In the spring of 1991, the Soviet Army and the Azerbaijani OMON initiated Operation Ring. The villages of Getashen and Martunashen in that area were subject to violent attack and the populations forcibly deported. On May 7, an operation was conducted in Armenia, at Voskepar, where further people were removed from their houses; on this occasion a bus carrying Armenian policemen was attacked and 11 people killed. Other areas subjected to Operation Ring were in the Berdadzor region, and in the Hadrut region on the outskirts of the original Soviet Nagorno-Karabakh. Less well-documented were the actions carried out on people much more central to Artsakh, the motivations for which seemed highly questionable. I recently met with 3 men from villages in the area, and heard their stories.
One week after the attack on Voskepar, in Astkhashen village (Askeran region) just north of Stepanakert, Gharib Harutyunyan, and his wife, Phlora, were disturbed early in the morning by a noise outside their house. Their worst fears were confirmed when they could see around the village Soviet troops and the Azerbaijani OMON. They were aware of the routine “passport checking” that was the prelude to more sinister activities; the passport was not required on this occasion, the soldiers did not need much of an excuse to start beating Gharib and to take him captive. Shortly after, the tanks started bombing the village; there was much panic and many of the local women and children sought refuge in the Harutyunyan’s house. Phlora showed them to the cellar, told them to keep quiet, regardless of what they heard. Meanwhile the soldiers entered their house, pushed Phlora against the wall and threatened her; they wanted their weapons. There were no weapons to be had. They searched the house by smashing the property, and in eventual frustration with the lack of success took their anger out on their dog shooting him many times. The Russian commander expressed disgust at the actions of the OMON in killing the dog “even fascists wouldn’t do this” he retorted.
In total, 28 villagers, including Gharib, were captured and beaten for several hours to a state of near unconsciousness before they were pushed into a lorry and taken to Khojalu. Although Gharib had a job within the Military Service he was not a combatant, the other people captured were just villagers. In Khojalu, they stripped Gharib of his coat, and took all of his money which, at the time, was considerable, as he was preparing to buy some expensive car parts that day. Surrounded by dogs and OMON forces he, and the other villagers, were forced into waiting helicopters and taken to Shushi.
When they arrived at Shushi prison, there was much activity, and the atmosphere suggested that many people had been captured and were being processed through this place. They were quickly bundled into the cells, clothes removed, then repeatedly threatened and beaten. One Azerbaijani soldier shouted “ You will die in our prison! You are our victim!”. Later on, Gharib saw an Azerbaijani official in the prison who he knew from his work. He asked him what was happening, and when they would be released. They advised him that they were just interviewing people, and that they would soon be set free.
Despite this assurance, he was beaten every day. On each occasion they were trying to force him to sign documents, and agree to crimes that he did not commit. Some of the other villagers were beaten to sign witness statements stating that they had seen other people commit crimes. The beating, and the torturing continued in a brutal way to secure false convictions. The motivation for this action was to provide some justification to the foreign agencies that the people were held as “criminals”, and not as innocent “hostages”. There was no implication that they were being held as “prisoners of war”. In the next cell to Gharib, he could hear his neighbour being beaten hundreds of times, until he confessed to burning Azeri houses.
Gharib’s wife Phlora, together with the other wives and mothers from the village held a demonstration in the main square in Stepanakert. They wanted some re-assurances about what was going to be done to recover their husbands and sons. Many letters were written to officials in authority within Moscow and Baku with no feedback. Conventional methods were not working and, for Phlora, it became evident that the only way to gain her husband’s release was through the exchange of hostages, and the payment of money.
After 6 months in Shushi, Gharib was transferred to Baku where, 3 months later he was put on trial and imprisoned for 14 years. The Judge who presided over the trial stated through an Azeri “Mediator” that he would release Gharib with the exchange of 50 hostages and the payment of 100,000 roubles.
A number of Azerbaijani villagers from Kelbajar were navigating their way back to Azerbaijan. On their way to Aghdam they got lost in Astkhashen village, believing that it was Azeri. They were scared, and Phlora agreed with the local Armenian officers to give 15 of them to her so she could use them as “hostages”. Ironically, the “hostages” considered themselves to be lucky as they had protection from the war, and their homeless position would inevitably have made the future very risky for them. As the number of hostages was less than the Judge’s demand, the payment was increased to 150,000 roubles. For any villager, this was a very large amount of money and Phlora had to appeal to friends, family and neighbours to secure the full amount so her husband’s freedom could be secured through the “Mediator”.
On May 7 1992, the 15 “hostages” and 150,000 roubles were taken to Aghdam, and with the help of the “Mediator”, Gharib was finally released back to his family. As they left, the Azerbaijani “hostages” kissed Phlora on the hand as a sign of gratitude for their safe keeping during their stay in her house. A list was drawn up of the amounts of money borrowed from everyone who helped secure his freedom and, little by little, those debts are being cleared.
Due to Gharib’s position, his release attracted a significant ransom. I interviewed 2 other people from Vank (Ararat Arakelyan and Grisha Galayan) who were both captured in similar circumstances, in 1991; these men were just normal villagers and were not combatants. They were both taken to jail in Shushi, and beaten continuously, and very badly. Both reported that, despite their bodies being heavily bruised all over, the Azeris, deliberately, did not damage their faces. Arakelyan was released after 22 days on payment of 8000 roubles, Galayan suffered so badly from his injuries that after 15 days he was released as there was a risk that he may die; no ransom was demanded. Galayan’s wife, Alvard Mkrtchyan, told me that her husband’s condition was so bad that she could barely look at him. Neither of the men could offer an explanation as to why they were taken, or why they were tortured.
Operation Ring seemed to have moved from being a concerted effort to disarm the Armenian militia, to ethnic cleansing of regional populations, and finally to a form of organised violence and torture against innocent people which, in some cases, was with the objective of money extortion. Whilst all aspects of war are particularly unpleasant, terrorising people with the intention of making financial gain on an individual level is despicable and fails any test of internationally accepted standards of war. It is unlikely that these people will ever be brought to justice, the money recovered and returned, or an apology received from the Azerbaijani government.
The 3 men I interviewed recounted their personal stories with great dignity, supported by their wives and families which gave me a vivid impression of their experiences. Through the media, and books, the war can become sterilised into being just about the actions of a few politicians and high-level campaigns and consequently a wider audience can be left disengaged. In reality, war is about the impact on individual people, with real lives, which we can all identify with, regardless of which country we come from, and therefore have an uneasy intimacy with the horror of war on a human level. Talking to these men, and their wives, and looking into their eyes as they re-lived these terrible events, just made me realise even more how true this is and how important it is that the wider audience understands the situation in Artsakh to ensure that these people never have to suffer such events again.
Categories: War and its Legacy