Revealing the Truth Behind the Baku-Sumgait Pogroms-One Family at a Time

Baku-Sumgait Pogroms Memorial, consecrated on April 24, 2013, at St. John Armenian Church in Michigan.


“The existing Armenian state was created on Azerbaijani lands.” That outlandish statement wasn’t made 100, 50, 20 or even 10 years ago but just this past summer as I was only a few weeks into my internship with the Armenian National Committee of America in Washington, DC. The man responsible for such an account of history is the autocratic leader of Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev–a pernicious and prolific purveyor of anti-Armenian aggression, whose words and actions serve to undermine the fragile peace in the Caucasus.

And as we commemorate the anniversary of the tragic events that unfolded in Baku 25 years ago, we find that comments like President Aliyev’s are nothing new.

For seven decades, the people of Nagorn-Karabakh were subjected to a gradual and insidious form of economic and political oppression, designed to depopulate the historically Armenian lands of its indigenous people. For Armenians living in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, and larger cities like Sumgait, anti-Armenian hatred took a violent turn beginning in 1988 when Artsakh’s peaceful calls for self-determination were met with Azerbaijani aggression and war that eventually forced 300,000 Armenians to leave everything- friends, family, careers- in search of a safe haven.

It’s an all too familiar scenario – given the Armenian experience of Genocide from 1915-1923, civil wars and repression at various times in the Middle East which forced Armenian community migration and the Syrian-Armenian refugee crisis that is unfolding in front of our eyes today — but not one that is well known or often discussed.

The early attacks in Baku, Sumgait, Kirovabad, Maragha happened during Soviet times, when news of the aggression was suppressed or delayed for months at a time. A result of the Baku pogroms, credible sources report that hundreds of Armenians were killed while “Soviet authorities, who blocked journalists from the area, estimated that over 30 were killed and 200 injured.” Thomas De Waal, author of Black Garden, summarized these events as “acts of horrific savagery.”

The author’s parents, Garry and Larysa Mirzoyan, on their wedding day in Baku, Azerbaijan, September 29, 1984

My parents saw the tragic events unfold first hand. I sat down with them recently to understand just what happened.

Garry and Larysa Mirzoyan were born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan. My grandparents also grew up in Baku and enjoyed their Soviet lives. Education was free and available to everyone if they worked hard and produced good scores. My parents were both highly educated lawyers. They met in college and married in the late 1980s. I asked my parents if they noticed any unfair treatment or discrimination because of their Armenian nationality while they were in the university. While my mother said she did not have any negative experiences, my father noted that he had an Azerbaijani professor who made it difficult for him to strive to the best of his capabilities. He explained that this professor told him, “You Armenians are too proud” and she made it clear that she did not like Armenians. After hearing this, I wondered if my father ended up getting a good grade. His response was that, “It was an okay grade. If it was another professor, I believe it would have been a better grade.”

This all got worse in 1988.

My father explained that during and after the February, 1988, anti-Armenian massacres in Sumgait, he noticed Azerbaijani professors in his university saying, “Armenian people are not good, Armenians stole our history, our cuisine. The Azerbaijanis were giving misinformation by saying, ‘they [Armenians] take our culture, our songs, and our teachings.’” My mother was a lawyer for a shoe manufacturing company and dealt with any problems or complaints people had over the quality of a shoe. My father was also a lawyer for a factory and investigated trade relationships between clothing companies in different factories in the Soviet Union. My parents were forced to leave their comfortable and rewarding jobs. My father stated that his director told him to not report back to the job, that it was dangerous and that he had to leave. My mother’s bosses were more aggressive in their demeanor. “They started throwing shoe boxes at me and telling me to go,” she recalled.And then, all hell broke loose. My father explained, “It was a lot of word of mouth initially, but then we saw people walking on the streets yelling, ‘Armenians, we will kill you, go away!’”My mother’s memories are far worse because she remained in Baku with her parents and my brother, who was three at the time, while my father explored other countries for a new home or job prospects. She explained that, “Fifty people went inside of my home and forced me to leave. They entered the second floor from the balcony and came into my home looking for my husband.” Because she is half Russian and did not look traditionally Armenian, it was easier for her to hide her Armenian identity when going to the bus or store. Eventually, it was impossible to live in that environment.My parents escaped with the help of non-Armenians who saved their lives. Fortunately, a Russian friend of my mother’s drove her to the airport with my brother to escape. My mother’s father was aided by an Azerbaijani friend who drove him to the airport. She remembered the scene when driving in the streets. “The areas around the airport were burned, the homes and cars were getting burned, the Armenians that stayed were getting burned and killed.”My parents were able to exchange land with a friend who property in Ukraine, that would be our home for the next ten years until we came to the United States to join my extended family and fellow Armenian-Americans who received refugee status after the Baku pogroms.That’s my story- one family story –similar to hundreds of thousands that survived this tragedy. And each of these stories need to be told.There has been some progress on this front in recent years. One courageous soul, Anna Astvatsaturian Turcotte, published her moving childhood memoires of this tragedy in a book titled “Nowhere, A Story of Exile.” Erin Henk focused on the conflict-induced displacement of Baku Armenians as part of the completion of her master’s degree in human rights and humanitarian assistance at NYU in 2012 – a summary of which was published in The Armenian Weekly in 2013, titled ‘Something Broke Inside Me’: Armenians Who Fled Azerbaijan Speak.”

Documentaries in English, Armenian and Russian have been produced – many available online.

In my Detroit community, Armenians from Baku were able to organize and form a strong network where they helped each other meet fellow Armenians, find jobs, and simply gather to eat and drink like they did in their homeland. In 2013 on April 24th, during the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, St. John’s Armenian Church installed the first Baku-Sumgait memorial in the world, thanks to the hard work and fundraising efforts of the Baku-Armenian community. Video of the installation of the monument is available here. Then Congressman, now Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), who visited the church April 24th and whose Congressional district is home to many Baku Armenians in Michigan, went on record in 2014 showing his support by stating, “These ethnically motivated mass killings were an affront to basic human rights and the continued lack of international recognition and acknowledgment represents a grave injustice.”

However, much more work needs to be done to educate the world about the tragic events beginning in Baku and Sumgait in 1988 – first to secure justice for the victims but also to better understand the roots of the anti-Armenian hatred being fomented by President Aliyev today.

Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA), a long-time supporter of Armenian issues, explained, “If we hope to stop future massacres, we must acknowledge these horrific events and ensure they do not happen again.”

Survivor testimonials can play a key role in that effort, when shared with elected officials and the media to expose the truth about these crimes. The Armenian National Committee of America wants to help bring to light the story of Armenians from Azerbaijan and their courageous journey to freedom in the United States.

If you or anyone you know has a story to share about their experiences during the Baku-Sumgait-Maragha- Kirovabad pogroms from 1988-1990, please


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