The images coming out of Sumgait 23 years ago were jarring, to say the least. The eyewitness accounts of the pogroms committed by Azeri OMON forces against Armenians living in Sumgait, Azerbaijan, however, had a familiar tone. It was as if I was listening to the countless stories that were seared into my memory throughout my life as recounted by survivors of the Armenian Genocide.
It was unimaginable that in the latter days of the 20th century our people were experiencing the same savage attacks against them as my grandparents had witnessed in the early days of the same century. It was a sobering lesson of the proverbial “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
23 years ago today, Armenians living in the industrial town of Sumgait were awakened by special Azeri forces, known as OMON, who were carrying out a systematic campaign of murder, rape and deportation of Armenians, which in the end resulted in almost all Armenians fleeing Azerbaijan.
These attacks came as a response to the people of Karabakh’s right to self-determination. Days earlier demonstrations, which at the time were sanctioned by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, saw Armenians gather in the hundreds of thousands in the streets of Yerevan and Stepanakert to demand the reunification of Karabakh with Armenia. The sparks of the Karabakh Liberation movement were met with barbaric attacks in Sumgait and later in Kirovabad, Baku and Shahumian.
More than two decades later, this latest manifestation of Turkic hatred toward Armenians is still unpunished, and, as is the case with the Armenian Genocide, the silence of the international community regarding these abhorrent violations of human rights continues to green-light similar killings around the world.
Just as the Azeris borrowed a page from their Turkish brothers’ playbook in planning and committing the atrocities against Armenians in Azerbaijan, in the same manner they have borrowed another page by systematically denying their crimes and, by amassing a government-sponsored campaign of misinformation and propaganda, through which they paint the Azeris as the victims of “genocide” by Armenians in Khojaly. Azeri diplomatic missions around the world have been “commemorating” the victims of the Khojaly events in all corners of the world as part of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy of distorting facts and concocting scenarios that justify their continued war rhetoric in the Karabakh peace process.
Let us not even dignify Azeri claims of victimhood, since their campaign largely has relied on using photographs and images from the Kosovo conflict to illustrate alleged atrocities and neglects to mention that Khojaly was ground zero for relentless attacks on Armenian civilian targets in Nagorno-Karabakh during the war that they sorely lost, simply because their soldiers were not willing to fight.
It is encouraging that Nagorno-Karabakh Republic foreign minister Georgi Petrosian is on a North American tour on the eve of the Sumgait pogroms anniversary and an event in Congress this evening will commemorate this tragic event in modern Armenian history. However, it incumbent upon all Armenians—especially the government of Armenia—to look at the Sumgait anniversary as more than just a commemoration, but also an opportunity to call attention to the continuing campaign of destruction by Azerbaijan, and to stifle Azeri efforts to revise history, in the same way the Turks have done for almost a century.
As we commemorate the victims of the Sumgait pogroms, we must push forward with a commitment to fulfill the objectives of our national liberation struggle.