Agence France Presse, January 20, 1999


Salakhadin Ragimov, 41, came to Martyr’s Lane Wednesday as he has every year to pay his respects to victims of “Black January,” Azerbaijan’s anniversary of a bloody Soviet crackdown in 1990.

Clutching some red carnations in one hand and his young son in the other, he filed past the black granite gravestones of the victims buried here, the most hallowed spot on Azerbaijani soil.

“I come here to see those who died for our freedom,” Ragimov says as he deposited the flowers at one of the headstones before heading for the exit with some of the thousands of others who came to honour the dead.

“And I bring him here to show him who our enemies are — the Soviet army,” he says, nodding to his 10-year-old son. “This is a day of mourning for the entire Azerbaijani people.”

Nine years after Soviet forces rolled into the capital under orders to put down anti-Armenian riots ignited by the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh, the anniversary has not lost any of its emotion for the nation.

Close to 200 were reportedly killed and hundreds more injured as troops opened fire on civilians and crushed others under their tank treads. Some officials claim the number of victims was actually much higher.

Some Azerbaijanis contend that the anti-Armenian pogroms were in fact Moscow-organized, in order to give the Soviet army a pretext to enter the capital and suppress the local Popular Front independence movement.

However, the crackdown actually helped the independence movement gain in strength and contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians also fled the country after the January 1990 events.

Although the true facts surrounding January 20 may never be known, the day has acquired a meaning beyond merely remembering the dead, representing now the country’s common sacrifice in its struggle for independence.

Black January is now the solemnest date on the country’s national calendar. All businesses and restaurants are closed, street vendors are barred for the day and music cannot be played in public.

All foreign television channels are blocked, leaving only the two government stations, which show continual scenes from the Martyrs Lane cemetery along with commentary on the seriousness of the occasion.

“The January 20 events played a decisive role in awakening the national consciousness,” one television commentator intoned, while the thousand-fold crowd marched past in the background.

“It was the final attack from imperial Russia to try to preserve its position,” he continued. “It was the fight between communism and anti-communism, democracy and totalitarianism.”

Other observers see Black January as the event, which helped unify the country and create a national identity, where previously none had existed.

“If you walk through Martyr’s Lane, you see gravestones from all ethnic groups and religions — Azeris, Jews, Christians, Russians, etc.,” said Thomas Goltz, an expert on the region and author of “Azerbaijan Diary.”

“Like so many states created in the 20th century, Azebaijan was born from the emotional trauma of blood and violence,” he continued. “January 20 unified the country in its grief and helped create a nation.”

Indeed, Black January can be seen as a day of national reconciliation, where the country’s bitter political divisions are forgotten for the moment and all unite in a common past and against a common enemy.

Leading figures from the government and opposition took their turn in paying their respects to the dead and laying wreaths at an eternal flame overlooking the panorama of Baku’s bay.

“This is a great day, and the positive in it is much greater than the negative,” said Tofik Gasymov, foreign minister under the former Popular Front government and an arch opponent to President Heydar Aliyev.

“This is an event for the entire country, when there are no differences between the opposition and the government,” he continued. “Today we are all the sons of one nation.”