20 January – National Mourning Day
The events that led to the tragedy of 1990 date back to 1987 when a new wave of expulsion of the Azerbaijanis from their historical homelands in Armenia and attempts to annex the Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia were gathering pace. But instead of preventing the growing tension, the Soviet leadership committed a terrible crime against the Azerbaijani people.
On the night of January 19-20, under direct instructions of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev, military units of the USSR Ministry of Defense, State Security Committee and Ministry of Internal Affairs entered Baku and several regions, massacring civilian population using military hardware and different weapons. The Soviet army deployed a large contingent of special and internal troops in Baku who displayed unprecedented cruelty against peaceful population. The army had brutally killed 82 civilians and wounded 20 others until the announcement of curfew. 21 civilians were murdered in Baku in several days after the imposition of curfew. Eight more civilians were killed in Neftchala on January 25 and in Lankaran on January 26 where curfew was not declared.
The January tragedy resulted in the killing of 131 and wounding of 744 civilians in Baku and adjacent regions. Those killed included women, children and the elderly, medical employees and policemen.
The illegal deployment of the troops was accompanied by mass arrests of civilians. A total of 841 civilians were arrested in Baku and other cities and regions of the republic in the military operations. Of them 112 were sent to prisons in different cities of the USSR. The Soviet troops fired on 200 homes, 80 cars, including ambulances, a large number of public and private properties were set on fire.
The atrocities committed by the Soviet troops bore signs of Nazi actions which were deployed by the international military tribunal known as Nuremberg trials.
Those who were killed in the tragic events of 1990 are symbolically named “20 January martyrs”. In total, there are 150 “20 January martyrs” in Azerbaijan.
Immediately after the tragedy, on January 21, 1990, national leader Heydar Aliyev accompanied by his family members visited Azerbaijan`s permanent representative office in Moscow. He expressed his sympathy with his people, sharply condemned the Soviet leadership for committing the bloody tragedy and exposed the executors of the operation: “I consider the events that took place in Azerbaijan as contrary to law, democracy, humanity…principles of constitutional state building… Had there been taken necessary measures by the top party leadership at the beginning of the Nagorno-Karabakh events, we would not have had the escalation of the tension and losses on both sides and that military assault undertaken over the night from 19 to 20 January 1990 that brought heavy losses. All perpetrators of the crime must be appropriately punished.” At a session of the Milli Majlis of Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic on November 20, 1990, national leader Heydar Aliyev described the January tragedy as an assault on the Azerbaijani people`s sovereign rights: “I think this tragedy, which took place on January 19-20, is the outcome of the great fault of the political leadership of the Soviet Union, personally Gorbachev, which stemmed from his dictator ambitions and at the same time, it is the result of the Azerbaijani leaders` treachery and crime towards their people. As I know, since the end of the Great Patriotic war there has never been such mass killings in the Soviet Union, within the country – nowhere, not even in the territory of any region. And it is the Soviet army that committed this. The scale of this crime is evidenced by the fact that the military operations were commanded by the Minister of Defense of USSR Yazov and Minister of Internal Affairs of the USSR Bakatin who came to Baku in advance. During the war, the defense minister was rarely seen on the forefront, but look how much importance they attach to these operations, how large the scale of these operations was that marshal Yazov came to Baku and led those operations personally. All these facts confirm that this was a military aggression, insult, as well a crime against the Azerbaijani people.”
Apart from being nationwide mourning, the January tragedy also demonstrated the firmness of the Azerbaijani people`s will, their determination. Despite the Soviet army`s cruelty and imposition of curfew in Baku, the people of Azerbaijan staged a huge rally in the city`s “Azadlig” square on January 22 to pay tribute to January 20 martyrs. The funeral ceremony at the Alley of Martyrs was attended by nearly two million people. By popular demand, the Supreme Soviet of Azerbaijan SSR convened an extraordinary session and adopted a decision on the abolishment of curfew in the city of Baku. Fearing people`s anger, many of the republic`s the then leaders did not attend the session.
This epoch-making event made a decisive effect on the formation of Azerbaijani national identity and marked a turning point in restoration of independence. It was the January tragedy that turned the national liberation movement into a political reality and gave a strong impetus to the Azerbaijani people`s struggle for independence. On the initiative of national leader Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan gave its first political and legal assessment to the January 20 tragedy at the level of parliament on March 29, 1994, when the Milli Majlis adopted a relevant resolution. The resolution said: “The deployment of the Soviet troops in the city of Baku and several other regions of Azerbaijan and the brutal killing of civilians, who took to the streets to demand justice, on January 20, 1990, in order to suppress the national liberation movement in Azerbaijan, break confidence and will of the nation that rose to establish a new democratic and sovereign state, humiliate their national identity and show off the Soviet army’s power to other republics must be regarded as a military aggression and crime of the totalitarian communist regime against the people of Azerbaijan.”
The people of Azerbaijan pay their respect to martyrs. On January 20 each year, thousands of people visit the Alley of Martyrs to pay floral tributes, say prayers for the victims and curse the perpetrators of the tragedy.
At 12.00 on January 20 each year a nationwide moment of silence is observed to commemorate January 20 martyrs. Ships, cars, and trains sound sirens throughout the country, commemorative events are held in all cities and towns, the national flag is lowered on all buildings.