hundreds of people were killed, wounded, missing.
The strong indignation and protest of the people of Azerbaijan was caused by the prejudiced and biased policy of the Communist Party and the Government of the Soviet Union towards the people of Azerbaijan.
Soviet authorities’ connivance at the Armenian expansionists, who claimed Nagorno-Karabakh, an integral part of Azerbaijan, had already allowed Armenia to forcibly expel more than 250.000 Azerbaijanis from Armenia in 1988-1989.
Mass arrests accompanied the illegal deployment of troops and the subsequent military intervention. A total of 841 civilians were arrested in Baku and other cities and regions of the republic, 112 of whom were sent to prisons in different cities of the USSR.
The Soviet troops fired on 200 homes, 80 cars and set fire to a large number of public and private property, including ambulances.
Human Rights Watch documented how the Soviet army intentionally ran down and crashed unarmed peaceful civilians under their tanks or how they attacked hospitals and clearly marked ambulances and medical personnel assisting the wounded.
Immediately after the tragedy, on January 21, 1990, national leader Heydar Aliyev visited with his family members the office of Azerbaijan`s Permanent Representation in Moscow and had press conference for the representatives of foreign mass media.
He expressed solidarity with his people, condemned the Soviet leadership for committing the bloody tragedy and exposed those who led the operation: “I consider the events that took place in Azerbaijan as a violation of law, democracy, and of humanity… and the principles of constitutional state building… Had necessary measures been taken by the top party leadership at the beginning of the Nagorno-Karabakh events, we would not have faced escalated tensions that led to the deadly military assault launched on civilians on the night of 19 – 20 January 1990. Everyone involved in this crime must be appropriately punished.”
His statement became the first political assessment of Black January of 1990.
At a session of the Milli Majlis of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic on November 20, 1990, National Leader Heydar Aliyev described the January tragedy as an assault on the Azerbaijani people`s sovereign rights: “I think this tragedy, which took place on January 19-20, is a result of the great fault of the political leadership of the Soviet Union, namely Gorbachev and his dictatorial ambitions, as well as of the then Azerbaijani leadership’s betrayal and crimes against their own people.”
“As I know, since the end of the Great Patriotic war there have never been internal mass killings of this gravity in the Soviet Union – nowhere, not in any territory of any region. And it is the Soviet army that committed this. All of these facts confirm that this was military aggression, an insult, as well a crime against the Azerbaijani people,” he said.
Being a basis for nationwide mourning, the January tragedy also demonstrated the firmness of the Azerbaijani people`s will, and determination.
Unmoved by the Soviet army`s cruelty and the consequent imposition of a curfew in Baku, the people of Azerbaijan staged a massive rally in the city of Baku on January 22 to pay tribute to the martyrs of January 20. The burial ceremony at the Alley of Martyrs was attended by nearly two million people.
This epochal event was the deciding factor in forming Azerbaijani national identity and marked a turning point in restoring national independence.
It was the January tragedy that turned a national liberation movement into a political reality and gave strong impetus to the Azerbaijani people`s struggle for independence. Bloody “Black January” became the starting point for independence of Azerbaijan.
The first political-legal recognition of the January 20 tragedy came on March 29, 1994, when Azerbaijan’s legislative body Milli Majlis adopted a relevant resolution on National Leader Heydar Aliyev`s initiative.
The resolution read: “The deployment of the Soviet troops in the city of Baku and several other regions and the brutal killing of civilians, with the intent to suppress, to break the confidence and will of a people who by peaceful means demanded a new democratic and sovereign state and to humiliate their national identity as a show of Soviet army power must be regarded as a military aggression and crime of the totalitarian communist regime against the people of Azerbaijan.”
The people of Azerbaijan continue to hold the memories of the martyrs dear to their hearts. On January 20 of each year, thousands of people visit the Alley of Martyrs to pay their tributes by laying flowers, say prayers for the victims and express their condemnation of the perpetrators of the tragedy.
Each year at midday on January 20, a nationwide moment of silence is observed to commemorate January 20 martyrs. Ships, cars, and trains sound sirens throughout the country, commemorative events are held in all cities and towns, and the national flag is lowered on all buildings.
A terrible sight represented Baku at dawn on January 20: bloodstained streets and squares of the city, the remains of mutilated corpses, crushed cars, riddled bullet-riddled houses, and asphalt. This night, the whole population of Azerbaijan, especially Baku, experienced a real tragic shock.
An unconstitutional declaration of a state of emergency in Baku, the invasion of the Soviet armed forces in the Baku city and the organized fascist massacre of civilians with the participation of heavy equipment and lethal weapons in the absence of any resistance was a crime against civilians.
What a terrible price the People of Azerbaijan paid for an unauthorized and undeclared martial law. In the morning it became clear to everyone – what a terrible tragedy the intervention of Soviet punitive forces turned into – they shot everyone they saw, they destroyed, killed women, children and the elderly people.
British journalist Tomas de Waal wrote in his book “Black Garden” about bloody Black January: “Tanks rolled over barricades, crushing cars and even ambulances. Witnesses spoke of soldiers firing at people who fled and of soldiers stabbing and shooting the wounded.
A volley of bullets hit a bus full of civilians and many of its passengers, including a fourteen-year-old girl, were killed. Some one hundred thirty citizens of Baku have been killed and several hundred were wounded on the night of 19–20 January.
An independent military investigation group known as “Shield” later concluded that the Soviet army had waged war on one of its own cities and called for criminal proceedings against USSR Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, who had personally commanded the operation”.
From the numerous testimony of witnesses, it appears that the Soviet soldiers, removing from the scene the disfigured corpses and parts of bodies crushed by military technology, thus tried to hide the traces of the deeds committed. One of the deceased was found only the right hand, and was buried in the cemetery.
Famous Russian film director Stanislav Govorukhin wrote about the intervention of Soviet troops in Baku: ” The Soviet Army invaded city …Baku… like an army of invaders: under the cover of night, on tanks and armored cars, clearing its way with fire and sword.
Black January turned out to be the beginning of the end of Soviet rule in Azerbaijan and disintegration of the Soviet Union.
On 20 January 1990, though the Azerbaijani people suffered military, moral and political aggression, they displayed their ability to maintain the traditions of historical heroism and resist the cruelest attacks for the sake of the freedom and independence of the Motherland, even becoming martyrs.
The sons and daughters of Azerbaijan perished on 20 January 1990 while defending the freedom and independence of Azerbaijan and by their bravery made a vivid history
in the chronicle of heroism of Azerbaijan. Moreover, today Azerbaijanis are proud of those who are ready to perish for the sake of the people’s national identity.
30 years have passed since the tragedy of January 20. The sacred place of the worship of Azerbaijan people – Shehidlar Khiyabani – is visited every day, scarlet carnations are laid on the graves of martyrs, the flame that is the symbol of the Land of Fire does not die in the memorial “Eternal Flame”.
Thinking about this, the thoughts of the national leader Heydar Aliyev are recalled: “The heroes who died in the tragedy of January 20, they are our national heroes. Their death is a great loss for us, for our people. But, at the same time, their death is a symbol of the heroism of our people. The blood shed that night is the blood on our national flag, demonstrating the independence of Azerbaijan.”
After National Leader Heydar Aliyev returned to power in Azerbaijan, a political and legal assessment of the 20 January events was given in 1994 and the names of those guilty of the crime were made public. Since then 20 January has been commemorated as National Mourning Day.
The heroism of the people of Azerbaijan on January 20, 1990, made the final collapse of the Soviet Union inevitable. On October 18, 1991 Azerbaijan regained its independence.
Unfortunately, the perpetrators of the tragedy of January 20 went unpunished. Today the victims of the Black January repose in Martyr’s Alley in the capital city of Baku.
They were among the first to sacrifice their lives for freedom that Azerbaijan nowadays enjoy and those heroes will never be forgotten!
May their souls rest in peace!
Allah rehmet elesin!
EDITOR’S NOTE- The article is provided by the Azerbaijan Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.