As the suffocating grip of Soviet totalitarianism eased across Europe amid a collapsing empire – some still paid the ultimate price for freedom.
The 19th and 20th of January 1990 remain forever etched in the collective conscious of many in Azerbaijan. A quarter of a century later and we finally begin to understand this tragedy. If the final years of the Soviet Empire meant a policy of an open hand (glasnost), the other hand responded with a closed fist of violent aggression on the streets of Baku.
The death toll stood at 137 and around 800 were injured (others simply disappeared) – this act of aggression to an independence movement cared little for religious or non-religious creed in a wave of indiscriminate violence. Few know the story of this event thanks to a deliberate Soviet policy of targeting journalists by disabling the power to TV news stations so a global audience were unaware of the spiralling violence.
Human Rights Watch documented some of the Soviet abuses that included one documented incident of a heavily armoured vehicle deliberately crushing protesters, automatic weapon fire against civilian buildings, the use of bayonets on civilians and the deliberate targeting of marked ambulances.
Indeed, the report noted that the abuses amounted to ‘collective punishment’ as the Soviet Union descended upon the streets of Baku determined to send a warning to other nationalist movements.
A collective tragedy known as ‘Black January’ serves as a point of memoriam, education and pride as people died in a shared vision of a republic free from the Soviets.
If you walked the streets of Baku today, you would notice flags at half-mast across all public buildings (and diplomatic missions abroad). A rite of passage for generations of citizens involves the walk to Martyrs’ Lane.
Many in Azerbaijan agree that Black January helped galvanise an already committed independence movement – a movement that finally realised its dream on October 18 1991. For those left behind, for those searching for the disappeared and many outraged at the abuses, the pursuit for justice continues, as pointed out by Ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh, who stated, “We also need to strive to ensure perpetrators of this crime against humanity are brought to justice.”
Taghizadeh spoke warmly of those who paid the ultimate price on this significant anniversary: “Today our people, both in Azerbaijan and abroad, remember the victims of the ‘Black January’ tragedy. Undoubtedly, this is one of the most tragic and at the same time heroic moments in our history. It represents a chapter of heroism, great patriotism and selfless willingness on the part of our nation to sacrifice for the cause of independence of Azerbaijan.”