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A Land Divided: The Armenia/Azerbaijan Crisis : CHAPTER 1: THE SPARK : Long Nights of Terror in a Beautifully Rugged Land

February 09, 1990

Alexander Gulanerian watched in horror as a gang of young thugs dragged two Armenian men out of a nearby apartment building, bound them together in the street below his second-floor flat and casually set them on fire.

He could hardly believe it was real--until he heard the same mob break into his own building and clamber up the stairs. For him.

"I had nowhere to go," he said days later from the safety of a hospital bed in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. "There was no time. We were there, waiting." He paused, shutting his painfully blackened eyes against the equally painful memory.

The gang kicked in his door, he said, and without uttering a word started slashing his neck and feet with knives and broken bottles. Some also pummeled him with pipes, he said. Then they threw him out the window into the street.

"There was nothing human in their faces, just brutality," Gulanerian, 42, recalled of his attackers. "There were about 40 of them, I think, all Azerbaijanis. They were maybe 16 years old, but already they have lost any trace of humanity in their eyes."

When he regained consciousness, Gulanerian lay naked amid the corpses in a hospital morgue in Baku. He said he stayed there, unattended, for two days before shuffling out on his bloodied feet. Soviet soldiers took him to a ferry evacuating Armenians across the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk, in Soviet Central Asia, and then flown to Yerevan.

For all his trauma, emotional as well as physical, Gulanerian could in fact be looked on as fortunate--if only because, having been swept up in the bloody Baku pogrom, he somehow survived.

In four long nights of unspeakable terror and brutality, at least 72 of his fellow ethnic Armenians did not survive. They were rousted from their homes by lawless thugs, tortured and killed in an orgy of violence that brought two independent Soviet republics to the brink of civil war.

The persecution unleashed Jan. 13 was neither the beginning nor the end of the frequently violent rivalry between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Indeed, it was not even the beginning of the most recent round of ethnic hatred in that ancient hillside oil port along the Caspian Sea.

Roving bands of angry, impoverished and embittered young Muslim Azerbaijani refugees had been swaggering around the steep and narrow streets of Baku for several days before the real brutality began, forcing Christian Armenian families out of their comfortable flats and moving in themselves.

But, perhaps inevitably, one of the illegal evictions went tragically wrong. One Armenian family finally refused to leave their apartment when the knock came at the door. In this case, the Azerbaijanis insisted, and words were exchanged. A scuffle broke out. An ax was produced.

Soon, one Azerbaijani was dead and another was critically injured.

Within hours, news of the confrontation spread to one of the massive rallies organized by the Azerbaijani Popular Front. Speakers who had spent weeks railing against the unfairness of Soviet rule now excitedly urged Azerbaijanis to avenge their dead brother.

The brutality unleashed stunned the world.

Gangs of Azerbaijani youths tore through Baku, savagely sacking Armenian apartments, raping women, and beating and killing men. Agitated by a long series of anti-Armenian speeches and leaflets and apparently aided by lists of Armenian families and their addresses, the mobs moved with surprising speed and ferocity.

Eyewitness reports might have appeared unbelievable if there had not been so many of them, each confirming the others. They told of seeing Armenians thrown to their deaths from high-rise apartment buildings, of watching others tied together, soaked in gasoline and burned alive. Some Armenians were beaten with iron bars or hacked with knives; others were simply dragged to the street and shot.

"They are beasts. They were killing, they were killing, they were burning. Oh, it is just to horrible to remember," said former Baku resident Lucia Vanian, 75, after she was safely removed to Moscow.

"We have seen murders here of the cruelest sort," a veteran Soviet journalist said after witnessing the initial violence. "Men, women and children, the young and the old alike, were attacked and often killed because they were Armenians. That alone--to be Armenian in Azerbaijan--was a virtual sentence of death."

Sometimes the attacks were as petty as they were brutal: One old woman, for example, said her assailants took her false teeth before beating her and turning her out of her house in her nightclothes.

Sofia Babakhanian recalled that she and her husband were watching television when a dozen Azerbaijanis burst into her apartment, brandishing knives and clubs and cursing all Armenians. After shoving her husband's head through a window, they put a knife to the 68-year-old woman's throat and tried to rape her, she said.

Eventually, she said, the intruders settled for beating the elderly couple, smashing their furniture to kindling and leaving them to die on their living room floor. Two days later, the police came and took them out of Baku, where they were born and had spent their whole lives.

For all such tales of barbarism, there were also tales of compassion. A number of Armenians were saved from death, if not homelessness, by sympathetic Azerbaijani neighbors who hid them from the mobs and helped them to reach one of the planes or boats that were ferrying Armenians to safety.

In the end, at least 13,000 Armenians left the city in a mass evacuation, many of them after having been badly beaten and stripped of their homes and possessions. The Soviet Ministry of the Interior said 139 Azerbaijanis have been arrested for the violence.

But the bloodshed in Baku--and in the beautifully rugged, violently contested lands nearby--was only beginning.

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