Twenty-four years have passed since the Central Soviet Authorities perpetrated an atrocious crime against the people of Azerbaijan. On Jan. 20, 1990, 26,000 Soviet troops invaded the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku, in a desperate, brutal and yet futile attempt to strangle the growing independence movement and prevent the fall of the Soviet Communist regime in Azerbaijan as well as to punish ordinary people who rallied on the streets to legitimately protest against violations of the territorial integrity of their homeland.
At that time, Azerbaijan was also subjected to aggression from neighboring Armenia. The country violated the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, which has resulted in the occupation of Azerbaijani territory, and tried to incorporate Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. Armenia’s territorial claims and separatist activities were supported by the ruling Soviet regime.
In the fall of 1989, the national independence movement had reached incredible momentum with hundreds of thousands of people struggling for the ideals of freedom, independence and sovereignty to preserve the nation’s territorial integrity. Thousands of people protesting against the policy of the USSR held demonstrations all day long in the central square (now Azadliq, or Freedom Square) and on the streets of Baku. The leaders of the Soviet empire perpetrated the Jan. 20 massacre in Azerbaijan, a republic that was moving towards independence.
At midnight on Jan. 19, 1990, the “Alfa” Soviet special forces invaded and cracked down ferociously, without mercy for children, women or the elderly. As a result, more than 137 civilians were killed, including 120 Azerbaijanis, six Russians, three Jews and three Tatars. A total of 744 people were wounded, 400 arrested and subjected to various forms of physical coercion, and four reported missing. Those killed ranged in age from 12 to 73.
Hundreds of other civilians were detained, harassed and tortured by the Soviet army in the days and weeks that followed. This massacre became known in Azerbaijan’s history as “Black January.”
Along with the uprisings in the Baltic countries, the national movement in Azerbaijan became one of the strongest in the former Soviet Union, and it courageously expressed the highest level of political discontent with the regime. As was the case with peaceful demonstrations in Almaty, Kazakhstan (1986); Tbilisi, Georgia (1989); and Vilnius, Lithuania (1991), the Soviet regime responded with a violent crackdown.
A Human Rights Watch report entitled “Black January in Azerbaijan” clearly states: “Indeed, the violence used by the Soviet Army on the night of Jan. 19-20 was so out of proportion to the resistance offered by Azerbaijanis as to constitute an exercise in collective punishment.”
On Jan. 21, 1990, Heydar Aliyev, who was living in Moscow at the time, went to Azerbaijan’s permanent representative office in the Soviet capital to flatly condemn the crimes perpetrated by the USSR leaders against Azerbaijan and its citizens and express support for his people. In a statement made at the meeting, Heydar Aliyev gave a political assessment of the tragedy: “As far as the developments in Azerbaijan are concerned, I am convinced that they run counter to the rule of law, democracy, humanity and the principles of state building in our country.”
A number of international organizations and foreign countries, including Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Arab states and Iran condemned the Soviet troops’ brutal attack on civilians.
However, this did not stop the people of Azerbaijan from continuing their just struggle until the achievement of national independence in 1991, which in itself stands as the best memorial for the victims of Black January.
Although 24 years have passed since those bloody days, Azerbaijani people remember and widely commemorate the Jan. 20 tragedy every year, which has been immortalized in the collective memory of Azerbaijan as the “Day of Nationwide Sorrow.”