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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Massacre at Khojali No good guys; no bad guys in Nagorno-Karabakh's latest atrocity. Only victims.

Close to parliament in Baku a line of new graves has been freshly dug, waiting to be filled and inscribed: to the martyrs of Khojali, February 1992. They stand next to the spot that commemorates the 200 people killed when the Soviet army opened fire on anti-communist demonstrators in the capital in January 1990.


The two events are indelibly etched in Azerbaijan's national consciousness. Both have irrevocably changed this mysterious and little understood land nestled between the Caspian Sea and its arch-enemy Armenia.


The scale of the horror that befell the villagers of Khojali has only begun to sink in to a Western world that instinctively refuses to believe the Azeris in the undeclared war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The casualty figures are open to question, a few thousand or a few hundred perhaps, but it was the sheer brutality of the murders that was so harrowing.


As survivors staggered into the frontier town of Agdam last week, they each had their own story to tell - of fathers shot at point blank range, mothers scalped, brothers bayoneted, pre-pubescent sisters raped then left in the hills to die.


Sayali Zenalova, a peasant aged 60, wept in the makeshift hospital, a converted train, as she described how her five sons and one grandson were shot dead from combat helicopters as they ran across the fields. Lagging behind, she received only leg injuries. Not even the Nazis, she said, would have done a thing like this. In the primitive operating room they had been amputating legs of women and children. many survivors were being sent by bus to Baku to try and begin new lives.


Hundreds of bodies, they say, lie scattered on the hillside. Sniper fire prevents them from being recovered. Local doctors say that unless something is done soon, an epidemicwill break out.


Yagup Rzayev, head of the Karabakh People's Defense, one of several militia groups in Agdam, was more sanguine. He had just returned from the funeral of his 21-year-old son, who had died trying to bring back some of the dead and injured by foot. "When you see small boys and girls dismembered", he said, "What's the death of an adult son? Nothing".


He and the other forces in the town were preparing to avenge the victims of Khojali last week. That may have already begun. Armenia's defence minister said Saturday that atleast 200 Armenians had been killed in an Azeri attack on nearby Askeran.


On Thursday and Friday, armored vehicles thundered through Agdam on their way to the border. Most of the missions take place at night, when Agdam and the outlying region are under curfew and the sound of gunfire breaks the silence of the empty streets. All the town's men carry automatic rifles and grenades, some anti-tank grenades, preparing to defend Agdam from Armenian assault.


After initially denying that anything much had taken place in Khojali, Armenia expressed condolences for the victims, although the number, it is said in Yerevan, is highly exaggerated. It is Armenia which hitherto has been assumed to have suffered most, from attacks on Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and outlying villages, and from an energy blockade by Azerbaijan that has lasted many months.


Azerbaijan says the West is being duped by a sophisticated Armenian information machine. A parallel can be drawn with Israel and the Palestinians, with Armenia seen as the perennial victim and Azerbaijan the ruthless, less civilized Muslim terrorist. The massacre of mainly Armenians in the Azeri town of Sumgait three years ago was given wide coverage.


The Azeris now have a chance to rid themselves of dictatorship. On Friday, its communist leader, Ayaz Mutalibov was forced to resign. Thousands of people young and old alike, had blockaded parliament in Baku for two days calling on him to step down for failing to protect the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.


Among them was Azi Aslanov, a student at the city's naval academy, who ripped off his Soviet lapels in an act of defiance. "The tyranny is over, now we can fight for our land", he said.


Aslanov was articulate, affable, and full of hatred. It is hard to find Azeris who do not talk of full-scale war as inevitable. Once the 366th Motorized Infantry Regiment, the last Commonwealth unit, is withdrawn from Nagorno-Karabakh, the "real fighting" will begin.


The new Azeri leadership, which will be based around the Popular Front, is promising democratic reforms, it is also likely to pursue a harder lime towards Nagorno-Karabakh. Many Azeris gay that the first priority is to "nationalize" the former Soviet armed forces based on their territory, a move that would put the future of the Commonweallh of Independent States in further doubt.


Both sides claim infallible rights to Nagorno-Karabakh - a starkly beautiful mountainous enclave of 1, 700 square miles with a population of 170, 000. Any peasant or soldier will draw you a map on the ground or on


paper to prove his point.


Armenians say they have lived there for at least 2, 000 years. Azerbaijanis say Armenians, who make up the majority, were encouraged to move there 150 years ago. Armenia now wants to create a corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, the closest point being only six miles away. Azerbaijan says the Armenians can have cultural rights but that they must become Azeri citizens or be driven out to their homeland.


On the outskirts of Agdam, standing over the freshly-dug graves to 75 victims of Khojali, adorned with red, white and pink carnations for the adults or white pom poms for the many children, with women wailing and pressing their heads against the soil, I recalled an incident that took place overthree years ago but which I, had subsequently forgotten.


It was December 1988 and I was driving with a team of Armenians from Yerevan in the first days after the earthquake. A young man flagged us down and asked for a lift. Our group shouted at him. I persuaded them to take him in. An Azeri conscript serving in northern Russian, be was trying to get back to his village to see if his family had survived.


When we got there the village was deserted. Finally a shepherd came and said the inhabitants, all Azeris, had been marched out at gunpoint by Armenian militia. The boy sat at the roadside and sobbed. It was not natural disaster but human brutality that had befallen him.


I must have put the incident to the back of my mind because be was Azeri, and Azeris were supposed to be the aggressors.


John Kampfner is the Moscow correspondent for the Daily Telegraph