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Azerbaijanis Mark 34th Anniversary of January 20 Tragedy

By Nigar Bayramli January 20, 2024

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Victims of the January 20, 1990 atrocities have been buried in Şəhidlər Xiyabanı (Alley of Martyrs) in the Highland Park on the highest point of capital Baku / Courtesy

Today, Azerbaijanis are marking the 34th anniversary of "Black January", paying homage to the victims of Soviet repression that claimed more than 140 lives on January 20 in 1990. Since then, the date has been commemorated at the highest level every year in Azerbaijan.

In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in its twilight, Armenia decided to take advantage of the geopolitical situation. In 1988, Armenia, which was the Soviet republic established in the historical lands of Azerbaijan, expelled 250,000 Azerbaijanis from their homelands, the last portion of the Azerbaijani population who had remained there after the series of mass deportations of Azerbaijanis during the 20th century. At the same time, Armenia conspired to occupy the highland part of the Karabakh region, an internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan which had been partially populated with ethnic Armenians living alongside indigenous Azerbaijanis.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis took to the streets in Baku in 1988 – 1989 demanding the Soviet authorities in Moscow put a stop to Armenia’s illegal actions. Instead, the Soviet leadership turned a blind eye to these events and did nothing of that kind. The mass protests of Azerbaijanis in Baku against the policies of the Soviet Union turned into an independence movement for Azerbaijan.

In early 1990, Armenia’s parliament voted to include the highland part of the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan in its budget plans, disregarding Azerbaijani jurisdiction and revealing Armenia’s intent to annex the region. In the wake of the action, Azerbaijanis flocked to the streets in Baku again to express their mass protests against the Soviet Union’s policy towards the fate of Azerbaijan's Karabakh region.

By the bloody date, a 50-thousand army of Soviet military troops and special forces had already surrounded Baku. On the night of January 19–20, 1990 – shortly before a state of emergency was declared – Soviet tanks rolled into Baku, destroying everything in their path.

"On the night of 19-20 January 1990 as a result of military aggression by units and special forces of Soviet Army as well as contingents of internal troops against Azerbaijan, massacres intending forcibly suppressing national independence movement in Azerbaijan were carried out against civilians, including women, children, and the elderly in Baku and Sumgayit, Lankaran, and Neftchala. Military aggression of the occupying forces claimed the lives of 150 citizens, severely wounded 744 others, and 4 people went missing," the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan said in a statement on Saturday.

More than 840 Azerbaijani citizens were illegally arrested, while 200 houses and apartments were destroyed in Baku. In addition, 80 cars, including ambulances, were damaged. Pogroms continued in other cities of Azerbaijan, including Neftchala and Lankaran in the south, where eight people fell victim to the Soviet invasion on January 25 and 26.

For Azerbaijanis, January 20 symbolizes the heroism of the nation in addition to the tragic events that occurred that day in history. Azerbaijanis believe that the resistance movement led to regaining the country’s independence from the Soviet Union a year later in 1991. Every year on January 20, millions of people visit the Alley of Martyrs, a cemetery where the victims of the tragic, yet heroic day are buried, to honor the memories of the founders of independence.

"20 January tragedy had a decisive impact on shaping the Azerbaijani national identity and marked a historic turning point in the restoration of independence of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani people who were exposed to the military, political, and moral aggression of the Soviet regime 34 years ago, demonstrated devotion to their historical traditions of struggle. The sons and daughters of the motherland, who sacrificed their lives for justice on that tragic day, left a remarkable page in the heroic history of our people. On 20 January 1990, which was marked in our history as a day of tragedy, as well as of national pride, Azerbaijani people conveyed to the world that they deserve to live free, sovereign and independent," the ministry's statement reads.

Being a gross violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international legal documents and one of the most serious crimes of the 20th century by its essence and scope, these events have not yet received an international political and legal assessment, according to the Foreign Ministry of Azerbaijan. Baku is convinced that the tragic events of 1990 should be acknowledged as a crime against humanity and those who ordered and perpetrated it must be held accountable.

The Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991, at which time it broke up into 15 independent states, the Republic of Azerbaijan being one of them.