The pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait, Baku and Maragha and the Operation “Ring”

Azeris responded to peaceful demonstrations of Armenians demanding freedom and respect for their rights by organized massacres and deportations even when they were still part of the Soviet Union. Pogroms of Armenians were instigated and carried on in Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad, Khachmaz, Ghuba, Shaki, Kutkashen, Aghsu, Ismail, Aghdash, Touz, Shamkhor, Getabek, Khanlar, Dashkesan, Zhdanov, etc. Sumgait was the beginning, Baku, Maragha and Operation ‘Ring” were unprecedented in scale and impunity. It was obvious to everyone that all the violence was government-instigated and government-orchestrated. In Sumgait, Baku and other cities, the mobs came to the houses of Armenians having lists with their addresses in their hands, received from local government bodies. They carried metal rods cut and sharpened at state-run plants. Armenians had been sent to their homes from their jobs by their bosses under different pretexts so that they could not escape the massacres. State officials agitated the crowds; the police (militia) looked away and in some cases helped the criminals. The ambulance services refused to collect the beaten and wounded Armenians. For those that were killed, mutilated and burnt alive, they recorded heart failure as the cause of death. Scores of Armenians survived thanks to their Azeri neighbours who hid them from the mob and saved them risking their own lives. However, they too had to join the thousands of refugees and abandon their homes and possessions.


History. Shushi as an unpunished precedent

Situated on a high plateau in the centre of Nagorno Karabakh, overlooking Stepanakert, the capital city, and a mere ten kilometres away from it, the town of Shushi has had strategic significance due to its natural geographic location since the 18th century. By the 19th century it became one of the spiritual centres of the Caucasus. Political thinkers and the cultural elite of the Armenians of the Caucasus were shaped here.

The first serious clash in Shushi between Armenians and Caucasus Tatars (the name used for the descendants of nomadic tribes before the 1930s) occurred in 1905-1906. Despite the fact that the Turks-Tartars did not achieve their goal, about 400 private houses and public buildings were burnt.

The Republic of Azerbaijan made claims on Karabakh and some other regions of Armenia since its inception in 1918. In March of 1920, Azerbaijani and Turkish troops (the latter had invaded Caucasus in 1918 and taken Baku) burnt and plundered Shushi, the fifth largest town in the Caucasus. Within three days, the Turkish-Azeri armed groups killed the majority of the thirty-five thousand Armenians of Shushi. Seven thousand well-furnished, mainly two-storey houses and beautiful cultural and administrative buildings were ravaged and turned to rubble. The Armenian part of the town was burnt and was not rebuilt until the beginning of the 1960s. 



Tragic events in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait were preceded by a wave of anti-Armenian demonstrations and rallies throughout Azerbaijan in February 1988. Pogroms, beatings, and massacres of Armenians in Sumgait, situated half an hour from Baku, were carried out in broad daylight. The aim of the crime was obvious: prevent the settlement of the Karabakh conflict in the way the Armenian population of NK demanded, terrify them with the prospect of new bloodshed and force them to relinquish their aspirations and the liberation struggle.

Apparently, oppressing the liberation movement suited many. A day before the pogroms started, on February 26th, Mikhail Gorbachov, the USSR president, meeting with Armenian intelligentsia, expressed “concern” for the safety of over 200,000 Armenians living in Baku, linking the perceived threat with the demands of Artsakh Armenians to re-unify Artsakh with Armenia. It is hard to believe that the President of a country like the USSR was not sufficiently briefed of what was brewing in Baku and other major cities or did not have the power to prevent that.

Rumours of alleged mass killings of Azerbaijanis in Armenia were deliberately circulated.  A statement by the Prosecutor in Chief of the Soviet Union of two Azeris killed during the Askeran events, broadcast by the central television over the entire territory of the USSR was a major provocation to kick-start the pogroms (It was only clarified much later by the brother of one of the killed, in the Avrora magazine 10th issue of 1988, published in Leningrad, that they were killed by an Azerbaijani policeman). Threats by Azerbaijani officials had been abundant. 

The crimes committed by the Azerbaijani authorities, killings and deportations of the Armenian population, reached their peak on February 27-29. Almost the entire town became an arena for unimpeded pogroms of the Armenian population. Mobs burst into Armenian apartments, having pre-prepared lists of Armenian occupants in their hands, which could have only been obtained from government sources. They were armed with metal rods and stones, axes, knives, bottles and fuel canisters. The metal rods and other weapons had been preliminarily cut and sharpened at government industrial plants, which could not have been done covertly. Eyewitness reports testified that around 50-80 people participated in the raid of one apartment alone. 

A memorial in Stepanakert, the capital city of Artsakh,  to the victims of the genocidal campaign against Armenians in Sumgait, Azerbaijan.

Similar crowds committed atrocities in the streets. A significant number of those killed were burnt alive after suffering beatings, tortures, and rapes. Among the numerous women raped were many minors. Hundreds of innocent people received injuries of different grades and became handicapped. Over two hundred homes were entered into and smashed, numerous cars were burnt and broken, dozens of workshops, shops and kiosks were destroyed. There was one criterion unifying these properties: Armenian ownership. The pogroms resulted in eighteen thousand refugees who fled to Stepanakert and Yerevan. Based on data provided by the Prosecutor’s office of Azerbaijan to his superior in Moscow, twenty-seven died in the violent actions. Eyewitnesses claimed having counted over seventy unidentified corpses in the mortuaries of Sumgait. Some victims were taken to Baku for burial and with the official cause of death unrelated to the reality, to cover up the numbers. Even high-ranking Soviet officials expressed doubts about the official figures.

It was also evident that the mob had a clear distribution of roles: some of them carried out the violence, rape and killings, followed by groups of looters, demolishers and those who cleared up the evidence. Telephone lines were cut beforehand and the police did not intervene apart from assisting the mobs.

The Soviet army moved into the city on the third day of the pogroms, without weapons and having no orders to interfere. It did not help until such orders came in the evening.

When 94 people were put on trial, only one received the highest possible sentence. The remaining were charged with lesser crimes. The Soviet authorities deliberately did not try all the culprits together so that it would not look like one large case which could have political implications. The criminals were taken to different courts across the Soviet Union. Many trials were conducted with procedural violations and neglect of the victims’ rights. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the cases were dropped and the criminals set free. Not only did the organizers and the main executors escape punishment, but some of them were promoted to high posts when Azerbaijan became independent. 

The fate of the memorial can only be guessed as Hadrut was occupied in the 2020 Azeri-Turkish aggression.
The Memorial in Hadrut to the victims of the pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait, Azerbaijan.

Fitting perfectly within the definition of genocide, these tragic events of Sumgait in late February of 1998 never received adequate political evaluation. However, documents, testimonies and other facts allow one to draw a well-defined conclusion: the pogroms were masterminded and carried out on a high state level, and its main organizers and executors were the Soviet Azerbaijani leadership of the time, connected to various nationalistic pro-Turkish circles.  There were numerous eyewitness accounts showing that the police either turned a blind eye to the crimes committed in their presence or even assisted in committing them. 

Public figures in and outside the Soviet Union, and human rights advocacy organizations condemned the pogroms. The US Senate (1989) and the Parliament of Argentine also condemned the crime.  The European parliament in its C235/106 resolution of July 7, 1988, referring to the “massacres of Armenians in Azerbaijani town of Sumgait in February 1998” condemned the violence and supported the demand of Armenians in Karabakh for the reunification with the Socialist Republic of Armenia. Nevertheless, it was never officially condemned by Azerbaijani or Soviet authorities and no condolences were expressed to the families of the victims.




The reluctance of the Soviet authorities and the international community to properly name and condemn the Sumgait events in fact meant conniving with the Azerbaijani perpetrators and allowed the organizers and participants of the pogroms to escape criminal punishment, and made the continuation of bloodshed possible. Attacks against Armenians intensified and spread over the entire territory of the Azerbaijani SSR, in Baku, Kirovabad, Shemakh, Shamkhor, Mingechaur, the Nakhijevan ASSR. In Kirovabad, the pogrom-makers entered elderly people’s home, dragged 12 helpless old Armenian men and women - including handicapped and immobile persons - to the countryside and brutally killed them (this case was highlighted in mass media). 

The population of dozens of Armenian villages in several rural regions of the Azerbaijani SSR was deported. The population of over forty further Armenian villages in northern Nagorno Karabakh (which were not included in the Nagorno Karabakh autonomy during its formation), including forty-thousand Armenians of Kirovabad (historic Armenian Gandzak), shared the same fate. The attacks reached their pinnacle in January 1990 in Baku, when hundreds of Armenians became victims of the pathological hatred of Azerbaijani nationalists. 

The pogroms in Baku took place from 13 to 19 of January, 1990 and were, as elsewhere, sponsored by the authorities. A.  Vezirov, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, meeting the Azerbaijan Popular Front members on January 13, declared: “We shall sweep off our enemies from our way, as we swept away the Oblast Committee of Nagorno Karabakh, the Special Committee for governing the NKAO and any others...” This was broadcast on Azeri state television. Such anti-Armenian calls were abundant in all print media and at rallies and demonstrations. Pogroms were also preceded by the firing of Armenians from their jobs, terrorizing and beating them.

On January 13, after 5 p.m., a crowd of tens of thousands people, gathered in a rally in Lenin’s Square, divided into several groups and began methodical, house-to-house “cleansing” of Armenians. They either killed people or took them to the seaport or to the airport and forced them to leave the country. “On January 15, pogroms and assaults continued in Baku. By preliminary information, the pogroms during the first three days resulted in the death of 33 people. Yet this number should not be considered final, as not all of the dwellings in Baku were checked…” (Izvestia, January 16, 1990).

The crowd of many thousands of Azeris went to Armenian homes, the addresses of which they already had in their hands. They broke into the flats, beat the inhabitants, threw them out of windows, raped women, killed many using sharpened rods and burned many alive. They were followed by representatives of the Azerbaijani National Front, who appeared with “legal” documents showing the titles to those properties and offered to “save the lives” of the terrorized people by accompanying them to the sea-port. At the port the refugees were ransacked, beaten, robbed and put on ferries to Turkmenistan.

To escape pogroms and ethnic cleansing in Azerbaijan hundreds of thousands of Armenians had to flee the country:

Photos by Martin Shahbazyan.

The same happened at the airport. Law enforcement bodies, utility services (by providing the addresses) and even medical staff took part in the pogroms. Ambulance crews arrived to the crime scenes and registered heart attacks and heart problems as the cause of deaths.

There are many documented cases of brutalities and murders committed with extreme cruelty. For example, there were cases of body dismemberment, disembowelment of pregnant women, and burning people alive. During the Armenian pogroms in Baku, the furious crowd tore a man to pieces and threw his remains into an ash can (Soyuz, May 19, 1990). “They cut him into pieces, - told an Azeri woman about her Armenian husband-he was crying “Kill me”; I was tied up and could only cry “Kill him.” I asked them to kill my husband to rid him of his painful death.

At a press-conference in Moscow soon after the pogroms, one of the leaders of the Azerbaijani People’s Front, E. Mamedov, said, “I personally witnessed the murder of two Armenians near the railway station. The crowd poured them with petrol and burned, and it was about 200 meters away from the regional Militia Department. There were about 400-500 soldiers of the interior forces, but no one tried to put cordons around the region and disperse the crowd”.

The exact number of victims remains unknown so far – according to various sources of information, from 150 to 300 people were killed. Pogroms continued until January 20, when the Soviet armed forces entered the city, using the pretext to restore order, when M. Gorbachov introduced martial law in the city after 6 days of violence and killings. 

The 250,000-strong Armenian population fled Baku. Thousands of persons are still missing. 

The European Parliament adopted a resolution amid these events calling on the Council of Foreign Ministers and the European Commission to protect Armenians from the illegal actions of the Soviet authorities and to render assistance to Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh. 


Operation “Ring”: the forcible deportation of 24 Armenian villages of Nagorno Karabakh 

Since the beginning of 1991, the leadership of Azerbaijan launched a coordinated campaign against the Armenian population of the NKAO and the Shahumyan region. Leaflets were disseminated in the district with an ultimatum to leave the territory of Nagorno Karabakh at the earliest possible date.

On January 14, the Presidium of the Supreme Council of Azerbaijan adopted a decision on unification of two neighbouring districts, the Armenian-populated Shahumyan region and the Azerbaijani-populated Kasum-Ismailovsky region, into one Geranboy region. The goal of the Azerbaijani leadership was obvious: to do away with another Armenian-populated region, deport its population and settle Armenian villages with Azerbaijanis. Of the twenty thousand-strong population of the Shahumyan region at that time, an estimated 82 per cent were Armenians.

On January 22 at the Stepanakert airport, the OMON (special task units of militia/police) of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan insolently detained a group of Members of the Russian Parliament, who arrived with a mission to study the situation in the region.

The situation in Nagorno Karabakh and in the nearby regions grew tenser. Among the punitive measures against the Armenian population, operation “Ring” stood out in scale, unlawfulness and brutality and was in fact an act of terror. It was carried out jointly by the OMON forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Azerbaijan and the Internal troops of the USSR from the end of April until the beginning of August 1991. Under the pretence of “passport regime checking,” an unprecedented act of state terror was committed, aimed at stifling the Karabakh National Liberation Movement. Killings, violence, indescribable acts of vandalism and humiliation of persons of all ages, even children, were commonplace. The aim of the operation was to terrify the Armenians and force them abandon the idea of independence. 

The operation started with the Getashen and Martunashen villages and when completed, the population of twenty-four Armenian villages was deported: two in the Khanlar region of Azerbaijan, three in the Shahumyan region, fifteen in the Hadrut region and four in the Shushi region of the NKAO.  Over 100 people were killed, and several hundreds were taken hostage. Before the Azerbaijani special police moved in, the Soviet army troops would surround the villages with armoured vehicles and troops, even aircraft. Secured by the Soviet army, Azeris broke into the homes, looted, raped women, killed people indiscriminately and deported the rest.

The Soviet army and the Azerbaijani forces attacking Armenian villages in Shahumyan were followed by the inhabitants of the neighbouring Azerbaijani villages who drove in their trucks to loot the villages as soon as the owners were forced to leave. 

The Helsinki Watch reported that the operation was “carried out with an unprecedented degree of violence and a systematic violation of human rights”. The Human Rights Centre of the “Memorial” Association also reported the deportation of several thousand inhabitants of twenty-four Armenian villages. Testimonies of the staff of USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Commandant’s Regional Office of the State of Emergency in the NKAO, recorded in the minutes of respective sessions also prove the fact of the deportations.

This was in fact a wide-front attack on Armenians. Even villages inside the Armenian SSR were attacked: the village of Voskepar in the Tavush region of Armenia, bordering the Ghazakh region of Azerbaijan, was attacked by Soviet commandos and Azerbaijani Special Police Force in the night from May 5th to 6th, 1991.  The Soviet commando troops landed in the village from six helicopters and blocked all exits and entrances to the village. Two villagers were killed, seven were heavily wounded and a car was blown up. When 20 policemen from the regional centre of Noyemberyan and 4 civilians tried to get into the village, 15 were killed with special brutality. Those who were not killed were taken prisoner and transferred to the Kirovabad prison in Azerbaijan where three of them died. The perpetrators were not punished.

On April 24, the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Armenia sent a letter to the USSR leadership with a request to take urgent measures for the protection of the Armenian population and provide security guarantees for them. The USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs forces and the Azerbaijani OMON continued punitive operations providing further evidence that the conflict was developing into full-scale war. 

When finally, on May 6, the USSR Supreme Council discussed Armenia’s demand to convene the Congress of the USSR people’s deputies to address the rapidly deteriorating situation in the NKAO and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations, it merely took a decision to continue discussions of the problem at the Commission of the Council of Nationalities of the USSR Supreme Council. 

On the same day, seven hundred Armenian refugees were transferred from Getashen to Stepanakert by military helicopters and the public stood for a protest rally, only to be banned by the military commandant’s office. Armoured troop carriers with loudspeakers drove around the town threatening people with the use of weapons in case of disobedience.

The Executive Committee of the Regional Soviet of Deputies of Nagorno Karabakh declared a state of emergency in the region, notified the international community and addressed the UN requesting political asylum for the Armenian population of the NKAO. On June 19, 1991 its extended session drafted measures to stabilize the political and economic situation in the region and decided to compose a program for Artsakh’s survival and for preparation of an armed resistance against Azerbaijan’s aggression.



Among the tragic events over the course of the Karabakh conflict, the Maragha atrocities stand out in terms of both of the level of cruelty towards civilians, the number of people massacred, and the consequences of the event. 

The events in the Maragha and Margushavan (former Leninavan) villages of the Martakert district of Nagorno Karabakh were a planned act of genocide by Azerbaijan, implemented in two stages. On April 10, 1992 after artillery fire, detachments of Azerbaijani armed forces, supported by 20 units of armoured vehicles, invaded the village, burnt and destroyed the houses, killing the inhabitants and taking hostages. The raid was repeated on May 10, when more people were taken hostage and the entire villages of Maragha and Margushavan were razed to the ground. Of the 4644 inhabitants 300 moved to another part of the same region and founded the New Maragha village while the rest were scattered, migrating to the Republic of Armenia, various regions of the Russian Federation and several CIS countries. 

Many of the hostages were held by private citizens (mainly officials of the Interior Ministry and the special police), which is a violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention “Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War”. The site and the consequences of the crime have been documented and testify to the fact that at least 57 residents of the village were slain, and their bodies were profaned and disfigured. Videotapes made during the exhumation of bodies show signs of torture and mutilation, some of which was incurred after the victims had died. Among the murdered were thirty women and twenty elderly. Dozens of the villagers were beheaded, some still alive, and the bodies burned. Some of the survivors, who had fled, had seen their children’s or other relative’s heads being sawn off while the poor people were still alive. Over 60 people were taken hostage, included nine children and twenty-nine women. The houses were pillaged and then burnt down. The corpses were also ransacked and their possessions taken away.

It would have been difficult to blame the survivors for any strong feelings against Azerbaijanis after what they have witnessed. The villagers had to move and establish a new settlement. Nor (New) Maragha, founded in the Martakert region, is neighbouring a Muslim cemetery. Not one of the gravestones has been damaged. Intact is also the mullah’s   tomb, across the road.

As a consequence of the 2020 Azeri-Turkish aggression the village of Nor Maragha came under Azeri occupation, its inhabitants were once again displaced and the fate of their homes, graves and other buildings and monuments is not known.

The Supreme Soviet of the NKR publicly condemned these acts of mass violation of human rights in a statement on April 10, 2002, declaring that there was no military justification whatsoever for the violence, which was simply a link in the chain of Azerbaijan’s policy of hatred against Armenians, and called on international organizations, particularly UN and OSCE to name it an act of genocide against Armenians. 


MARAGHA: The name of this village is associated with a massacre which never reached the world’s headlines, although at least 45 Armenians died cruel deaths. During the CSI mission to Nagomo Karabakh in April, news came through that a village in the north, in the Mardakert region, had been overrun by Azeri-Turks on April 10 and there had been a number of civilians killed. A group went to obtain evidence and found a village with survivors in a state of shock, their bum-out homes still smouldering, charred remains of corpses and vertebrae still on the ground, where people had their heads sawn off, and their bodies burnt in front of their families. 45 people had been massacred and 100 were missing, possibly suffering a fate worse than death. In order to verify the stories, the delegation asked the villagers if they would exhume the bodies which they had already buried. In great anguish, they did so, allowing photographs to be taken of the decapitated, charred bodies. Later, when asked about publicising about this tragedy, they replied they were reluctant to do so as “we Armenians are not very good at showing our grief to the world”. 

We believe it is important to put on record these events and the way in which they have, or have not, been interpreted and portrayed by the people themselves, and by the international media. International public opinion is inevitably shaped by media coverage and lost a great deal of political support as a result of their alleged behaviour at Khodjaly. The international media did not cover the massacre of the Armenians at Maragha at all. Consequently, in the eyes of the world, the armed forces of the Armenians of Nagomo Karabakh have been made to appear more brutal then those of the Azeri-Turks; in reality, evidence suggests that the opposite is more likely to be true. 

Source:  Ethnic Cleansing in Progress, War in Nagomo Karabakh, by Caroline Cox and John Eibner, Institute for Religious Minorities in the Islamic World, Zurich, London, Washington, 1993.