The Armenia-Azerbaijan war: a refugee's story
“I saw a naked girl running through the field. She was acting crazy, like dancing or something. The men surrounded her and started beating her, punching and kicking her. They pulled back and then they came at her again. They came back and forth, back and forth. They kept kicking her even after she was dead. I think she was dead. I saw this with my own eyes.”
Karen Matevosyan, a retired policeman, clenched and unclenched his fists and made kicking motions with his ankles as he spoke to EUobserver in his home in Stepanakert in the unrecognised Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh on Monday (20 February).
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The incident occurred 29 years ago, on 28 February 1988, in the town of Sumgait, on the Caspian Sea coast, in what was then the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.
It was one of many in the anti-Armenian pogroms that took place after the local parliament in the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh voted, on 20 February, to split from Azerbaijan and join Armenia.
The events that followed, amid the break-up of the Soviet Union, cost up to 30,000 lives and displaced more than 1 million people in a four-year war.
Full hostilities ended in 1994, but the so-called frozen conflict still goes on, with everyday exchanges of fire on the line of contact. It also threatens to escalate, destabilising the South Caucasus and drawing in regional powers Iran, Russia, and Turkey.
The lynching of the naked woman is a central image in Matevosyan’s memory of what he called “three days of hell” and gives an insight into why reconciliation remains so hard.
“I can’t forgive and forget what they did,” he said.
“The April war showed that the situation hasn’t changed. They [Azeris] are still killers and animals,” he added, referring to fighting between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh last April, which claimed hundreds of lives on both sides.
Matevosyan paused to wipe his tears with a napkin before telling the rest of his story.
He said he later learned from neighbours that the woman had lived in an apartment block close to his own.
“She was 25 and she was a newlywed. When the pogroms began, she wanted to leave, but her husband, who was an Armenian athlete, said he would protect her, that he was the man of the house and that no harm would come to her. The bandits came to their flat and beat him and left him for dead, but he wasn’t dead. They raped her and then they dragged her by her hair down the stairs from the fifth floor to the ground floor and chased her through the streets,” he said.
Three days of hell
Matevosyan witnessed the lynching from his own fourth-floor flat while hiding with his wife, Ani, and their one-year old son, Arkady.
Two days earlier, everything had been normal. He was working in a local electrical plant and had “good relations” with his Azeri friends and neighbours, but on 26 February, he said, “everything changed”.
He said “groups of bandits” appeared on the streets chanting “Death to Armenians!”.
He said the men and boys, some as young as 15, appeared to be drunk or on drugs and used rocks and clubs to smash cars and windows.
“They must have been given lists because they knew exactly where we [Armenian people] lived. It was prepared in advance. They beat people in the street. They threw their belongings out of the windows into the courtyards and set them on fire,” he said.
“We were hiding at home waiting to die. We couldn’t call for help because the phone lines had been cut. I had to hold my son’s mouth closed to stop him from crying because we were afraid that if he made a noise then they would find us,” he said.
On 29 February, a mob entered his building and began attacking residents on the second and third floors, but the attackers ran away when Russian soldiers appeared in the street to stop the violence.
“That day, I was two minutes away from losing my life,” Matevosyan said.
He said the Russian convoy, composed of tanks and armoured vehicles, “looked like something from a movie”.
The Russian forces let him take some baby clothes and food and drove him and his family to a makeshift camp outside town where they stayed until 8 March.
He vividly remembers the words and face of a Russian officer, lieutenant-general Krayev, who told him: “As a soldier, I’m instructed to tell you that the situation is calm and that you can go back home, but as a man, after seeing all that blood on the asphalt, I must tell you that I wouldn’t stay here a minute longer because the situation could change.”
Matevosyan, Ani, and Arkady left by train shortly afterward from Baku to Stepanakert, where he was born.
Six months later he returned to his flat in Sumgait one last time.
“I went back to the room where I had grown up as a boy. I was a man now, but I sat down on the floor and I started to cry because I knew this was the last time I would ever be there. I cried because all of this happened just because the blood in my veins was Armenian,” he said.
He worked as a labourer in Stepanakert, building houses in the refugee quarter where he still lives, before joining the police force.
Despite sporadic fighting on the line of contact about an hour's drive away, his daily life is normal.
He watches Real Madrid and Manchester United play football on TV and spends time with his two-year old granddaughter, Elena.
“I hate Barcelona [Real Madrid’s rivals in the Spanish league],” he joked.
Asked if he felt pity for Azeri civilians who also lost their lives in the events of 30 years ago, he said: “Of course I feel pity. It’s only human, but that day when I escaped my only thought whenever I saw an Azeri person was that I wanted to kill them.”
’Do what you want’
Matevosyan, who served as a soldier in the 1990s war, said that one day Armenian troops captured 10 Azeri fighters.
“They brought them to me, because they knew I was from Sumgait, and they said I could do whatever I wanted to them, but when I looked at them, I understood I couldn’t do anything,” he said.
He said the war was never a war “between peoples”.
“In Soviet times, we were friends and allies. I don’t think Azeri people ever wanted a war and I don’t think they need Nagorno-Karabakh,” he said.
“It’s the state of Azerbaijan that wants this war for some political reason,” he said.
The train tracks from Baku to Stepanakert are still in place, but no trains have used the line for 25 years.
Matevosyan said he had hoped that a peace settlement would come until Azerbaijan launched its attack last April, but that now that hope had been “destroyed”.
’Why is this?’
He switched on his TV and flicked through channels showing Azerbaijani soap operas and music.
“I can watch this, but they [people in Azerbaijan] can’t watch Armenian TV or listen to Armenian music. Why is this?”, he said.
He said he recently traced some school friends on the internet.
Some were Azeri, some Armenian, some Jewish, and others were Russian. Several of them now lived in Russia or in the US and were happy to chat about old times.
“One of them lived in Baku. I found him and we chatted for two days, but then he said: ’Sorry, I can’t stay in touch with you any more because it’s dangerous for me to be talking to an Armenian,’” Matevosyan said.
His wife, Ani, said the same thing happened when she looked up old friends on the internet.
“Why is this?”, she said.
This story is the second in a series of features by EUobserver that will examine the issues and look at the lives of ethnic Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The first part was about a referendum to create a 'Republic of Artsakh' in Nagorno-Karabakh.