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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Hot Spots
1992: A minefield for objective reporting
Helen Womack

The collapse of the Soviet Union created a number of “hot spots” of ethnic conflict. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Christian Armenians and Muslim Azeris fought a nasty little war over the mountainous territory of Nagorno- Karabakh. Each side accused the West of bias in favour of their enemy. It was difficult for reporters to be objective.

In February 1992, news came out that something terrible had happened in Khojaly, an Azeri settlement in the disputed enclave, mostly populated by Armenians. Hundreds of Azeri bodies were said to be strewn across a snowy mountainside. Were they battlefield casualties? Or had there been a massacre?

With a group of Moscow-based correspondents, I flew to the Azeri border town of Agdam, to which refugees from Khojaly had fled. We arrived in the middle of the night, tired, but instead of being taken to lodgings by our Azeri hosts, we were bussed straight to the mosque to examine four mutilated corpses.

At three in the morning, I didn’t know what to make of this. My rational mind said: “Four bodies don’t equal a massacre.” But at the deepest level of my being, I was shocked. “So when we are dead, we all look like broken dolls,” I thought. I was young then and all I had seen of death was the closed coffin of my grandmother at a stiff English funeral.

The next day, we went to the cemetery, where Azeri women were wailing over 75 freshly dug graves. Following tradition, they had scratched their cheeks bloody and were producing a ritual, high-pitched howl. Graves decorated with dolls were those of young people due to have been married, we were told. More bodies were still out on the mountainside, waiting to be retrieved.

This was beginning to look like a massacre, I had to admit.

At the Agdam railway station, a train had been turned into a makeshift hospital, full of women, children and old men with gunshot wounds. The survivors spoke consistently of how Armenian forces had attacked their town, of how civilians had fled into the forests, of how they had been trapped in a mountain pass and fired upon indiscriminately.

“A terrible tragedy has taken place but the world is silent,” said Dr. Eldar Sirazhev. “The West has always supported the Armenian side because they have a large, eloquent diaspora.”

I drew my conclusions and filed a report that on this occasion, the Azeris had indeed been the victims. Other times, it was the other way round. “Six of one and half a dozen of the other,” as my mother used to say about playground fights. But the victims of Khojaly were Muslim.

I did my job, went home and unraveled. Some correspondents become war junkies but I had a kind of nervous breakdown. Having seen death like that, I suddenly became afraid of everything. Alcohol helped but it wasn’t a long term solution. Mediation was better medicine, enabling me in middle age to embrace life.

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