23 July 2012
by Yusif Babanly, Contributor
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was one of the bloodiest in Eurasia. Even though the ceasefire agreement signed in May 1994 sealed the status quo for nearly two decades, the conflict remains far from frozen. Periodic shootouts on the line of contact have claimed hundreds of lives in the course of past 18 years.
Ever since the signing of ceasefire agreement, the negotiations to reach the final peace treaty have taken many shapes. Apart from mediations from the OSCE Minsk Group and leaders of interested regional powers, groups of cultural and public diplomats have taken trips to the region and capitals of respective countries in an effort to reconcile and find common language. Normally, most of the destinations for these trips were either Shusha, a cradle of Azerbaijani culture or Baku and Yerevan. Separatist authorities in control of Nagorno-Karabakh always tried to show how they kept once the majority Azerbaijani town of Shusha clean and Azerbaijani cultural monuments renovated. However, there is one Azerbaijani town the virtual disappearance of which proves the attitude is quite the contrary. The name of this town is Agdam which had been virtually razed to the ground and burned out by Armenian troops in the summer of 1993.
Agdam was one of largest districts in Karabakh. Geographically lying in Lower Karabakh, just outside of the boundaries of former Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), the district of Agdam covers 1,094 sq km and up to July 1993 had a population of 153,000. The regional center of the district was the namesake city of Agdam. Densely populated, almost all of its residents were ethnic Azerbaijanis. This was the city from which the crowd of Azerbaijani demonstrators marched onto Khankendi (formerly Stepanakert) to protest the actions of Armenian SSR and Armenian deputies of the NKAO to annex Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia on February 22, 1988, and which gave the first victims of the conflict – two Azeri youth, Ali Hajiyev and Bakhtiyar Guliyev, killed by Armenians as a result of a clash near Askeran. This was the city where Azerbaijani forces would be stationed for relief operations to rescue Azerbaijani civilians from besieged cities within Nagorno-Karabakh. This is district where the survivors of Khojaly Massacre had taken the flight to, when Armenian forces committed the worst crime of the conflict exterminating 613 Azerbaijani civilians on February 25-26, 1992.
In the first stages of the conflict, before the escalation of hostilities, Armenians were eagerly trying to demoralize the residents of Agdam, by what an expert in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Charles van der Leeuw calls the “weapon the use of which they [Armenians] have excelled in for generations” – terrorism. (Azerbaijan: A Quest for Identity, St. Martin Press, 1998, p. 182). To enforce this strategy, a series of terrorist acts were committed by Armenian terrorists in the vicinity of Agdam. For instance, in August 1990, Armenian terrorists blew up Tbilisi-Agdam bus, killing 20 civilians; in September 1991 they attacked Agdam-Khojavend and Agdam-Garadaghly buses, killing 5 and 8 civilians, respectively; in January 1992, Agdam-Shusha helicopter transporting residents of Shusha was shot down killing all civilian passengers onboard.
Occupation of Agdam was of strategic importance to the Armenian leadership. Apart from close proximity of the city to the Armenian military objects deployed in Askeran, Agdere and Khankendi, capturing and ethnically cleansing one the largest towns in central Azerbaijan before any other Azerbaijani city to the east of the frontline would change the course of the whole war. It is still unknown if the occupation of Agdam was meticulously planned months in advance, or came about in order to sustain the momentum of 1993 Armenian offensive.
In either case, Agdam became a part of a large scale Armenian offensive which started in February 1993. A massive liberation campaign begun by Azerbaijani forces in June 1992 successfully brought half of Nagorno-Karabakh back to Azerbaijani control. Within a few months, Azerbaijani forces had reached the vicinity of Khankendi. This apparently endangered Russian interests in South Caucasus subsequently leading to series of meetings between the Russian military leadership and Azerbaijani government at the end of 1992 to pressure the latter to allow Russian peacekeeping force on Azerbaijani soil. Foreseeing the end result which, no doubt, would eventually undermine Azerbaijani independence, the government of Azerbaijan rejected the offer. This refusal subsequently caused Azerbaijan a loss of more territories. In the straightforward message of Russian Defense Minister, Col. Grachev, who was quoted as saying “Fine, and then Armenian forces will take Kelbajar” (Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, Thomas De Waal, New York and London, New York University Press, 2003, p.203), the Russian leadership hinted at the forthcoming Armenian victories to be facilitated by Russian military.
In February 1993, Armenian forces, confident and re-armed to their teeth, started an offensive pushing Azerbaijani forces back. By the end of the month, they re-occupied strategic villages of Srkhavend, Chldiran, Devedashi, Yayici in Terter district (these villages were part of Agdere district - formerly Mardakert - which were then merged with Terter at the end of 1992) immediately west of Agdam and took control over Sarsang hydroelectric plant. The operation caused a chain of events rapidly escalating the situation and causing a political crisis in the country. First, the Colonel Surat Husseinov who had led a part of the liberation campaign in 1992 with his 709th brigade was accused of “inadequate defense of the region” (Agdere) by pulling out heavy weaponry from the district and thus clearing the way for the unopposed advance of Armenian troops, and relieved of his command at the end of February. Second, the occupation of Kelbajar district in early April became an obvious proof that Russians were determined to keep their promise and aid Armenia in the war with Azerbaijan. An outcry to the international community resulted in UN Security Council Resolution 822 calling the Armenian forces to unconditionally withdraw from Kelbajar and allow the return of refugees, but the document hardly had any tangible impact. A joint U.S.-Russia-Turkey mediation offered a plan for a sixty day ceasefire, end of energy blockade of Armenia and continued peace talks. As a sign of good will, Azerbaijan effectively declared a ceasefire on May 24 and readiness to accept 500 OSCE military observers on the ground but Armenians were apparently determined to take Agdam and that’s why in June they asked to delay the implementation of the plan.
On June 4, 1993 a defiant Colonel Suret Husseinov accused the government of Abulfaz Elchibey of improper handling of situation and demanded his resignation, moved his troops out of Karabakh and marched on Baku. Since Husseinov was in close relationship with the Russian military elite, many saw his bold moves as a sign of Russian intervention to overthrow the government. The political crises and disarray on the frontline emboldened Armenian military. On June 12, the Armenian troops started a massive offensive on all perimeters of Agdam district. The first strategic height, Farrukh mountain, 10 km north of Agdam was occupied on June 12 which allowed continued shelling of the city for the weeks to come. The same day, Armenians captured two large Azerbaijani settlements of Yusifjanli and Merzili, 7 km southeast of Agdam. According to Human Rights Watch group, Armenian troops looted, ethnically cleansed and burned the villages in a truculent attempt to prevent the escaped residents from returning home. One of Armenian commanders decorated by Armenians as a war hero and recognized by the rest of world as an infamous terrorist, Monte Melkonian is believed to have been killed during the occupation of Merzili.
By July 5, the city of Agdam was virtually surrounded from all sides and shelled by Grad missiles through July 23, a day when it eventually fell to the enemy. The city was systematically looted and burned inch by inch, with a smoke from fire visible in a 20 km radius. Referring to statements of a Western diplomat, HRW reported that this specific instance of city burning was not “the result of undisciplined troops but was a well-orchestrated plan” organized by Armenian authorities. As a result of occupation, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 853 based on report of former OSCE Minsk Group Chairman Mario Rafaelli, condemning occupation of Agdam, calling for withdrawal of occupying troops and return of refugees. Needless to say, Armenia is yet to comply. (Azerbaijan: Seven Years of Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki Organization, 1994, pp 16-48).
After Agdam was occupied, the Azerbaijani front fell into a near complete chaos. By late August when the next three Azerbaijani districts of Fizuli, Jabrayil and Gubadly fell to Armenian troops, the feeling among the military servicemen and general public was that the war was being fought not against the Armenians per se but their immediate masters from Moscow with a military foothold in Gyumri. The flow of free heavy weaponry pushed through the Azerbaijani lines of defense were a clear indicator that this was a promise kept by Col Grachev as a retaliator to voluntary keeping the Russians out of Azerbaijani soil. The end result was not just the mere fact that many regions fell one after another like a row of dominoes, but that the demoralized public stopped believing in victory and that they could overcome the Russian led efforts to disintegrate Azerbaijan. This caused a great deal of disarray in the Azerbaijani military system and eventually paved a way for the guaranteed occupation of one fifth of the Azerbaijani territory in the southwestern corner of the country.
The summer of 1993 was quite a challenge to the acting President of Azerbaijan, the Chairman of Parliament of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev. On the one hand, irredentist aspirations in the northern regions of Azerbaijan with visible signs of Russian intrusion; on the other, the ever defiant Colonel Alikram Humbatov in the south declaring his own Talysh-Mughan Republic, both helping to fragment a sovereign state, while the Armenian offensives on Karabakh front were gaining momentum. Only after both separatist movements in the north and south subsided, was the Azerbaijani leadership able to strengthen the governmental apparatus and start a counter-offensive in December of 1993. Although the liberation campaign achieved substantial victories on the northern and southeastern parts of the frontline, a large district of Agdam was not liberated.
According to U.S. Refugee Committee’s Report from 2000, out of 153,000 residents of Agdam, 128,584 had become IDPs (internally displaced persons). Occupation of Agdam caused material destruction of $6.179 billion. The capture of several village of the district was accompanied by extreme brutality and violation of Geneva conventions. In the course of the month long Armenian offensive, 5,897 Azerbaijanis died in the district, one of the largest casualties per district in the period of Azerbaijani-Armenian war.
Today, the city of Agdam lies silent. Ruins are the only attraction in this once a vibrant regional center. The central mosque in Agdam which always stood proudly over the town as a beautiful landmark now can offer only a view of lifeless horizon full of empty ruins and burned trees.
* Yusif Babanly is the co-founder and secretary of the US Azeris Network (USAN) and a member of the board of directors of Azerbaijani American Council.