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Friday, January 20, 2006

 

Black January

Today -- 20 January -- is the mother of all Mourning Days (don't you even think about calling it a holiday) in Azerbaijan. It commemorates the day 16 years ago when Soviet tanks rolled into Baku to crush the fledgling independence movement.

From a breathless email that circulated around town yesterday:

Special Soviet troops using heavy offensive weapons, including tanks and armored vehicles, occupied the city. As a result of punitive actions, more than 130 civilians were killed and 700 wounded, hundreds of people were arrested and subjected to various forms of physical pressure. Among victims were a 7-year old boy, a 16-year old girl, an 80-year old man, a young doctor shot in ambulance while helping another victim, and many other civilians of different nationalities of Baku. This massacre entered the history of Azerbaijan as the "Black January."


The day was a pivotal event in modern history and Azeris are dead serious about remembering the martyrs. The black clad crowd (the color choice has nothing to do with mourning -- most Azeris wear only black), starts flowing along Martyrs Lane early in the morning. They stream in silence past the black granite grave markers, gently laying red carnations in meticulous piles. Mourners are mostly men, with a few women and children. Only a few people talked on their cell phones in the procession. This is covered non-stop by all the television stations.

carnations


feet


So compelling were the TV shots, I thought I'd go check it out for myself. Surprisingly, it was more interesting in person.

According to Azerbaijan Diary, a first-hand account of Azerbaijan in the early '90s, Martyr's Lane used to be a muddy hillside with makeshift graves from the Martyrs of 20 Janvar. Since the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, it has been transformed into a national shrine, a place to remember national martyrs from NK as well. It is by far the nicest, cleanest, most scenic park in Baku, with panoramic views of the sea, the shipyards, the oil decaying derricks and derelict housing around Baku's edges.

Most of the granite headstones feature a photo of the grave's occupant and brief details of their short lives. 20 Janvar matyrs were of all ages. Most NK victims were young enlisted men, who died in their late teens or early 20's. Most are still lovingly polished. A number of families brought Imans to say graveside prayers.

mourning in private

Everyone is more than happy to tell you where they were on that day. My staff -- even though most of them were only in their early teens in 1990 -- remembered where they were, and what role -- no matter how peripheral-- they played in the event, in detail. Interestingly -- though not terribly surprising -- the number of mourners who visit Martyrs Lane on 20 Janvar has diminished with the passing of time, according to a friend. He says millions of people would visit the shrine in the early '90s. Furthermore, he reports the government is making less effort to organize trips for teachers, doctors and other state employees than in years past. He attributes this to the desire for this national day of mourning not to upstage another national day of mourning that is more important politically in the current environment -- the anniversary of the death of dictator Heydar Aliyev.

faces in a crowd

From the same email:

The invasion was launched at the midnight and committed with ferocity and no mercy for children, women and elderly. Helsinki Human Rights Watch has documented how the Soviet army intentionally ran down and crashed unarmed peaceful civilians under their tanks. How they opened fire at a civilian bus that posed no conceivable physical threat, killing the driver and many passengers. How they attacked hospitals and clearly marked ambulances and medical personnel assisting the wounded. How they randomly sprayed residential yards and apartment buildings with automatic fire. Finally, how they stabbed defenseless civilians to death with bayonets. The Wall Street Journal editorial of January 4, 1995, stated: "It was Mr. Gorbachev, recall, who in January 1990 chose to defend his use of violence against the independence-seeking Azerbaijan on the grounds that the people of this then-Soviet republic were "heavily armed gangs of hooligans and drug-traffickers who were destabilizing the country and quite possibly receiving support from foreign governments."


mourning girl

Comments:
Great pictures. Thanks for that... I had a vague idea that the USSR did some nasty supression of the independence movements in the Caucauses, but having mainly heard the Russian side of the collapse, I never got the fuller picture.

The girl in the last picture is gorgeous!
 
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