Jewish Journal: Facing denial of war crimes in California

The US-based Jewish Journal has published an article by witness of Khojaly massacre, and survivor Durdana Agayeva headlined “Facing denial of war crimes in California.”

The article reads: “It is difficult for me to describe how I felt when I read the letter distributed to members of the California State Legislature by a group of CA legislators (Sen. Anthony Portantino, Sen. Scott Wilk, Assemblymember Laura Friedman and Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian) referring to the Khojaly Massacre of 1992 as fabricated, and urging their colleagues to ignore community efforts to commemorate the victims and survivors of Khojaly.

It is difficult because I am a survivor of the Khojaly Massacre. I was only 20, when I was captured by Armenian troops. I had just finished high school and started my first job as a telephone operator. When my hometown of Khojaly was invaded by Armenia on that freezing night of Feb. 25/26, 1992, my relatives, friends and everyone we all knew ran for our lives into the dark of night, as bullets flew around us and screams penetrated our ears. I was captured, and because I worked for our town’s telephone company, it was assumed that I held classified information about Azerbaijan’s communication systems. I was one of hundreds of Azerbaijani civilians, alongside children and women, that were held captive in the Armenian torture camp, where I was subjected to unspeakable violations and cruelty, and I have required multiple spinal surgeries during the last three decades to address the damage I endured.

I feel a tremendous sadness, in witnessing this appeal from California’s elected officials to deny that what happened to me happened at all, as if to deny that I ever existed. If I had not made it through, if I had not been traded by my Armenian captors on the side of the road for cigarettes and gasoline, I would not even be able to write this letter today, to make sure that the voices of the 613 civilians of Khojaly who were murdered that night by Armenian troops, including 106 women, 70 elderly and 63 children, are heard. To suggest that Khojaly didn’t happen is tantamount to saying the 613 Azerbaijanis murdered that day never existed. A peaceful world has no room for revisionism and denial, and I have survived and recovered so that I could write this letter and make that point clear.

It’s painful to see this letter in California, a state known for its diversity and inclusion, with a high standard for the legislative commemoration of the great tragedies in history, such as the Holocaust, and the Rwanda Genocide. Throughout California, leaders in community and houses of faith have embraced the history and the survivors of the Khojaly Massacre, and have held yearly memorials, where members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities have joined together to share space to grieve and to mourn.

These memorials have been quite powerful, and they are so important. A massive 2020 survey conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims found that a large number of Californians know little about the Holocaust, with 59 percent having no idea that 6 million Jews were murdered in Shoah. Without more education, our world risks a much greater knowledge gap on the Holocaust. With that in mind, the effort to deny the Khojaly Massacre could very well be successful, which is why it is so very urgent and important that leaders across California stand up against this attempt to erase what happened to me and hundreds of others. If an event as monstrous as the Holocaust could become vague or unknown to a new generation, it only follows that something like Khojaly, which was at that level of brutality on a scale much smaller, could be forgotten too. As a survivor, I feel a responsibility to assure that doesn’t happen.

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin warned of this in addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Speaking of genocides the U.N. was unable to prevent after the Holocaust, President Rivlin asked: “On this day we must ask ourselves honestly, is our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing of Azerbaijanis in Khojaly?

The denialism by CA legislators is wrong; the very worst sort of wrong. One can review the Human Rights Watch reports that called Khojaly the “largest massacre in the conflict” and blamed Armenian forces for this crime. One can look at the extensive documentation, of bodies decapitated in the forest, of women and children brutally murdered, lying in the field next to each other, with their bodies mutilated, or of elderly men, with their eyes gouged out by a force of incalculable hatred. Photographer Costa Sakellariou told the Washington Post: “Many of those we found, including women and children, had their hands raised above their heads as if shot after having surrendered. Several were scalped.” One can also visit the nearly 1 million forcibly displaced Azerbaijanis, from Khojaly and other parts of Karabakh, which were invaded and ethnically cleansed by Armenia, against international law and U.N. resolutions, and held under occupation for nearly 30 years. One can review the words of Serzh Sargsyan, ex-President of Armenia, who oversaw the Khojaly Massacre, as he bragged about the brutality of Khojaly, which was meant to terrify the rest of Azerbaijan.

There may be less Azerbaijanis in California, but that doesn’t change the value of our lives, as individuals, or the value of the lives of those that did not make it out of the field on that night of February 26, 1992.

In this vein, Sen. Anthony Portantino, Sen. Scott Wilk, Assemblymember Laura Friedman and Assemblymember Adrin Nazarian should apologize to all the victims and survivors of Khojaly and properly honor them. This is the least they can do.”