Winter 2002 (10.4)
Black January - Baku 1990
the Scenes - A Photojournalist's Perspective
by Reza with
Left: Soviet tanks in Baku during the week
of January 20, 1990. Reza secretly took this photo through a
car windshield because it was too dangerous to openly photograph
the Black January events. Photo: Reza.
To add to the record [January
15, 2008]: This note from Ramiz Abutalibov, who represented Azerbaijan
at UNESCO during the Soviet period.
"Concerning the trip that
Reza made to investigate the Black January 1990 events. There
were three journalists from Paris: Reza, Ahmed Sel and Ms. Shirin
Malikova. I got them visas in Soviet Consular in Paris to Moscow,
which was very difficult to do at that time. Then Rustam Ibrahimbeyov
[famous filmmaker] organized their trip to Baku by train. My
daughter Nigar Abutalibova met them in Baku and helped with arrangements
for a car and their program in Baku. All these preparations behind
the scenes were a mutual effort and involved several of us."
Azerbaijanis call it "Black January", meaning the massacre
of civilians that occurred on January 19 and 20, 1990, when Soviet
tanks and troops took to the streets of Baku. Operation "Strike"
(Udar) was intended to crush the makings of an independence movement
in Azerbaijan. Officially, 137 people were killed; unofficially,
the figures swell to at least 300 and possibly more. Even to
this day, more than eight years later, the real truth is unknown,
as apparently most of the documents - 200 boxes, according to
some accounts - were confiscated and sent back to Moscow by the
Soviet Army when it became clear that the Soviet Union was on
the verge of collapse.
Black January turned out to be the beginning of the end of Soviet
rule in Azerbaijan. Communist Party members, who had devoted
their lives to serving the interests of the USSR, were appalled
to find the system turning against them. Stories abound of Party
members setting fire to their membership IDs. Azerbaijan's current
President, Heydar Aliyev, a former member of the Politburo, waged
a scathing attack on Gorbachev, accusing him of masterminding
this heinous crime.
Left: Hundreds of civilians in Baku were
killed by Soviet troops during the Black January massacre. Carnations,
like the ones shown here at Shahidlar Khiyabani (Martyr's Lane)
became the symbol of mourning. Photo: Reza.
But throughout the confusion
and turmoil, the Soviets managed to suppress nearly all efforts
to disseminate the news to the international community. There
were two notable exceptions: Mirza Khazar and his small team
at Radio Liberty (U.S.-sponsored), who broadcasted daily reports
from Baku, and the efforts of a world-renowned photojournalist
who, for the sake of simplicity, goes by the name Reza.
The following article describes Reza's efforts to smuggle himself
into Baku during those turbulent days and get the story out to
the world. His story reads like a novel or a Hollywood screenplay.
But the scenario is real. Reza lived through all of the tense,
historic moments described below.
Moscow - January 22, 1990. I'll
never forget those days. More than 50 international journalists
and photographers, including those representing some of the best-known
names in the business - CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Reuters, AP - had
checked into the Moscow Hotel. I was among them. Two other colleagues
and I had just arrived from Paris. Something was happening in
We didn't quite know what. We had heard that demonstrations were
taking place in the streets and that Soviet troops had moved
in. Beyond that, we could only speculate.
It seems the Soviets feared an independence movement was afoot
in Azerbaijan. They sought to crush it before it gained momentum.
Don't forget - those were the days of Gorbachev and Perestroika.
Only a few months earlier, the world had watched the domino effect
taking place, as Central Europe gained its freedom - the Berlin
Wall, then Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Don't forget that
the Soviets, with the world's largest military complex, had also
been forced to withdraw in the face of the unrelenting Afghan
Left: Demonstrators wave a homemade flag
to signify their desire for independence from the Soviet Union.
Protests like this one provoked a severe crackdown by Soviet
troops in January 2000. Photo: Reza.
I had been catching
snatches of news on the wire services in Paris. Being a photographer,
part of my work is to anticipate clashes and upheavals before
they occur. What good is it to arrive when the action is over?
That's what photography is all about. A journalist can follow
on the scene later on and draw upon many analytical sources,
but a photographer has to capture the spontaneity of the moment.
When I began detecting some disturbances in Baku over the news
wires, I called up my friend Ahmad Sel, a Turkish cameraman working
for a French TV company.
"Want to go to Baku?" I asked.
"Are you crazy?" he replied.
But Ahmad finally agreed to undertake shooting the video. I would
handle the stills. We thought it would be invaluable to take
an Azerbaijani along with us, so we invited Mrs. Shirin Malakova
to join us. In those days, you had to fly to Moscow to get to
Baku - there was no other way. The authorities also required
that you get advance permission for any city you wished to visit.
We knew they would never give us approval for Baku so we didn't
bother to ask.
Despite the run-around that we got from the Soviet Embassy in
Paris, we managed to get our visas in hand by January 20th. That
was the day all hell broke lose in Azerbaijan, though we didn't
know it at the time. It seems the Soviet officials didn't make
any connection either, since we had applied for the visas two
days earlier. They knew I was a photojournalist. I told them
I was going to take photos of Moscow. It was the first of many
lies I would have to tell in order to uncover the truth about
the tragedy of Black January.
Left: Family members pore through photos
of the dead, looking for lost loved ones. Photo: Reza.
In 1988, I had visited
Baku on the occasion of the 150th Jubilee of the great playwright,
Mirza Fatali Akhundov. It was there that I met many prominent
artists and writers, one of whom was Rustam Ibrahimbeyov. A prominent
writer, Rustam would go on to write the screenplay for "Burnt
by the Sun," winner of the 1995 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
[See AI 3.2, Summer 1995]. Rustam would turn out to be a pivotal
person in our quest to smuggle ourselves into Baku.
I had called Rustam in Moscow several days earlier when I wasn't
able to reach Baku. He had confirmed my suspicions that the situation
was serious. "It could turn into a very bad situation,"
he had told me in very cautious, cryptic Azeri. I had to call
him back twice. Another number, another time. Being a journalist,
you pick up on things like this very quickly.
Now, with visas for Moscow in hand, I called Rustam again. "I'm
coming with two friends. I'd love to see you and have dinner
"Yes," he replied, "it's the right time to come
because 'our friends' are already in!" (He meant that the
Soviet troops had already moved into Baku.)
Our Paris team arrived in Moscow on January 21st. Rustam was
perplexed. He saw no solution for getting to Baku. Now that the
troops and tanks were in the city, all of the roads would be
blocked, and it would be very dangerous to travel.
Back at the hotel that evening, word spread that Moscow's press
officials had organized to fly all of the journalists to Baku
the next day. We were told to meet in the hotel lobby at 9 o'clock
the next morning (January 23).
"Are you sure they plan to take us to Baku?" I asked
some of the other journalists. They were sure. And I was equally
sure they wouldn't. If there was one thing I had learned after
spending more than five years (1983-1988) on assignment with
Time Magazine covering Afghan guerrilla fighters in the mountains
of Pakistan and Afghanistan, it was this: "Never trust Soviet
officials when they make irresistible offers."
Local Train to
Left: Shrouded corpses from the Black January
massacre, waiting to be identified. Photo: Reza.
The next morning, Ahmad,
Shirin and I were as far away from the hotel lobby as we could
get. Instead of accompanying our foreign colleagues on the three-hour
flight to Baku, we decided to take a local train. The trip would
grind on for 48 hours, stopping at every little town and village;
however, unlike the express train, there would be fewer security
Back at the hotel, while we were gone, Rustam arranged for someone
to mess up our rooms every day and make them look "lived
in." We had to keep up the pretense that we had not checked
out in order not to arouse suspicion. Remember, our visas were
only for Moscow.
Rustam's friend Kamal accompanied us on the train. Our first
task was to learn a few Russian phrases: "Ya pa rusky niz
nayu" (I don't speak Russian) and "Ya Azerbaijani"
(I'm Azerbaijani). I was concerned that I didn't know Russian.
Kamal assured me that many Azerbaijanis in the countryside didn't
know Russian either, so I could get by. But if anyone ever stopped
us for our papers, we knew that would be the end.
We did our best to dress like the locals - to blend in, to appear
so ordinary that we would be overlooked and ignored. Shirin spoke
fluent Russian and Azeri as well as French. Ahmad's Turkish accent
was quite obvious, but Russians didn't know the difference.
It was a long ride. Fortunately, we had our own compartment.
Whenever a controller came along, Kamal would warn us and we
would quickly crawl up into the luggage compartment and hide.
Sometimes, when we were sleeping, he would bribe the officer
and request that we not be bothered.
One of our biggest problems involved the toilets, which were
located in the main section of the train. We didn't want to get
ourselves in a situation where we had to speak to anyone, so
Kamal would wait outside our compartment and signal when it was
clear to head down the corridor.
Baku - At Last!
Left: Many Azerbaijanis hung black flags
and strips of cloth from windows, trees and car antennas as a
protest of the Soviet crackdown on Baku on January 20, 1990.
We arrived in Baku on
January 24th, tired but full of anticipation. As we pulled into
the station, I looked out the window anxiously. There, standing
and waiting for everybody to get off the train, was a long row
of soldiers! I'll never forget the scene. It was right out of
a spy movie about the Cold War - the only difference being that
this was real life and I happened to be right in the middle of
Tall, husky Russian soldiers stood there with their big, bulky
overcoats and fur hats, cradling their machine guns, silhouetted
against the darkness of the chilly night. They looked so huge
- so foreboding, so threatening. I remember looking at Ahmad
and Shirin with horror in my eyes, saying, "I think they're
going to catch us. We'll have to pass through that wall!"
It wasn't that I was scared of being arrested. That comes with
the territory when you're a photojournalist. You know it can
happen - getting arrested, or beat up. What I feared most was
not being able to get the story. Especially since I am Azerbaijani
myself, I wanted to be part of telling the world this story.
The train came to a halt. We were hoping that Rustam had succeeded
in arranging for someone to meet us. Suddenly, in the crowd I
spotted Elinora Huseinova (now Ambassador to France) with a couple
of her girlfriends. She jumped up on the train, her arms full
of flowers-roses-not the red carnations that were being used
for mourning those days. She gave me a big hug and whispered
in my ear, "Put your cameras and luggage in the compartment.
Come out with me. Don't carry anything."
so we did. She slipped her arm through mine; the other women
latched on to Ahmad and Shirin. With
arms full of flowers, acting as if we were lovers reunited, we
walked right past that long line of soldiers. Some gave us knowing
nods, as if to say, "Hey, you guys - you lovers - have a
great time! We won't bother you. Get along! Get on with it!"
Tanks in the streets outside
the citadel gates of Baku's Old City, January 1990. Photo: Reza.
No matter how nerve-wracking that experience was, even more unsettling
was the realization that a number of plainclothesmen had been
traveling on the train with us. When they got off, they flashed
their IDs to the soldiers and immediately started motioning some
of the passengers over to the side. It was so well organized
and well orchestrated that it was frightening.
A car was waiting for us. We went to dinner at someone's home.
It was a wonderful meal, especially after traveling for two or
three days with little to eat. It was good to be in Baku. Friends
of Ramiz Abutalibov (now with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
and Elinora gathered round that night. Ahmad wanted to film them.
"No way, man!" they replied. "Come on! We'll get
You can't film us. We're just here to talk about these things
and take you to different places." They knew how important
our mission was and were committed to getting the story out to
the world. They showed us a map of the city, pointing out exactly
where everything was happening and where the troops and tanks
I remember the TV blasting away in the living room. The chief
commander of curfew, a Russian, droned on, trying to convince
everyone that everything was under control - that nothing was
happening. Everybody ignored his platitudes; we all knew better.
We only got about two or three hours of sleep that night. All
evening we talked and talked, making plans.
I'll never forget how sad everybody was. I've visited more than
85 countries in my lifetime, but I would have to admit that during
those days, Baku was the saddest city I had ever seen in my life.
The people were in a daze, totally shocked and disoriented. It
was incomprehensible to them that the Russians had orchestrated
an attack on them and killed innocent people. After all, they
had been taught for 70 years about the great brotherhood of the
Just Like a Divorce
But in the midst of all that sadness, I detected another phenomenon.
It seemed people realized that the Soviet Union was collapsing.
An analogy could be made to living with a spouse and finally
reaching the decision that it is time to divorce. This feeling
of separation and desire for independence somehow seemed to give
the nation dignity in the midst of its despair over the loss
of so many friends and family members. It was like Azerbaijanis
had made up their mind to move on. That they knew what to do.
That the decision had been made.
During the first demonstrations, Azerbaijanis had sought better
relations with the Soviets because they believed in the relationship.
After Black January, they knew the relationship was over.
The next day, two cars came - one for me, the other for Ahmad.
We split up in case one of us got caught. Besides, it was hard
to operate in a small car and still conceal our cameras. Ahmad
had a HI 8 Sony video camera, which was small enough to fit in
his hand. I had two cameras; one smaller, the other larger. I
always left one of them at home in case the other got confiscated,
stolen or broken.
First we headed off to the hospitals. I'll never forget the horror
that filled those halls. The rooms were so crowded that the wounded
and dying were lying, unattended, in the corridors. We knew it
would be hard to get inside the hospitals undetected, since police
were guarding all of the entrances. I kept telling hospital personnel
that I was looking for a friend who had had surgery a few days
earlier. "He wasn't wounded," I explained. "It
has nothing to do with these latest incidents." Of course,
we didn't dare walk in carrying our camera equipment ourselves.
So one of "our scouts" would go in first, check the
place out and persuade some little old ladies-peasants-to come
out. We would stuff our bags down into their larger bags, and
off they would go walking right through the hospital entrance
We found it was safest to photograph inside the operating rooms.
Our scout would check if a room was safe. If so, we would slip
in and close the door. One of the surgeons told us that more
than 300 people had been killed and more than 1,000 wounded.
Unfortunately, many of those injured later died of their wounds.
After a few hours, we decided to head out in search of the tanks.
We found them in an open area, but it was impossible to photograph
without being detected. We hit upon the idea of taking photos
from an apartment opposite the parking area. One of our "scouts"
checked out the situation. Soon he was back and we were climbing
up to the eighth floor. Again, no cameras. Someone followed later
with our bags. But even though the view from the top was clear,
we knew it was too risky. The soldiers would have spotted us
I decided to suggest that the lady of the house go out on her
balcony and pretend to be washing the windows. From inside, we
could then aim our telephoto lenses at the soldiers and tanks
below as she raised her arms to wipe the glass. Her body would
shield us from view. She agreed. It worked. We got the photos
Actually, our "cleaning lady" quite enjoyed the attention.
She kept saying, "I'm in a movie! I'm in a movie!"
It was all very funny. But her husband feared that the soldiers
would aim their guns at the apartment, or that someone would
come up and arrest him. Innocent people were being shot on their
balconies those days.
Down in the streets again, I knew I had to make every photo count.
I was deliberately traveling very light and had only seven or
eight rolls of film. Soldiers were patrolling the streets. Tanks
rolled by. Looking up at the apartments, we could see black strips
of cloth hanging down, symbolizing solidarity with those who
had died. Black was all over the place. It seemed the Azerbaijanis
were not afraid of making such symbolic protests. To me, it was
another sign that the Soviet Union was disintegrating - nobody
seemed afraid to offend the government anymore. Clearly, it marked
the end of the Soviet era. Everyone sensed that the end was coming.
In my opinion, the day those tanks entered Baku sealed the death
sentence for the Soviet era. Of course, it would take about two
more years before that great colossus would come tumbling down,
but clearly its legs were beginning to collapse.
Next, we went to a morgue. Again, the entrance was blocked. This
time they were checking IDs and writing down the names of everyone
who came in to identify the bodies. But there was one room that
we managed to enter. On a table in the center of the room there
were photographs of the corpses. People came in, picked them
up in their hands, with dread, desperately searching for their
loved ones, but at the same time, hoping not to find them there.
We learned that on the next day there would be a huge gathering
at Shahidlar Khiyabani (Martyr's Lane) as there would be a mass
burial. It would give us the chance to be among the people, to
witness their emotions. We knew we would be able to photograph
freely. It didn't even matter if the guy standing right next
to us was KGB or not. He wouldn't dare cause any trouble for
fear of being attacked by the masses.
But we knew not to take chances. We knew we would have to disappear
before the crowd dispersed so no one could follow us. We even
organized a little escape scenario. After the cemetery scenes,
we felt we had enough photos. We had already spent three days
and two nights in Baku. It was time to leave.
I don't quite know how our friends managed it, but soon we had
fake entrance visas along with tickets for the flight back to
Moscow. Officially, remember, we had not really entered Azerbaijan.
As with everything else that had happened in Baku, we had to
put our total trust in others, even to be able to leave the country.
As before, we didn't dare carry our cameras, videos or film with
us on the plane. We were told someone on the plane would carry
our equipment for us. We didn't know who. Enroute, however, two
Russian girls came up and started talking to us. We were suspicious
since we had heard so many stories about blonde Russian girls.
"Oh no," we told ourselves. "It's the KGB! They've
finally caught up with us." One girl spoke Azeri and made
reference to film. We totally denied knowing anything that related
to photography. "What film?" we asked. But it turned
out these were the passengers doing us the favor of carrying
our stuff in their suitcases for us. They had really given us
Back at the Moscow Hotel, we got the film from the girls and
headed straight for the airport. We also found out what had happened
to the journalists who had taken the flight to Baku.
Just as I had suspected, none of the journalists had succeeded
in reaching Baku. It seems that when the plane was in mid-air,
flying over Caucasus mountain peaks, the pilot announced that,
unfortunately, Baku's airport had been shut down, and he would
have to divert the plane to the nearest airport. How convenient
that this airport just happened to be Yerevan (Armenia), where
the Soviet press had already arranged for newly arriving Armenian
refugees fleeing Azerbaijan to tell the international media their
version of how savage Azerbaijanis were.
Once again, the Soviets had duped the international press. The
only story that the press could take back home was exactly the
one that the Soviets wanted them to tell, which further justified
the need for troops to crush those unruly Azerbaijanis. The realization
gradually dawned upon us that not a single journalist had succeeded
in getting to Baku except us.
Looking back on those days in Baku, I'd have to admit that despite
all of my years of working in difficult places, I was terribly
afraid that something would happen to us in Azerbaijan - that
somehow we would disappear. After all, we were witnessing events
and gathering information that the whole Empire was denying,
and that the whole world was waiting to hear. We were the only
ones who were carrying the story out.
When the plane took off from Moscow, we all looked at each other.
I'll never forget the incredible relief and joy that was in our
eyes. It had been a tough seven days. We were finally taking
off for Paris. I couldn't believe we had made it.
Back in Paris
We landed about 4 or 5 that afternoon. Ahmad and I both sped
off to process our film and edit the videos. The news would air
at 8 pm. I was still afraid that maybe our films had been X-rayed
or the videos demagnetized. The Soviets were notorious for such
things. You think everything is fine, but when you arrive home,
everything is blank. I had heard the horror stories of a French
team who had filmed in Kazakhstan for three weeks. Upon arriving
home, they discovered that all of their tapes had been demagnetized.
They had nothing.
The TV was on at the lab when I started processing the slides.
Then I heard a voice announcing that at 8 o'clock there would
be a very important news broadcast. Tears came to my eyes. It
meant Ahmad's videos were safe. That night, the news opened with
the tragic events that were unfolding in Baku. They gave five
or six minutes of coverage, an incredibly long time by Western
standards, when the usual item runs 30 seconds to a minute.
My slides came out fine, too. I selected about 40 of them to
be duplicated for distribution. I gave them to an agency that
would transmit them to 2,000 magazines and newspapers all over
And so it was: 24 hours after we returned home, the tragic story
of Azerbaijan's Black January was being distributed around the
world. More than 18 TV channels and dozens of radio stations
were calling us for footage. Mission completed. Black January
was no longer a secret - the world was watching.
Note about Author in 1998: For the past 20 years, Reza has covered
every major war and conflict in the Middle East except Chechnya.
His works are published by some of the most reputable news agencies
and magazines in the world, including Newsweek, Time, Paris Match,
Stern and National Geographic.
The day we were going to press with this issue (mid-April 1998),
Reza was on his way to Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka
and Thailand on a 10-day tour, accompanying Bill Richardson,
the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. The New York Times
Magazine had commissioned Reza to cover the Richardson's trip.
Footnote December 2002: Reza is currently in Afghanistan involved
with training Afghanis in media. He also has just made a film
with Sebastin Junger about Afghanistan. Contact Reza at email@example.com.
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