Khojaly victims and Azerbaijani IDPs remembered at the EU epicentre on UN World Refugee Day

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On UN World Refugee Day, the estimated one million Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees have been remembered during an event at at the Press Club Brussels Europe, organised by the Benelux branch of The European Azerbaijan Society.

Ian Peart recalled interviewing the survivors with heavy emotion

We interviewed the lucky ones who escaped the hail of bullets.

The estimated one million Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees – the ongoing victims of the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh – have been remembered on UN World Refugee Day, which is commemorated each year on 20 June. The event took place at the Press Club Brussels Europe – at the heart of the EU diplomatic community – and saw the Brussels launch of Khojaly Witness of a War Crime – Armenia in the Dock, a landmark publication from The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS). The event was organised by TEAS Benelux and attended by Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim, Head of the Mission of Azerbaijan to NATO; EU and Belgian diplomats; press and NGO representatives; members of the Azerbaijani diaspora; and supporters of international law.

Marc Verwilghen, Director, TEAS Benelux, began his speech by quoting from Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General, who previously acknowledged: “Refugees are people like anyone else; like you and me. They led ordinary lives before becoming displaced, and their biggest dream is to be able to live normally again in their homes and country.”

He continued: “Today, TEAS Benelux is bringing to your attention the fate of almost one million Azerbaijanis who fled their homes and lands due to the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. This is the largest IDP population in Europe, and one of the largest IDP populations per capita in the world.

“Despite the passing of four UN Security Council resolutions, one UN General Assembly resolution and rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) condemning Armenia, nothing has changed for over 20 years.”

He then explained the background to the book Khojaly Witness of a War Crime – Armenia in the Dock. Mr Verwilghen continued: “Armenia continues to resist accepting responsibility for its actions over Nagorno-Karabakh and on the night of 25–26 February 1992 with the Khojaly Massacre, which was masterminded by Serzh Sargsyan, the current Armenian President, who was a military commander at the time.”

H.E. Fuad Isgandarov, Azerbaijani Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg and Head of the Azerbaijani delegation to the EU, said: “I am a witness to and victim of this war. It is for me to make the link between UN World Refugee Day and the Khojaly Massacre. Due to the policies of the former Soviet Union, there was a war between two neighbouring countries – Azerbaijan and Armenia. This led to the occupation of approximately 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory, leading around approximately one million Azerbaijanis to become refugees on their own land.

“The Khojaly Massacre and the conflict had an indescribable impact on the civilian population. Altogether 613 civilians were killed – the death toll included women and children – and there were also hundreds of people left unaccounted for. Our war and the massacre concerned civilians, and the concept of the refugee problem primarily relates to civilians. The Armenians fired on peaceful civilian people who were forced to leave their houses, losing members of their families.

“This tragedy happened just 24 years ago, and knowing about this enable us to avoid the future recurrence of such scenarios. All organisations acknowledge that the status quo is unsustainable.

“Today, in St Petersburg, there is a summit between the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian Presidents. I hope these negotiations will later include the Co-Chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, and a solution will be found. We are neighbours of Armenia and should live with each other in peace. Soldiers should be in barracks; refugees and IDPs should be in their homes; territories should be returned. I am certain there will be a resolution of the problem, based on the sovereignty and independence of Azerbaijan, and that a solution to the issue of how to live together will be found. We manage to live harmoniously with Georgia – why not Armenia?”

Ian Peart, who co-edited the book in collaboration with the late Scottish writer Fiona Maclachlan recalled: “Primarily, we wanted to establish the truth, so we went to external eyewitnesses of what happened. There were many foreign journalists and witnesses to the immediate aftermath during the days following the massacre. Those who survived that horrendous night made their way to Aghdam and that is where they met foreign journalists. We also looked at those who made subsequent assessments – the experts – so we have accounts from the human rights organisations, and also from academics. These are all foreign eyewitnesses and commentaries and this is not propaganda. All material is objective, other than the first section of personal testimonies.

“We interviewed the lucky ones who escaped the hail of bullets. This was incredibly difficult, as the testimonies were too painful for the interviewees and interpreter. Let’s talk about people – not numbers – like Yasemen Hasanova, who was 12 years old at the time and escaped with a relative. Her father was in the defence force and her mother went missing. Her father was killed, and it was only some years later that she saw her mother’s body on some archive television footage. She had been shot whilst collecting water from a well. Yasemen later related: ‘I never thought anyone would be glad that their mother was dead, and had not been taken hostage.’

“Yasemen is now a teacher. When her pupils ask her about Khojaly, she replies: ‘I tell them how beautiful Khojaly was.’ Please do all you can to help these people, who long to return to their land.”

Subsequent questions included comments from a diplomat of the Armenian Embassy to Belgium, to which Ian Peart replied: “In Black Garden by British journalist Thomas de Waal, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is quoted. When quizzed about the Khojaly Massacre, he commented on his strategy: “Before Khojaly, the Azerbaijanis thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hands against the civilian population. We were able to break that [stereotype].”

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