An article by American human rights activists on the events in the border areas of Armenia and Azerbaijan in May 1991 published in The New York Book Review.
While attending the First Human Rights Congress in memory of Andrei Sakharov in Moscow at the end of May, we heard many reports about the deportations of thousands of Armenian residents from their villages in Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh. We received permission from President Gorbachev to go there and investigate the situation.
Under the leadership of the then Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords of the UK, Baroness Caroline Cox, a group of 12 other Congress participants spent five days in the border villages of Armenia and Azerbaijan, interviewed several hundred witnesses, including refugees, as well as officers of the KGB and the Soviet Army.
We also met Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosyan in Yerevan, Azerbaijani President Ayaz Mutalibov in Baku, Chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet Anatoly Lukyanov, and USSR Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov in Moscow.
Our investigation showed that violence was not merely a continuation of the ethnic hostility between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis, which had historically been characteristic of this territory and has especially increased since 1988.
We discovered a new element: the 4th Soviet Army and Soviet internal troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs deployed in Azerbaijan were cooperating with the special forces (OMON) of Azerbaijan, aiming to forcibly deport Armenian civilians from the territories controlled by Azerbaijan along the border.
It is still not clear why the Soviet troops acted so cruelly. But many of our official sources, including not only Armenians but also officers of the Soviet Army and Azerbaijani riot police, admitted that the ferocity and timing of the anti-Armenian company were due to the powerful independence movement in Armenia and the Armenians’ refusal to sign the new Union Treaty.
Based on our interviews with refugees and Soviet officers, we believe that as of the third week of May, about 7,000 Armenians had already been deported and that these deportations are continuing. We believe that at least 50 ethnic Armenians were killed – 18 of them in the village of Getashen outside the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, 15 in the village of Voskepar in northeast Armenia, and in other places.
It is reported that 100 to 200 people “disappeared” after being captured and imprisoned. We also heard and got an opportunity to make sure that there occurred torture and violence, attacks, as well as organized looting and robbery.
Almost all of the 200 refugees interviewed by us described their disasters that had the same model: after their villages were surrounded by tanks and troops, about six attack helicopters appeared and circled in the sky.
Soviet troops invaded the settlements under the pretext of checking passport regime and seizing illegal weapons from residents. Then, the Soviet soldiers detained a large number of male residents and handed them over to the internal troops and the riot police of Azerbaijan.
We were presented with convincing evidence that these prisoners were subjected to physical and psychological violence and were imprisoned without trial and kept in inhumane conditions without water, food, and hygiene items for up to a week.
On the border with Armenia, the detachments of the local police (militia) were carefully watched. The bloodiest incident occurred in the village of Voskepar, in the northeastern direction of the border, where 11 Armenian policemen were ambushed and killed on the road on their way to borderline villages to protect the settlers.
A Russian lieutenant admitted that the Soviet troops had made serious miscalculations. He also complained that more than half of his soldiers were Azeris who were extremely biased and uncontrollable. Our meetings in Moscow with Defense Minister Yazov and Chairman of the Supreme Council Lukyanov showed that the Soviet leadership at the highest level was aware of these events.
The Armenian government has requested the UN to send observers and peacekeepers. Many of the observers we met also expected help from the UN. Other human rights organizations and officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross should also be invited to investigate the situation both in devastated Armenian villages and in prisons.
We hope that the world community will respond to the cries of women and children who asked us what to do with pressure on Gorbachev to prevent new deportations from his “INTERNAL AFGHANISTAN.”
Felis Gaer, Executive Director of the International League for Human Rights; Scott Norton, Sakharov Congress for Human Rights, New York, 07/18/1991