Autumn 1999 (7.3)
Black January January 20, 1990
by Galina Mammadova
Each year on January 20, Azerbaijanis observe the anniversary of what they call "Black January", that tragic night in 1990 when Soviet tanks and troops bore down on Baku and opened fire on civilians in a savage crackdown on Azerbaijan's independence movement. Every year, thousands of mourners visit the graves of those victims buried in Martyr's Lane ("Shahidlar Khiyaban", prounounced sha-hid-LAR khi-yah-BAHN), a cemetery on the most prominent hillside overlooking the Caspian Sea.
Photo: Larissa at age 12, one year before she died in the Black January massacre of 1990.
This is the story of one of the youngest victims of the Black January tragedy-a 13-year-old girl named Larissa-as told by her mother, Galina Mammadova.
On the night of January 19, 1990, my husband, a bus driver, was shuttling people back and forth to the demonstrations in Baku. When Farman stopped in at home for supper, my daughter Larissa decided that she wanted to join him when he went back out-she was quite a curious child and took a great interest in the events that were unfolding in Azerbaijan's quest for independence. She liked to go to demonstrations with her father. Sometimes she would stay out with him in Lenin Square1 until the wee hours of the morning. Those were the days of Perestroika or "openness" as Gorbachev referred to them.
Photo left: Funeral ceremony, Black January in Baku (January 1990). Khayrulin
Ever since Armenians had made claims on Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region inside Azerbaijan, and forced Azeris to flee from Yerevan and other regions of Armenia, there had been a ground swell among Azerbaijanis to protest the injustice of the situation. More and more refugees were streaming in from Armenia, and a great resentment was growing as they saw Armenians living comfortably in Azerbaijan while they had just been savagely beaten, killed, and driven from their homes.
Photo right: Martyr's Lane (Shahidlar Khiyabani) today with the new memorial dedicated October 1998. These grave markers commemorate victims of Black January including Larissa. See photo plaques on wall. Elsewhere on the hillside are graves to the victims of the Karabakh War. The site was originally used to bury victims killed by Armenians in the March 1918 Massacre in Baku.
Beginning around January 13-14, the
Armenians in Baku, fearing for their safety, started leaving Azerbaijan (mostly for Russia). In the meantime, Russian military families were also heading to Moscow and were spreading rumors that they were being mistreated.
I asked Larissa to stay home that night, but she stood her ground and insisted on going. "Mom," she said, "I want to see our national flag. I want to see what's happening in our country. You stay home and take care of Narmina (her sister)." So my husband and daughter left home like they had done so many times before.
Larissa was 13 years old at the time. She was tall for her age. I can't say that she was the brightest pupil in school, but she loved playing the piano and taking art lessons. She was a kind and friendly child, and very expressive in her love for her family and for Azerbaijan.
I remember once when we were visiting some Azerbaijani refugees who had just arrived from Yerevan, Larissa begged me: "Mom, let's take some of these children home and look after them."
"But Larissa," I cautioned, "what about your brother and sister?"
"That won't be a problem, Mom," she insisted. "I can take care of them and look after the refugee children, too," she had begged.
Soon after that, Larissa wrote a letter to my parents in the Ukraine, telling them about the refugee situation and about Azerbaijan's hard times. She was always very conscious of what was going on in Azerbaijan despite her young age.
A Missing Daughter
I waited up all night for Larissa and Farman, but they didn't come home. I waited and waited and waited until the night faded into morning. About 6 a.m., I went out into the streets. People were shouting that the soldiers were killing our people. They were begging for medical supplies. I brought some cotton, gauze bandages and candles to be taken to the hospitals.
Not long after that, I got a call from Semashko Hospital. They said that my husband was there, lying in a coma. I asked them: "What about my baby?" But no one there had seen my daughter.
I had to find out where she was, so I made my way to the demonstration that was being held in front of the President's Office.2 I knew that my husband and daughter had planned to go there the night before. If I could only address the crowd, maybe someone could tell me what had happened.
So I went. As I tried to force my way through the crowds up to the organizers, I heard people saying, "Don't let her pass through-she's Russian." (I was actually born in the Ukraine, not Russia.) I told them that my husband was Azerbaijani, that he had been wounded by Russian soldiers and that I had lost my daughter. With that, they let me pass. I approached the leaders and they gave me the microphone. I addressed the crowd, asking if anybody had seen my daughter. Someone told me that at about 11 p.m., my husband and daughter had left the demonstration to go home.
Then I went to the hospital where my husband was and asked the staff if they knew anything about my daughter. No one did. Farman was still unconscious. While I was in the hospital, I noticed that many of our neighbors had gathered. They seemed to be looking at me strangely, as if they knew something that I didn't. I thought that perhaps one of our neighbors had been killed, or maybe they had come to visit Farman. It never occurred to me that anything might have happened to Larissa.
I decided to go home and see if everything was all right with my younger two children. When I arrived, I saw that many neighbors had gathered around our house. When I went inside, I found Larissa's body laid out on the dining room table.
Corpse No. 316
At first, I couldn't believe it was Larissa. My poor daughter's body was full of tiny slivers of glass. She was still wearing her coat and her face was covered in blood.
While I had been in the hospital looking for my daughter, our neighbors had found her body at one of the morgues and had brought her home. A number hanging around her neck indicated that she was victim 316. It was strange that her corpse was marked as 316 when the official death count announced days later stopped at 134.3
Our neighbors had run into trouble trying to get her out of there-the Russian soldiers had tried to lock the door to the morgue so that no one could remove the corpses. It was as if they wanted to hide the actual number of the dead.
We kept Larissa's body at home for three days. Then we were told to take it to the square because all of the victims would be honored as "martyrs" and buried together. We discovered that the dead would be buried in Kirov Park.4
On January 22, more than a million people gathered in the streets there to bid farewell. The coffins were blanketed with red carnations. Ever since those days, the red carnation has become closely identified with the tragic events of Black January.5
On our way to the burial ground, I remember being told that we should hurry or else the Russian soldiers might shoot at us, too. Can you imagine? People were rushing to bury the dead and fearing for their own safety as well. The streets leading to Kirov Park were full of Russian soldiers.
Larissa loved her country very much. Kids used to tease her that I was Russian and she tried to explain to them that, no, I was Ukrainian, not Russian. She used to tell me, "Mom, you know when I get my passport, I'm going to ask them to write my name as Leyla. Larissa is like a Russian name." But my poor baby didn't live to see our independence. She didn't live to get her own passport.6
The Fatal Bus Ride
Farman remained unconscious for 10 days. He didn't find out that Larissa had died until he came out of the coma. Even though he stayed in the hospital for another four months, his leg still hasn't completely recovered. It still hurts him a lot, and he has trouble sleeping at night. We don't have the money to have his leg properly fixed.
Gradually, I have been able to piece together the details of that night. Farman and Larissa had driven to the President's Office, where they had been told by the leaders of the demonstration that the workers at the Lieutenant Schmidt munitions plant needed help.7 The factory was 50 km away. Soviet troops had entered Baku at about 10 p.m. that night and started invading the city from three directions-the airport, the Caspian Sea and a place known as "Gourd Gapisi", better known in Russian as "Volchyi Vorota", which means "Wolf Gates". The Soviet troops were planning to seize the munitions factory, so my husband and Larissa were on their way to take one of the buses there. My daughter had been sitting in the back of the bus and my husband was standing next to the driver.
While driving through the Ganjlik section of town, Farman suddenly realized that the soldiers were starting to shoot at the bus. He jumped away from the front window and crouched down by the stairs. Five of the people who were on the bus died, including the driver; others were severely wounded. Farman would have died, too, if he hadn't hid himself in time. He was pulled out of the bus and taken to the hospital in a coma. The doctors worked under dreadful conditions that night to save him and the other victims. They had no electricity, no supplies, no pharmaceuticals.
Every year when January 20 rolls around, I relive that dreadful day all over again-just as if it were yesterday. No one could ever have imagined that the Russian soldiers would shoot civilians. Earlier, when their tanks were parked in the street, the children used to walk up to the soldiers and offer food and flowers.
Just like those innocent kids, all our daughter had wanted was peace, but she didn't live to see her dream realized. It must have been her destiny to pass away just when she was on the verge of blossoming as an individual.
We were victims of a stupid policy-what else can I say. The attack on Baku was calculated and deliberate. Besides, the soldiers were completely drunk and acting totally on orders from their superiors.
Many innocent people died or were wounded that night, including so many innocent bystanders-women, children and the elderly. What was their guilt? Tell me that. It still gnaws away at me, "What was my daughter's guilt? She was only 13 at the time."
1 Since Independence in 1991, Lenin Square, the most prominent exhibition area in Baku, has been named "Azadlig" which means "Freedom". It is located in front of the Ministry Building close to the sea.
2 During the Soviet period this building, now known as President's Aparat, housed the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Soviet Azerbaijan.
3 The exact number of casualties from the Black January tragedy has never been investigated and published. There were two official accounts during the Soviet period, one emanating from Moscow and the other from Azerbaijan. Moscow stopped counting at 132 deaths.
However, Soviet Azerbaijan's official count was higher. According to "Black January: Baku 1990, Documents and Materials" (AzerNeshr, Baku, 1990, p. 287), the Ministry of Health of Azerbaijan SSR announced, "By February 1, 1990, there were 706 people who had applied for medical assistance to medical facilities of Baku. The Court Medical Bureau had accepted 84 persons; 73 from gunshot wounds (16 in their backs), 8 injured from being smashed by armored personnel carriers, and 2 from bayonet wounds. By February 9, 1990, 170 people, including 6 Russians, 7 Jews, Tatars and Lezgis had died. Among the dead were 6 women and 9 children and teenagers. A total of 370 people were listed as wounded and 321 people were declared missing." As those who had "disappeared" were never found, it is reasonable to suggest that they, too, had been massacred [perhaps, their bodies buried at sea]. In this case, it is fair to conclude that at least 500 people died in the Black January Tragedy. [Footnote material contributed by Adil Baguirov].
4 Kirov was the strategist who facilitated the Red Army's takeover of Baku in April 1920. He died suspiciously, probably from Stalin's directives. Kirov's statue was erected on the most prominent vantage point in Baku, overlooking the sea. When Azerbaijan gained its independence, this statue was dismantled. No statue has yet replaced it. When the graves were being dug in Kirov Park to bury the victims of Black January, mass graves were found from the 1918 massacres in Baku when Armenians and Bolsheviks attacked and killed Azerbaijanis indiscriminately. Some estimates say 10,000 people died in the short span of less than two weeks.
5 Red carnations have come to be closely associated with death, especially after the massacre of Black January. Azerbaijanis traditionally place flowers on graves in pairs to signify solidarity and empathy. A gift of flowers to a living person should include an odd numbers of flowers-1, 3, 5, etc. For example, traditionally a guy would never send a dozen roses to his girlfriend.
6 Azerbaijani passports representing the independent Republic of Azerbaijan
are only now beginning to be distributed to the general public in the summer of 1999.
7 The ammunitions factory in Baku was named after Lieutenant Pyotr Petrovich Schmidt, a German who helped organize the October Revolution of 1917.
Farman and Galina have two other children: a son, Emin (born in 1985), and a daughter, Narmina (born in 1989). Larissa's parents were interviewed by Farida Sadikhova and Gulnara Akbarova.
From Azerbaijan International (7.3) Autumn 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.
Back to Index AI 7.3 (Autumn 99)
AI Home | Magazine Choice | Topics | Store | Contact us