Ethnic Cleansing in Progress: War in Nagorno Karabakh

Caroline Cox and John Eibner

Caroline Cox and John Eibner

Operation Ring

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 ‘Operation Ring’.

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’.

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.

Sakharov Memorial Congress

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); Caroline Croft, USA; Felice Gaer, USA; Alexander Goldin, USSR, Secretary of the Organizing Committee, 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 the 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 we 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 villages.
  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 Buildings.
  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 tried to 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 force. We 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 village we counted 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 of Azerbaijan, chairmen of rayispolkoms (district council executives – ed.), district chiefs of militia and KGB, and other local officials were present (at the deportations – ed.) and directed aspects of the operation. Inhabitants’ requests for military protection went unheeded. In particular, Colonel Zhukov, Soviet Military Commandant of Nagorno Karabakh, responded that he could do nothing. Before and during 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, Second Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.


Internal troops subordinated to the Soviet MVD (Interior Ministry) have conducted actions co-ordinated with Azerbaijani OMON forcibly to deport entire villages, often brutalizing civilians, including women, children, and elderly persons. Gross violation of internationally guaranteed human rights have been found, in clear violation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and other international agreements to which the USSR is a signatory. We found credible and compelling evidence that additional deportations and related abuses are being planned by Azerbaijani and Soviet authorities and 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 cities of Stepanakert and Khodjaly. While our requests were presented repeatedly during our visit, including to Azerbaijani President A. Mutalibov and Dr. A. Dashdamirov, 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 of 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 and unwilling to exclude future 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 Armenia according to which ‘Armenia agrees to incorporate the Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh at the request of the latter’. The aim of the policy of forced deportations is to ‘clear the area of bases used by Armenian paramilitary troops’.

We also had meetings with representatives of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia who expressed unanimous concern that public opinion in the USSR and abroad, which strongly condemned deportations of Armenians, was not strong enough 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 ‘Armenian lobby’.

No official with whom we met denied the possibility that Azerbaijani OMON forces are engaged in atrocities, including killing, looting and banditry, and brutality and violence directed against women, children, and the elderly.
David W Leopold Esq; Robert L Arsenault Jr; Yuri Samodurov; Alexander E Goldin”

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 in Azerbaijani prisons, 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. The populations 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; Harrassment of 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 by soldiers and Azerbaijani OMON forces and the population is being forcibly deported.
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 injury.
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.

2. Detentions

We received reports of recent detentions of Armenians in Nagorno Karabakh. We were pleased to note that some Azerbaijanis and Armenians have been released.
We received direct testimony from recently released detainees and persons under current detention in Nagorno Karabakh. In Kirovakan, Armenia, we met eleven 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 with next-of-kin 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 to counsel 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 both Azeri-Turk and Armenian villages. They also visited one of the villages from which Armenians had been forcibly deported and which had been repopulated by Azeri civilians. Some expressed regret that they were living in homes which only six weeks previously 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 and Sumgait pogroms.

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 two 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. Mrs. 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 the property that she had lost. She could not return to her village.

A young woman aged 20, Mrs. Barsegian from the Berdadzor region: Mrs. Barsegian said that on May 13, 1991 at 6:00 a.m., Soviet Interior Ministry troops and 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 sign saying she was ready to leave the village voluntarily She signed because she was terrified. She has one 14 month-old child. A soldier approached her child and took hold of its head and said: ‘You are Armenian and therefore I must cut out your tongue.’ She attacked the soldier and fought him off. The interpreter asked her whether she had been raped and she remained silent. Several voices were 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 had raped her but that they had left the baby alone. Her husband and brother-in-law are still in jail.

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 who was 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 story.”


” 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 1805 when Karabakh was part of the Russian Empire there were 1,311 churches and monasteries. In 1923 Nagorno Karabakh was handed over to Azerbaijan. Churches 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 then 112 churches and 18 monasteries. Six months later all were closed. In 1989, he opened a few churches and monasteries with permission from Moscow (Baku said ‘no’). On 21 November, 1990 Baku took the decision to close all Karabakh churches. The decision was published in the Azerbaijani press. They claimed that Moscow was not entitled to authorise the opening of churches. The Catholicos (head) of the Armenian church had written to various bodies for more than 20 years seeking approval to open churches in Karabakh when there were none.

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 main Karabakh religious site and seat of the bishop. On 6 July it was raided by Soviet soldiers and OMON troops allegedly looking for guns. Papers were checked and a thorough search, including the raiding of graves, took place.”

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.



Prepared with the assistance of the Public Relations and Information Center of the Office of the President of Armenia, Yerevan.


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