Operation Ring – Human Rights Activist Yelena Lunina on the Violence and Deportation of Armenians of Artsakh

Operation Ring – Human Rights Activist Yelena LuninaIn the summer of 1991, the Operation Ring horrific in its methods and cruelty continued to unfold in Karabakh. After Getashen and Martunashen, villages in the Shusha, Hadrut, Martakert, and Shahumyan districts, as well as border villages of Armenia were attacked.

Russian human rights activist Yelena Vladimirovna Lunina who represented the Moscow Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers in the early 90s, visited Artsakh several times in those days to protect civilians from violence and deportation.

At the request of the film crew of “The Ordinary Genocide” project which at that time was working on a film about Operation Ring, Yelena Lunina shared her memories and impressions of the bloody events.

“In the middle of July 1991, when the events in Getashen and Martunashen had already happened, we learned about what was happening in the Shahumyan district. Together with doctor Galina Petrovna Sinyavskaya who represented the “Movement Against Violence”, we flew to Karabakh.

We were brought to Verinshen where we’d spend several days. Shots were constantly heard in the village, and people told us about all the horrors they had experienced. We learned about the wounded children, about a murdered boy, met a teacher whose son – her last relative – had been killed. All this felt simply horrible after peaceful Moscow.

At that time, there was a large group of observers and parliamentarians in Verinshen, including test pilot of the Armed Forces Colonel Vladimir Smirnov who was trying to negotiate with the military, with Polyanichko.

Anatoly Shabad was also there who was sending telegrams to everyone he could about what was happening in the village. He wrote that the parliamentarians were dying together with the inhabitants, refusing to leave them. We knew that all the nearby villages were surrounded, and we were shocked that the 23rd Soviet Army was participating in these activities on the side of the Azerbaijanis, helping to carry out the massacres and deportation.

Before their eyes, the Azerbaijanis killed and raped women, children, old people, destroyed houses, and looted property — and all this was covered up by our soldiers. It was, of course, terrible.

Then, in mid-August, I had to go to Karabakh for the second time when it became known that the angry residents of the Armenian village of Haterk in response to the capture of their husbands, as well as torture and violence against prisoners (we already knew what kind the horrors had to be passed on to Armenians in captivity, in particular, in the Shusha prison) captured 43 Azerbaijani conscript soldiers. They agreed to free them only in exchange for their prisoners or at least their corpses. I urgently flew to Haterk.

The village was surrounded by Soviet troops. From time to time, shots were heard. There was talk that the village would be taken by storm or simply destroyed from the air. Shabad and Smirnov, who were here, conducted very tense negotiations with the command of the 23rd Army. Driving around the village by car, we saw armored vehicles positioned on the heights.

The soldiers and the Azerbaijani riot police behaved like invaders. They drove on the roads without slowing down, climbed into the vineyards, drove into the fields… It struck me that the residents behaved in general very restrained and courageous. People had no fear, although everyone understood that Haterk could simply be destroyed by air bombing. The village was prosperous and rich, and there were many temptations there for the Azerbaijanis.

On August 18, the army command demanded the unconditional liberation of Azerbaijani soldiers. Otherwise, they threatened to take the most severe measures. But on August 19, communications suddenly disappeared: phones, radio, and television stopped working. We realized that something had happened, especially since there was noticeable confusion in the behavior of the military.

Then, Inessa Burkova arrived by helicopter and told about what was happening in Moscow (it was 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt which would result in the dissolution of the USSR). It was clear that in the face of uncertainty, the military would not dare to act. Almost all journalists and photojournalists flew away from Haterk.

I was also offered to leave, but I refused. A couple of days later, when it became clear that Yeltsin had the advantage in Moscow, the villagers decided to surrender the hostages without any conditions – it was an act of goodwill on their part. We went after their soldiers, freed them, and handed them over to the commanders who had arrived from Stepanakert.

On August 22, we left Haterk. I remember the euphoria of the inhabitants who accompanied us. I was sure that the first thing that Yeltsin would do was to draw attention towards Karabakh because it was here that the situation was the most terrible. It was here that people were under the double pressure of the troops and the riot police. We said goodbye to the villagers and said to them – hold on, now, Russia is completely different, and it will all end.”

What were your impressions from the communication with the residents of Karabakh?

“At the time, we visited Azerbaijani villages as well. But first of all, I was shaken by the courage, patience, and dignity with which the Armenians endured their hardships and disasters. I talked to many men and women and made sure that they are trying to avoid bloodshed. I saw that this was their land because everything was Armenian – temples, monuments, the way of farming and viticulture, everything was created by their sunburned hands… I remember well the beauty of these hands and the spiritual stability of the Armenian people, which could not but win me over.

I talked to people, learning their personal and family stories. For many, the stories started at the beginning of the century when their ancestors were fleeing from the genocide. These conversations convinced me that people should be given peace and the opportunity to live peacefully on their land, especially since they would not harm their neighbors or their land in any way — on the contrary, they would make this land even more beautiful.

The worst thing in the stories of the witnesses and victims was violence against women and children. I saw such women, I knew that there were mothers who rushed to save their children and were killed for it. I saw how people were evacuated from Gulistan – there were only a few places left, and even the children did not fit in the helicopter. I remember how we, Muscovites, feared for the village named Russian Boris where Molokans were living because the violence was against not only Armenians but also Russians.”

What was the attitude of Armenians towards you, Russian human rights activists?

“Later, I also visited Stepanakert and saw how surgeries were carried out in the hospital under bombings. They treated and cared for the wounded and sick under difficult conditions. I saw people who were willing to sacrifice everything for their people and homeland… They treated us surprisingly warmly as if we were their closest relatives.

We especially felt this in blockaded Stepanakert. In the city, there were hunger, cold, shelling, bombing. People were afraid to sleep in their houses and hid in basements. But they still accepted us royally, setting their tables in the best way they could.

I also remember how Armenians were extremely restrained and dignified at their funerals – no tantrums, screams, and cries that were so characteristic of the opposite side. I took my cameraman friend to Stepanakert. He had not known anything about Karabakh before, and he would return from there shocked by what he saw.”

What, in your opinion, was the goal of the Azerbaijani leadership in the implementation of Operation Ring?

“The goal was obvious – to liberate the territory from the Armenian population, especially since the events in Sumgait and Baku showed that this is a quite achievable task. If it was possible to drive out Armenians from large cities, then everything would be easier with the rural population.

Moreover, it was clear that in the worst case for Azerbaijan, the Soviet leadership would not intervene. In the best case, the Soviets would support them. Baku sought to free the territory from the Armenians at all costs and resolve the Armenian issue in Karabakh once and for all. Clearly, this was an attempt of a second genocide. The first one was successful, and a huge territory was liberated from the Armenians. In Karabakh, the second attempt was undertaken.

From a legal point of view, this was undoubtedly a genocide – even civilians were being murdered. Many villages were simply wiped off of the face of the earth, and after a while, there would be left no traces of the presence of Armenians.

I myself saw snapshots of destroyed cemeteries, devastated khachkars (cross-stones), and monuments… That is, the task was not only to drive out the Armenians but also to destroy their culture, memory, and the very possibility of them ever returning here.”

Armenian khachkars (cross-stones) in Getashen (Nagorno-Karabakh)

In your opinion, why did the Russian intelligentsia came to the defense of Karabakh?

“I will speak for myself. There was a sense of guilt and shame, which was especially aggravated after Sumgait. The Sumgait tragedy was the point beyond which it was impossible to continue to live in peace. We all took Karabakh as our personal war. There comes a time when you realize that you cannot stand at a side, knowing that people are dying and suffering somewhere – old people, children.

I think that those who arrived in Karabakh back then had the same thoughts. Like Academician Sakharov, we understood that Karabakh is a touchstone of the perestroika. And had the violence in Karabakh stopped, it would be possible to avoid further bloody events. Unfortunately, it did not happen.”

August 17, 2011

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