Photo: Azerbaijani Embassy

By MAMMAD TALIBOV, Azerbaijani ambassador to Mexico

This year marks the 30th anniversary of a key turning point in the history of the Republic of Azerbaijan which influenced the history of all of Eurasia.

On Jan. 20, 1990 — nearly two years prior to the collapse of the USSR — by order of Soviet leadership, 26,000 Soviet troops were deployed to launch an operation known as Udar (Strike) in Baku and Sumgait, as well as other cities in Azerbaijan. This was a full-scale military attack on civilians.

But in trying to preserve the once-mighty communist empire by massacring innocent civilians, the Kremlin in fact doomed any remaining hopes of salvaging the regime.

On the evening of Jan. 19, Azerbaijani police were disarmed and the KGB blew up the energy block of the Azerbaijan TV. On that same day, most communication systems were disrupted in Baku.

This crime against humanity, perpetrated by the Soviet army, is well acknowledged and included the mass murder of 147 unarmed civilians, including women, children and the elderly.

Soviet leaders unleashed heavily armed special troops and tanks, shooting indiscriminately, killing and severely injuring hundreds and destroying a peaceful city of Baku known for its tolerance.

Human Rights Watch has described the Soviet army’s brutal actions as “an exercise in collective punishment.”

But, contrary to the sinking regime’s hopes, these attacks convinced everybody in Azerbaijan that the time was ripe for independence from the totalitarian and increasingly violent criminal regime of the USSR.

Mikhail Gorbachev and the entire Soviet leadership were directly responsible for this crime against humanity and, according to international law, all its initiators and executors must be punished.

The tragedy of Jan. 20, 1990, in Baku was an important event on many levels, from the geopolitical to the regional to the deeply personal for the many affected by it.

Many outside the former USSR failed to comprehend the significance of millions of Soviet citizens turning into ardent supporters of Azerbaijan’s independence overnight following the Jan. 20 atrocities.

These events have, in fact, been called by many a beginning of the end of the Communist regime.

Jan. 20 bears strong symbolism for many in Azerbaijan. On that day, the majority of the people of Azerbaijan lived through the personal transformation of abandoning their Soviet identity and becoming citizens of the independent Republic of Azerbaijan at a time when such independence still seemed unreachable.

Immediately after the tragic events, holding a press conference at the Permanent Representation of Azerbaijan in Moscow, national leader Heydar Aliyev sharply condemned this atrocity, calling the terror perpetrated against peaceful people an act against law, democracy and humanity, and he demanded a political assessment of the massacre against the Azerbaijani people and punishment for the perpetrators.

By courageously speaking out against the brutality of the Soviet regime and openly denouncing the Communist Party, Heydar Aliyev, once a veteran Soviet politician, had established himself as the authority and leader of an emerging independent Azerbaijan.

Jan. 2 is also symbolic for other reasons. The faces of the tragedy — from those of a newlywed couple and children shot by soldiers to bullet-ridden ambulances smashed by heavy tanks and doctors that sacrificed their lives as they protected their patients — represent the people of Azerbaijan and their dedication to freedom, independence and solidarity.

The roster of victims of that horrible night also demonstrates Azerbaijan’s ethnic diversity. Among the dead were a young Azerbaijani boy, a teenage Jewish girl, an elderly Russian man and many others from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The horrible tragedy united the people of Azerbaijan into a community of citizens of an independent nation and strengthened their resolve to achieve that independence.

For the Azerbaijani national identity, the date of Jan. 20, 1990, was a fundamental building block, which, as mentioned earlier, preceded the nation’s formal independence.

The hilltop cemetery overlooking the Caspian Sea, Martyr’s Alley, established ad hoc 30 years ago in spite of Soviet military attempts to disperse the people, has become one of the most emblemic sites of Baku today.

Unfortunately, that cemetery has grown significantly since then because many victims of the war with neighboring Armenia, which, after Azerbaijan’s independence, invaded and occupied 20 percent of the country’s sovereign territory, are buried there as well.

And red carnations, once the flower of choice for celebrations in Azerbaijan, are now almost exclusively a symbol of blood shed for the nation’s independence.

Baku’s Martyr’s Alley symbolizes the sacrifices made by the people of Azerbaijan for their freedom. For the Azerbaijani people, so much that most people take for granted — be it their nationhood and even the right to own their national flag — were hard earned by paying a very steep price.

Over three decades, much has changed and Azerbaijan today stands firmly on its feet as a regional leader.

A vibrant and independent Republic of Azerbaijan today is the best tribute to the memory of those whose lives were cut short by the collapsing empire’s crime.

And so, as we Azerbaijanis mourn the victims, we also celebrate our country and its independence, never forgetting the painful sacrifices that inevitably come with the high price of freedom.

Mammad Talibov is the Azerbaijani ambassador to Mexico.

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