here follows the rest of the story..........
We left Baku by car at seven in the morning and drove as quickly as we could across the monotonous flats of central Azerbaijan. Brown cotton fields stretched along the horizon. As we roared by, hunters standing along the roadside held up ducks that they had just bagged. We stopped for gas in a town named Tartar and asked the local mayor what was happening in Aghdam. He said he didn't know anything. We stopped again in another town called Barda and again took a moment to inquire about events and rumors. Clueless looks greeted us.
We were starting to think that the whole thing was a colossal bum steer when we arrived in Aghdam and drove into the middle of town, looking for a bite to eat. It was there that we ran into the refugees. There were 10, then 20, then hundreds of screaming, wailing residents - all from Khojali. Many of them recognized me because of my previous visits to their town. They clutched at my clothes, babbling out the names of their dead relatives and friends, all the while dragging me to the morgue attached to the main mosque in town to show me their deceased loved ones.
At first we found it hard to believe what the survivors were saying. The Armenians had surrounded Khojali and delivered an ultimatum: "Get out or die." Then came a babble of details about the final days, many concerning Commander Arif Hajiyev.
Sensing doom, Arif had begged the government to bring in choppers to save at least a few of the civilians, but Baku had done nothing. Then, on the night of February 25th, Armenian "fedayeen" hit the town from three sides. The fourth side had been left open, creating a funnel through which refugees could escape. Arif gave the order to evacuate: the soldiers would run interference along the hillside of the Gorgor River Valley, while the women, children and "aghsaggals" [gray-bearded ones - wise elders of the village] escaped. Groping their way through the night under fire, the refugees had arrived at the outskirts of a village called Nakhjivanli, on the cusp of Karabakh, by the morning of February 26th. They crossed the road there and began working their way downhill toward the forward Azeri lines and the city Aghdam, now only some six miles away via the Azeri outpost at Shelli.
It was there in the foothills of the mountains even within sight of safety, that the greatest horror awaited them - a gauntlet of lead and fire.
"They just kept shooting and shooting and shooting," sobbed a woman named Raisa Aslanova. She said her husband and son-in-law were killed right in front of her eyes. Her daughter was still missing.
Scores, hundreds, possibly even a thousand had been slaughtered in a turkey-shoot of civilians and their handful of defenders. Aside from counting every corpse, there was no way to tell how many had died. Most of the bodies remained inaccessible, in the no-man's land between the lines that had become a killing zone and a picnic for crows.
One thousand slaughtered in a single night? It seemed impossible. But when we began cross-referencing, the wild claims about the extent of the killing began to look all too true. The local religious leader in Aghdam, Imam Sadigh Sadighov, broke down in tears as he tallied the names of the registered dead on an abacus. There were 477 that day, but the number did not include those missing and presumed dead, nor those victims whose entire families had been wiped out and thus had no one to register them. The number 477 represented only the number of confirmed dead by the survivors who had managed to reach Aghdam and were physically able to fulfill, however imperfectly, the Muslim practice of burying the dead within 24 hours.
Elif Kaban of Reuters was stunned into giddiness. My wife, Hijran, was numb. Photographer Oleg Litvin fell into a catatonic state and would only shoot pictures when I pushed him in front of the subject: corpses, graves, and the wailing women who were gouging their cheeks with their nails. The job required stomach. Now was the time to work - to document and report: a massacre had occurred, and the world had to know about it.
We scoured the town, stopping repeatedly at the hospital, the morgue and the ever-growing graveyards. We moved out to the edges of the defensive perimeter to meet the straggling survivors stumbling in. Then we would rush back to the hospital to check on those recently admitted who had been wounded. Then back to the morgue to witness truckloads of bodies being brought in for identification and ritual washing before burial.
I searched for familiar faces and thought I saw some but could not be sure. One corpse was identified as a young veterinarian who had been shot through the eyes at point-blank range. I tried to remember if I had ever met him, but could never be sure. Other bodies, stiffened by rigor mortis, seemed to speak of execution: with their arms thrown up as if in permanent surrender. A number of heads lacked hair, as if the corpses had been scalped. It was not a pretty day.
Toward late afternoon, someone mentioned that a military helicopter on loan from the Russian garrison at Ganja would be making a flight over the killing fields, and so we traveled out to the airport. No flight materialized, but I did find old friends.
"Thomas," a man in military uniform gasped, and grabbed me in an embrace, and began weeping, "Nash Nachalnik..." [Our Commander]
I recognized him as one of Arif Hajiyev's boys, a pimply-faced boy from Baku who had described himself as a banker before he had volunteered for duty in Karabakh. He was speaking in Russian, babbling, but I managed to understand one word above his sobs: the commander...
A few other survivors from the Khojali garrison stumbled over to me. Of the men under Arif Hajiyev's command, only 10 had survived. Dirty, exhausted and overcome with what can only be described as survivor's guilt, they pieced together what had happened during that awful night and the following day. Their commander - Arif Hajiyev - had been killed by a bullet to his brain while defending the women and children. And about the women and children - most of them had died, too.
Towards evening, we returned to the government guesthouse in the middle of town searching for a telephone. There we met an exhausted Tamerlan Garayev. A native of Aghdam, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament was one of the few government officials of any sort that I found there. Tamerlan was interrogating two Turkmen deserters from the Stepanakert-based 366th Motorized Infantry Brigade of the Russian Interior Ministry forces that had descended on Khojali the week before. The last missing link of the tragedy suddenly fit into place: not only had the doomed town been assaulted by the Armenians, but the Russians had been undeniably involved as well.
"Talk, talk!" Tamerlan demanded, as the two men stared at us.
"We ran away because the Armenian and Russian officers were beating us because we were Muslims," one of the men, named Agha Mohammad Mutif, explained. "We just wanted to return home to Turkmenistan."
"Then what happened?" Tamerlan wanted to know.
"Then they attacked the town," the other explained. "We recognized vehicles from our unit."
The two had tried to flee along with everyone else in town and were helping a group of women and children escape through the mountains when they were discovered by the Armenians and the 366th.
"They opened fire and at least twelve men in our group were killed," Mutif recounted. "After that, we just ran and ran."
Could such a thing have really happened: a Russian-backed assault by Armenians on an Azeri town, which resulted in up to 1,000 dead?
This was news. But as we started to file our stories, we became aware of something very strange. No one seemed interested in the story. Apparently, the idea that the roles of the good guys had been reversed was too much: Armenians slaughtering Azeris?
"You're suggesting that more people died in this single attack in Karabakh than the total number that we have reported killed over the past four years?" observed BBC's Moscow correspondent when I tipped him on the bloodbath.
"That's impossible," he replied.
"Take a look at Reuters!"
"There's nothing on the wire."
Indeed, there wasn't. Although Elif Kaban had been churning out copy on her portable Telex, nothing was appearing on the wires. Either someone was spiking her copy, or was rolling it into a larger, anodyne regional report of "conflicting allegations".
To be fair, the government and press in Baku didn't exactly assist our efforts to get the story out. While we had been off in Aghdam trying to break the news, the presidential spokesman was claiming that Khojali's feisty defenders had beaten back an Armenian attack and that the Azeris had suffered only two casualties. They were pitching it as just an ordinary night in Mountainous Karabakh. We knew differently, but it was the three of us against the Azerbaijani State propaganda machine.
Finally, I managed to get a call through to the Moscow Bureau of the Washington Post and told them that I wanted to file a story. The staffers said they were too busy to take a dictation. When I insisted, they reluctantly patched me through to the Foreign Desk in Washington. I used the number of 477 people to indicate how many had died. After all, that was the figure that had been so carefully determined by Imam Sadighov. Though the figure turned out to be low, the editors "dragged me over the coals." Where had I gotten such a figure, since Baku was reporting that only two people had died? Had I seen all the bodies? They cautioned balance. Besides, the Armenian press was reporting that there had been a "massive Azeri offensive."
"Why wasn't that in my report?" The editors wanted to know.
I was about to defend my position that I had not written such because it simply had not happened when suddenly the first of many Kristal missiles started raining down on Aghdam and landing only about a mile away from the Government Guest House that I was calling from. Other missiles followed, and when one crashed into the building next door and blew out all the windows in our building, we thought it best to get down to the basement before we were blown to smithereens.
An hour later, crawling out from under the mattresses, we came up for air and decided we had better get out of Aghdam as fast as possible. About 60,000 other people had the same idea, and we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a mass exodus of trucks, cars, horses and people on bicycles, all rushing to flee east in the direction of Baku.