I broke the news about the Khojali massacre with a world-exclusive story on February 27th. It made an inside page of the Washington Post. London's Sunday Times took the story more seriously - maybe because they were Europe - and gave it front-page coverage. By then, the international hack-pack had started parachuting in to count bodies and confirm that something awful had really happened. The first Western reporter who managed to arrive in the killing fields and perform the grisly task of counting the dead was Anatol Lieven of the London Times. His companion was the late Rory Peck of Frontline News - another cool professional and dear friend. [Less than two years later, Rory would be shot to death in front of Ostankino TV in Moscow on October 3, 1993, when Boris Yeltsin decided to restore democracy in Russia through the barrels of guns.]
Others performed less well. One reporter from Agence France-Press, best left nameless, arrived in Aghdam the night we left and found the city "quiet," apparently confusing the silence that followed the missile-induced exodus of 60,000 people with an aura of peace and tranquility.
The government of Azerbaijan, meanwhile, made a complete about-face on the issue. The same people who had remained inaccessible during the early days of the crisis were suddenly asking me to provide telephone numbers of foreign correspondents in Moscow whom they could invite down - at government expense - to report on the massacre.
That didn't set well with me. I almost hauled off and assaulted the Presidential Press Secretary, accusing him of lying. He, in turn, started a rumor that I was an Armenian spy sent to Khojali to ferret out "military secrets" during my January visit to the doomed town. Consequence: I was temporally detained, causing me to slide into a very black mood. When I was released, I went downtown and found myself sitting at a shop with a bunch of black marketeers, who were vaguely waiting for me to exchange my dollars for rubles. Then the whole situation hit me and hit me hard.
The evening streets were still filled with light-hearted shoppers, apparently oblivious or, perhaps, indifferent to the fate of the citizens of Khojali. The men seemed to be all look-alikes in leather jackets, and the women had far too much rouge on their cheeks. They were all smiling and laughing and parading around. I have to confess: I hated every one of them. Maybe they didn't know what I had done. Maybe they did know but didn't care, lest it drive them insane. It wasn't clear, nor was my brain.
I canceled the dollar deal, walked out of the shop and wandered the streets. I think it was raining, but I can't remember for sure. I meandered the streets, unable to stop anywhere or see or talk to anyone for hours and hours.
"Ha ha," someone cackled, as he leaned toward his sweetheart and switched on the motor of his car.
"Ho ho," another chortled, as he lurched out of a "Komisyon" shop, a bottle of Finnish vodka under arm.
I wanted to slash their tires, smash their noses, burn their houses. I wanted to do something - something violent. Instead, I ended up wandering the streets in a daze. Finally, I arrived home and sat down and poured myself a long drink. Hijran asked me where I'd been.
"Khojali," I answered in a voice that I didn't recognize. I had been in that dump of a town with ghosts and no food to speak of, no water to wash with. And all the people from there that I had known were dead, dead, dead. I broke down and cried and cried and criedvowing that I would remember Commander Arif and all the others, whose names I had never known, but whose faces would be etched forever in my memory.