The Shame of Armenia

Elena Bonner, translated by Jamey Gambrell

I gaze at the photograph….”
Bulát Okudzháva

For two and a half years the Trans-Caucasus has been burning and bleeding. Six million Azerbaijanis living in a territory of 86,000 square kilometers, and three million Armenians in a territory of 30,000 square kilometers, have forgotten peace. Why has this happened? The 157,000 Armenians of the 4,000 square meters of Nagorno-Karabakh made their will manifest: in a resolution during the February 20, 1988, session of the Regional Council they demanded the right to be reunited with their people in Armenia. Since then we have been calling this war a “conflict,” or “the actions of extremists, bandits”—anything but war. A war of the strong against the weak, a conflict between law and violence. Karabakh began with law, Azerbaijan responded with violence.

Exactly one week later, after Moscow’s peremptory response to the resolution of the Regional Council of Karabakh, the pogrom against Armenians in the Azerbaijan town of Sumgait, not far from Baku, began, and continued for three days—February 26, 27, and 28. The Armenians were counting on justice and glasnost. What they got was bloodshed at the airport in Zvartnots, on the outskirts of Yerevan, in Armenia—where they say the now famous General Makashov was in command—and a stream of lies on television and in the press.

To the sound of this uproar was born the million-strong Azerbaijani movement in defense of “the sacred grove” in Topkhana (an old city in Nagorno-Karabakh in which Armenians have built an aluminum plant). Andrei Dmitrievich [Sakharov] and I had been there, and were convinced that no grove ever existed. But not far off, behind tall fences, stand the dachas of the Azerbaijani establishment. Pogroms against Armenians in Kirovabad and other regions of Azerbaijan followed the Baku demonstrations, as did a flood of Armenian refugees. By the end of November 1988 the Armenians couldn’t stand it any longer and began expelling Azerbaijanis from Armenia. The new misfortune established a balance: 230,000 Armenian refugees and the same number of Azerbaijani refugees.

Then came the earthquake of December 1988, and the stress felt by all Armenians after that. Another half million people were made homeless. Troops were brought into Armenia, into Yerevan, where there had never been any violence. Azerbaijanis destroyed the Azerbaijan-Iran border and weapons began flowing into Azerbaijan. Then came the Azerbaijani blockade of Karabakh and Armenia. International aid headed for Armenia was looted. There were bloody attacks on Armenians in Baku in January 1990. The army, which stubbornly refused to separate the contending parties, began the forced deportation of Armenians from Karabakh, on the pretext that it couldn’t protect them. Armenian self-defense units were formed in response to hundreds of incidents of assault, in which water pipes were driven into the vaginas of women and girls, and in which people were rolled up in rugs, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. Having lost hope of receiving help and protection from anyone, the Armenians now rely only on themselves, and on honest…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.