In the spring of 1991, the Azeri-Turks embarked
on a new type of offensive against the Armenians living in the Autonomous Region
of Nagorno Karabakh and in the Shaumyan district to the north. It was called
Military forces of the 23rd Division of the Soviet 4th Army stationed
in Azerbaijan joined in combined operations with Azerbaijani Ministry of
Interior (OMON, or 'black beret' forces) to undertake systematic deportations
of Armenians. 'Operation Ring' started in late April 1991 with the villages
of Getashen and Martunashen. These names will be seared onto the memory
of Armenians alongside Baku and Sumgait for the brutality of the suffering
inflicted on their people. The operations, carried out against vulnerable
villagers, were remarkable for their ferocity. The pattern established
in Getashen and Martunashen was later repeated against other villages in
the Shaumyan district and elsewhere in Nagorno Karabakh.
Typically, the deportation exercise would begin with Soviet 4th Army
troops surrounding the villages with tanks and armoured personnel carriers;
military helicopters would hover low overhead.
Once the village was surrounded by Soviet troops, the
Azerbaijani OMON would move in and start harassing the villagers. They
would round up men, women and children, usually on a pretext such as
a 'passport check'.
Destitute refugee from northern Nagorno Karabakh. (CSI)
Many acts of brutality were committed: men were assaulted and killed;
women were raped, children maltreated; civilians abducted as hostages. Azeri-Turk
citizens from nearby villages would come with pick-up trucks and cars, looting,
pillaging and stealing everything from household goods to livestock. The Armenian
villagers were then driven off their land, being forced to live as displaced
people either elsewhere in Nagorno Karabakh or in Armenia.
The deportations of Operation Ring led to the first direct involvement of
the international community in the Nagorno Karabakh crisis. For the tragedies
of Getashen and Martunashen coincided with the First International Andrei Sakharov
Memorial Congress being held in Moscow. One of the participants in the group
of experts discussing 'Human Rights and Injustice on a Mass Scale' was Dr.
Zori Balayan, who was the elected representative for Nagorno Karabakh on the
Supreme Soviet of the USSR. His account of the deportations was so convincing
that the Memorial Congress was persuaded of the gravity of the violations of
human rights which they entailed. It was therefore decided that an independent,
international delegation should be sent by the Memorial Congress to the region
to investigate the situation.
The delegation consisted of 15 members from the USA, Japan, Norway, the UK
and Russia. It must be emphasised that each member embarked on the investigation
with no preconceptions or prejudices. In so far as reports and subsequent activities
have reflected a sympathy for the Armenians, this does not preclude a sympathy
also for the Azeri-Turk victims of the conflict. Indeed, some members of the
delegation work with organisations which have sent aid to Azeri-Turk refugees
from the war in Nagorno Karabakh. However, following in the footsteps of Andrei
Sakharov, most delegates have a commitment to his principle of 'being on the
side of the victim'. It has generally been the experience of those of us who
have visited Nagorno Karabakh that it is the Armenians of Karabakh who are
the primary victims in this tragic situation.
The delegates were unanimous in their conclusions, published in a communique.
Excerpts are reprinted here:
"Membership of Delegation: Anton Andresen,
Norway; Robert Arsenault, USA; Baroness Caroline Cox, UK (Leader of Delegation);
USA; Felice Gaer, USA; Alexander Goldin, USSR, Secretary of the Organizing
First International Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress; Scott Horton, USA;
Miiko Kataoko, Japan; David Leopold, USA; Dr. John Marks, UK; Shin-ichi Masagaki,
Japan; William Miller, USA; Yuri Samodurov, USSR, Executive Director of
Organizing Committee, First International Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress;
Alexej Semyonov, USA; Professor Richard Wilson, USA.
Conclusions and Recommendations
On the basis of interviews and observations at 16 different
sites in both Armenia and Azerbaijan (because of the complex situation
wished to hear the views
of both the Armenians and the Azeris), and of interviews within Yerevan
with hospital patients, relatives of prisoners, and Government
officials, we believe
that serious violations of human rights and of Soviet and international
law have occurred and are still occurring. Our concerns include:
1. Killings: e.g. eye-witness accounts of a man shot in
the throat 30 times in front of his pregnant wife
whom he was trying to defend from a beating; a priest shot while
remonstrating with soldiers, who accused him of paramilitary
activities. We were also given accounts of multiple killings in several
2. Beatings, Torture and Physical Assault: e.g. a paralysed,
bed-ridden elderly man shot in the legs in front of his elderly wife (whom
we met), who was forced to leave him behind; many instances of rape
and beating. In the presence of Soviet soldiers, a frail elderly
woman (whom we met), forced at gun
point to stand in a barrel and beaten on the head, was asked to
identify 'bandits' and threatened with
decapitation. Soldiers mutilated ears of girls and young women
while ripping off their ear-rings.
3. Forced Deportation: Hundreds of villagers were forced
at gun point to leave all their belongings and
sign letters of 'voluntary' consent to deportation. One whole
village was deported at night and the people left over the border
in the pouring rain at midnight with no possessions. We are concerned that
new forced deportations may be imminent. We urge that they should
not occur and that atrocities should not be repeated.
4. Abduction and Imprisonment: Many examples, including
2 doctors sent to provide medical care who were abducted, imprisoned and
beaten daily (photographic evidence of maltreatment available).
5. Destruction of Homes, Looting and Theft of Livestock:
Tanks, shell and helicopter fire used to
destroy homes; gasoline used to burn property. An 80 year-old
man was burnt in his home. Livestock, automobiles and other
property were confiscated or taken with humiliating offers of derisory
payment (such as 3 roubles for a car).
6. Destruction of Churches, Schools and other Public
7. Murder, Abduction and Acounts of Imprisonment of Law
Inforcement Officers: This has created a state of fear. We met relatives
of many militiamen and civilians who had been abducted. We are concerned
over their grief and urge that an immediate effort should be made to release
those held or to assure that they stand trial according to fair legal
procedures. This matter was raised with Marshal D.Yazov
this morning who said he would look into it. In a visit to Azerbaijan across
the border ftem the northern Armenian village of Voskepar, a group of six
delegates walked across the
border to meet the
Azeris there and to hear their version of events. No
villager had walked this road for a month; the Armenians
discourage us because
it was too dangerous.
We had discussions with villagers on both sides, who
had been friendly
two years ago. The major on the Azeri side said there
had been many family tragedies;
but that is no excuse for revenge. All were happy that
we took the effort to understand them.
On May 6, 1991, eleven Armenian militiamen were killed
near Voskepar in Armenia by shots probably from a helicopter.
About 14 were
taken prisoner. There are
other prisoners. The Azeris claim that the Armenian
militiamen are bandits - the Armenians call them a legal local defence
do not want
to interfere in internal affairs, but it is vital to
notice the civil rights issues involved.
The Armenian village has no one to defend them, we
saw no guns and there was no Soviet army present
- whereas in the Azeri
over 6 submachine
guns and many OMON troops, and there is also a Soviet
Army headquarters. The recent damage all came from
the Azeri side...
Additional Contribution to Press Conference
Reports corroborated by official sources confirm that
R. Mamedov, First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs
council executives - ed.), district chiefs of militia
and KGB, and other local officials were present
(at the deportations
- ed.) and
the operation. Inhabitants' requests for military
protection went unheeded. In particular, Colonel Zhukov, Soviet
Karabakh, responded that he could do nothing. Before
the operations residents
were forced by the OMON to sign statements of 'voluntary'
departure, often by torture, beatings and death
threats. The evidence
suggests that many were
forced to depart without signing anything. Those
who signed were often told to address their statements
to Mr. Polianichko,
of the Central
Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.
Internal troops subordinated to the Soviet MVD
(Interior Ministry) have conducted actions
Azerbaijani OMON forcibly
often brutalizing civilians, including women,
children, and elderly persons. Gross violation of internationally
rights have been
found, in clear violation of the International
Covenant of Civil and Political
Rights and other international agreements to
the USSR is a signatory. We found
credible and compelling evidence that additional
deportations and related abuses are being planned
and Soviet authorities
are imminent unless
immediate action is taken to prevent them."
Additional visit by some of the group of experts
from the International Delegation to Baku,
May 30-June 1,1991
"On May 30, 1991 five persons (two staff members, two
foreign participants, and one foreign journalist) travelled to Azerbaijan
under the aegis of
the First Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress.
In a letter presented to Azerbaijani leaders, we requested meetings with
the the leaders of Azerbaijan, including
the Azerbaijani President. We requested
visits to the following areas: villages
of the Shusha and Gadrut districts of Nagorno
Karabakh, from which large numbers of Armenians have fled, villages of
the Shaumyan district and to the
of Stepanakert and Khodjaly. While our
requests were presented repeatedly during our visit, including to Azerbaijani
President A. Mutalibov and Dr. A.
Chairman of the Permanent Commission on
State Sovereignty of the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijani Republic, the
only request that was met was a series
meetings with leaders and officials of
Azerbaijan. Our request to visit specific areas of conflict was denied.
In a meeting with President Mutalibov and Dr.
Dashdamirov, we found these officials to
be justifying current
deportations of Armenians from Nagorno Kara-bakh.
The aim of this policy of deportation
is to make Armenian authorities abolish
a decree adopted by the Supreme Soviet of
to which 'Armenia
agrees to incorporate
Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh at
of the latter'. The aim of
of forced deportations is to 'clear
the area of bases used by Armenian paramilitary
We also had meetings with representatives of
the Azerbaijani intelligentsia who expressed
public opinion in the
USSR and abroad, which strongly condemned
deportations of Armenians, was
in condemning the deportations of
Azerbaijanis which tood place in 1988. The President
of Azerbaijan and members of the
Azerbaijani intelligentsia are concerned that world public
opinion had been unduly
influenced by an
No official with whom we met denied
the possibility that Azerbaijani
in atrocities, including
and banditry, and brutality
and violence directed against women,
children, and the elderly.
David W Leopold Esq; Robert L Arsenault
Jr; Yuri Samodurov; Alexander
Follow-Up Visit to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, July 1991
Given the concern expressed by the Andrei Sakharov Memorial
Congress delegation following the visit in May 1991, a follow-up mission was
arranged in July.
In keeping with the group's commitment to impartiality, it was agreed that
this visit should start in Azerbaijan, in order to hear the Azeri-Turk version
of events, before speaking to Armenians.
Excerpts of the report of this visit are presented here:
"For the first time an international
delegation was admitted to Nagorno Karabakh, interviewed Armenian detainees
visited villages where deportations have occurred, and met local population,
republican and local officials, military officials, deportees and refugees.
The delegation was flown from Baku to Yerevan on an Armenian plane; no
plane has flown this route for three years.
Since our first visit, tension in the region
has escalated, with current mass deportations of Armenians, especially
from the Shaumyan district.
of three Armenian villages of Shaumyan district (Erketch, Buzlukh, Monachuk)
have been deported during our stay in the area.
We conclude that grave violations of human
rights are still occurring. We identified four major areas of concern:
Forced Deportations; Detentions;
Civilians; Azerbaijani Special Forces -OMON
1. Forced Deportations
Forced deportations continue in the Armenian
villages in and around Nagorno Karabakh. Villages in the Shaumyan region
are this week surrounded
soldiers and Azerbaijani OMON forces and the population is being
Azerbaijani officials, including President
Mutalibov, and Azerbaijani Communist Party Second Secretary Polyanichko
continue to justify
these deportations as
voluntary departures. Evidence shows that the deportations are
brutally enforced. They involve loss of life, property and physical
In our travels to the formerly Armenian
villages of Kirov (Bertadzor district) and Dolanlar (Gadrut district) we
interviewed new residents
and confirmed that
the villages are now populated by Azeris. All those we interviewed
were refugees from Armenia.
We received reports of recent detentions
of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh. We were pleased to note that some Azerbaijanis
and Armenians have been
We received direct testimony from recently
released detainees and persons under current detention in Nagorno Karabakh.
In Kirovakan, Armenia, we
recently released Armenian militiamen who vividly described their detention
by Soviet MVD troops, and their incarceration in Ganja (formerly Kirovabad)
Prison in Azerbaijan. They suffered daily beating, displaying bruises
and contusions. They described brutal prison conditions including the
deprivation of water
and the provision of excessively salty food to exacerbate thirst.
In Shusha Prison in Nagorno Karabakh we
met eighteen ethnic Armenian prisoners, not of our choice. None of the
detainees had had any contact
since their arrest, nor access to counsel. Some of the prisoners
did not know why they were being held. At least one of the detainees had
bruises and contusions
on his back, which suggested the possibility of recent beatings.
In Baku we visited Bailovsky Prison where
we spoke with four Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh. Detention far from
home appears to limit access
of choice and the ability of relatives and friends to attend trials.
Finally, in Stepanakert we received evidence
of the detention of Armenians whose whereabouts are currently unknown."
3. Abuse and Harassment of Civilians
(Not original text; a summary of evidence)
Members of the delegation heard evidence of maltreatment of civilians in
and Armenian villages.
They also visited one of the villages from which Armenians
had been forcibly deported and which had been repopulated by Azeri
regret that they were living in homes which only six weeks
had been inhabited by Armenians. Others expressed hatred
of Armenians and claimed this
was revenge for the treatment meted out to them by Armenians
during the retaliatory actions in Yerevan following the Baku
Examples of evidence taken from Armenian
deportees in Stepanakert:
"An old lady, who gave her name as
Agopion Yevgagna: On May 15, 1991 helicopters came to her village. There
were only 11 villagers present. The soldiers
rounded them up and asked to be shown the weapons that they
were hiding. They replied
that they had none. Some local Azerbaijani villagers
then arrived and together they forced the 11 Armenians to go outside the
village. They made the Armenians
stand together pair by pair and then changed pairs so
that husband and wife and mother and son were no longer standing together.
They then shot dead
of the women and two men including Mrs. Agopion's husband.
When she and other survivors went to pick up the bodies, two more villagers
were shot dead.
Agopion broke down and said she now had no husband and
no property. The only thing in the world she had was a document, which
she gave us, recording
property that she had lost. She could not return to her
A young woman aged 20, Mrs. Barsegian from
the Berdadzor region: Mrs. Barsegian said that on May 13, 1991 at 6:00
Azerbaijani OMON surrounded and entered the village
to check passports. They tied her husband and her brother-in-law's
hands and threw
them into a bus.
They gave her a document which they insisted she should
saying she was ready to leave the village voluntarily
She signed because
She has one 14 month-old child. A soldier approached
her child and took hold of its head and said: 'You
out your tongue.'
She attacked the soldier and fought him off. The interpreter
asked her whether she had been raped and she remained
raised in the
hall to tell her to admit that she had been raped because
we needed to know. She then admitted that the soldier
her but that
had left the
baby alone. Her husband and brother-in-law are still
An old man from Medschen, an invalid: On
May 14, 1991, helicopters and Azerbaijani OMON came to his village
and struck him.
He asked why and
they said, 'you'll
get worse soon'. All the men's hands were tied together
and they were thrown in a van and driven off. He
had a friend
in the room
also old and
an invalid who was also beaten. There were 20 men
in the bus altogether. They
beat the young men so that they can no longer have
children. The other man then came and confirmed the
" We found evidence of much abuse by
OMON troops during deportations. We (the delegation) were personally harrassed
by OMON troops
at Stepanakert airport.
Five residents of Stepanakert on our plane from Yerevan on July 16 were
arrested on arrival. When we protested troops threatened us."
Another issue raised on both visits was
concern over the Closure and Destruction of Churches.
" One member of the delegation spoke
in Yerevan on July 16 to Bishop Parkev Martirosian, Bishop of Karabakh
(Artsakh) of the Armenian Apostolic Church. In
Karabakh was part of the Russian Empire there were 1,311 churches
and monasteries. In 1923 Nagorno Karabakh was handed over to Azerbaijan.
began to be
closed immediately. He has the last letter of the Bishop of Karabakh
in 1931 to the church's headquarters in Echmiadzin affirming that there were
churches and 18 monasteries. Six months later all were closed. In
1989, he opened a few churches and monasteries with permission from Moscow
'no'). On 21 November, 1990 Baku took the decision to close all Karabakh
The decision was published in the Azerbaijani press. They claimed
that Moscow was not entitled to authorise the opening of churches. The
of the Armenian church had written to various bodies for more than
20 years seeking approval to open churches in Karabakh when there were
Last September came the attack on Amaras
church, within two days of its official opening. The monastery of St. Grigoris
dates from the 4th
century. Even before
then the church had been attacked. It was rendered unusable and
finally closed on 15 May, 1991. Gandsasar Monastery (13th century) is the
religious site and seat of the bishop. On 6 July it was raided
Soviet soldiers and
OMON troops allegedly looking for guns. Papers
were checked and a thorough search, including the raiding of graves,
Operation Ring Concludes
The era of brutal deportations came to an end when the Soviet leadership changed
in August 1991. Under President Yeltsin, the Soviet troops were required to
adopt a more impartial peace-keeping role and their combined operations with
Azerbaijani OMON forces consequently ceased. This gives credence to the view
frequently put to the international delegations that the deportations had been
used to serve two purposes. Firstly, they were a punishment imposed by President
Gorbachev and the 'centre' of the USSR for Armenia's stated wish to secede
from the Union. Secondly, they served Azerbaijan's purpose of beginning to
clear Nagorno Karabakh of its Armenian population, as a preliminary to repopulating
the land with Azeri-Turks. The Armenians viewed this policy with great alarm,
seeing in it the beginnings of a process such as that which had occurred in
Nakhichevan, whose substantial Armenian population had been forced out, leaving
it an almost entirely Azeri-Turk territory.
The effects of the deportations did not end when the operation ceased. Many
of the deportees are still homeless, living in conditions of great deprivation
either in Nagorno Karabakh, still under siege, or in Armenia. Conditions in
Armenia have since become desperate, with the blockades imposed by Azerbaijan
and Turkey reducing the nation to its knees economically. There are also many
hundreds of thousands still homeless from the earthquake of December 1988.
Therefore, the plight of the people displaced by the 1991 deportations is very
serious and the gross violations of human rights inflicted on them are still
causing severe suffering. This is a factor in the contemporary political equation
which cannot be ignored.