Operation Koltso (Operation Ring)
Kexam Babudzhyan: Let us remember those innocent civilians who died at the hands of the Soviet army, under the command of General Shamanov with direct orders from Gorbachev.
The subsequent attacks caused massive civilian and infrastructural losses in the North Artsakh region, Hadrut, Shahumian, Getashen, and Shushi. The main objective of the operation was to empty those lands of Armenians, gain control, and hand over to the Azerbaijani bandits. For more details, watch this documentary about Operation Koltso:
Archives: In the spring of 1991, the Azeri-Turks embarked on a new type of offensive against the Armenians living in the Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh and in the Shaumyan district to the north. It was called ‘Operation Koltso’.
Military forces of the 23rd Division of the Soviet 4th Army stationed in Azerbaijan joined in combined operations with Azerbaijani Ministry of Interior (OMON, or ‘black beret’ forces) to undertake systematic deportations of Armenians. ‘Operation Koltso’ started in late April 1991 with the villages of Getashen and Martunashen. These names will be seared onto the memory of Armenians alongside Baku and Sumgait for the brutality of the suffering inflicted on their people. The operations, carried out against vulnerable villagers, were remarkable for their ferocity. The pattern established in Getashen and Martunashen was later repeated against other villages in the Shaumyan district and elsewhere in Nagorno Karabakh.
Typically, the deportation exercise would begin with Soviet 4th Army troops surrounding the villages with tanks and armored personnel carriers; military helicopters would hover low overhead.
Once the village was surrounded by Soviet troops, the Azerbaijani OMON would move in and start harassing the villagers. They would round up men, women, and children, usually on a pretext such as a ‘passport check’.
Many acts of brutality were committed: men were assaulted and killed; women were raped, children maltreated; civilians abducted as hostages. Azeri-Turk citizens from nearby villages would come with pick-up trucks and cars, looting, pillaging and stealing everything from household goods to livestock. The Armenian villagers were then driven off their land, being forced to live as displaced people either elsewhere in Nagorno Karabakh or in Armenia.
Sakharov Memorial Congress
The deportations of Operation Koltso led to the first direct involvement of the international community in the Nagorno Karabakh crisis. For the tragedies of Getashen and Martunashen coincided with the First International Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress being held in Moscow. One of the participants in the group of experts discussing ‘Human Rights and Injustice on a Mass Scale’ was Dr. Zori Balayan, who was the elected representative for Nagorno Karabakh on the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. His account of the deportations was so convincing that the Memorial Congress was persuaded of the gravity of the violations of human rights which they entailed. It was therefore decided that an independent, international delegation should be sent by the Memorial Congress to the region to investigate the situation.
The delegation consisted of 15 members from the USA, Japan, Norway, the UK, and Russia. It must be emphasized that each member embarked on the investigation with no preconceptions or prejudices. In so far as reports and subsequent activities have reflected sympathy for the Armenians, this does not preclude a sympathy also for the Azeri-Turk victims of the conflict. Indeed, some members of the delegation work with organizations which have sent aid to Azeri-Turk refugees from the war in Nagorno Karabakh. However, following in the footsteps of Andrei Sakharov, most delegates have a commitment to his principle of ‘being on the side of the victim’. It has generally been the experience of those of us who have visited Nagorno Karabakh that it is the Armenians of Karabakh who are the primary victims in this tragic situation.
Additional visit by some of the group of experts from the International Delegation to Baku, May 30-June 1, 1991
“On May 30, 1991, five persons (two staff members, two foreign participants, and one foreign journalist) traveled to Azerbaijan under the aegis of the First Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress. In a letter presented to Azerbaijani leaders, we requested meetings with the leaders of Azerbaijan, including the Azerbaijani President. We requested visits to the following areas: villages of the Shusha and Gadrut districts of Nagorno Karabakh, from which large numbers of Armenians have fled, villages of the Shaumyan district and to the cities of Stepanakert and Khodjaly. While our requests were presented repeatedly during our visit, including to Azerbaijani President A. Mutalibov and Dr. A. Dashdamirov, Chairman of the Permanent Commission on State Sovereignty of the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijani Republic, the only request that was met was a series of meetings with leaders and officials of Azerbaijan. Our request to visit specific areas of conflict was denied.
In a meeting with President Mutalibov and Dr. Dashdamirov, we found these officials to be justifying current deportations and unwilling to exclude future deportations of Armenians from Nagorno Karabakh. The aim of this policy of deportation is to make Armenian authorities abolish a decree adopted by the Supreme Soviet of Armenia according to which ‘Armenia agrees to incorporate the Autonomous Region of Nagorno Karabakh at the request of the latter’. The aim of the policy of forced deportations is to ‘clear the area of bases used by Armenian paramilitary troops’.
We also had meetings with representatives of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia who expressed unanimous concern that public opinion in the USSR and abroad, which strongly condemned deportations of Armenians, was not strong enough in condemning the deportations of Azerbaijanis which took place in 1988. The President of Azerbaijan and members of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia are concerned that world public opinion had been unduly influenced by an ‘Armenian lobby’.
No official with whom we met denied the possibility that Azerbaijani OMON forces are engaged in atrocities, including killing, looting and banditry, and brutality and violence directed against women, children, and the elderly.
David W Leopold Esq; Robert L Arsenault Jr; Yuri Samodurov; Alexander E Goldin”
Follow-Up Visit to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, July 1991
Given the concern expressed by the Andrei Sakharov Memorial Congress delegation following the visit in May 1991, a follow-up mission was arranged in July. In keeping with the group’s commitment to impartiality, it was agreed that this visit should start in Azerbaijan, in order to hear the Azeri-Turk version of events, before speaking to Armenians.
Excerpts of the report of this visit are presented here:
“For the first time, an international delegation was admitted to Nagorno Karabakh, interviewed Armenian detainees in Azerbaijani prisons, visited villages where deportations have occurred and met local population, republican and local officials, military officials, deportees, and refugees. The delegation was flown from Baku to Yerevan on an Armenian plane; no plane has flown this route for three years.
Since our first visit, the tension in the region has escalated, with current mass deportations of Armenians, especially from the Shaumyan district. The populations of three Armenian villages of Shaumyan district (Erketch, Buzlukh, Monachuk) have been deported during our stay in the area.
We conclude that grave violations of human rights are still occurring. We identified four major areas of concern: Forced Deportations; Detentions; Harrassment of Civilians; Azerbaijani Special Forces
Operation Koltso Concludes
The era of brutal deportations came to an end when the Soviet leadership changed in August 1991. Under President Yeltsin, the Soviet troops were required to adopt a more impartial peace-keeping role and their combined operations with Azerbaijani OMON forces consequently ceased. This gives credence to the view frequently put to the international delegations that the deportations had been used to serve two purposes. Firstly, they were a punishment imposed by President Gorbachev and the ‘center’ of the USSR for Armenia’s stated wish to secede from the Union. Secondly, they served Azerbaijan’s purpose of beginning to clear Nagorno Karabakh of its Armenian population, as a preliminary to repopulating the land with Azeri-Turks. The Armenians viewed this policy with great alarm, seeing in it the beginnings of a process such as that which had occurred in Nakhichevan, whose substantial Armenian population had been forced out, leaving it an almost entirely Azeri-Turk territory.
The effects of the deportations did not end when Operation Koltso ceased. Many of the deportees are still homeless, living in conditions of great deprivation either in Nagorno Karabakh, still under siege, or in Armenia. Conditions in Armenia have since become desperate, with the blockades imposed by Azerbaijan and Turkey reducing the nation to its knees economically. There are also many hundreds of thousands still homeless from the earthquake of December 1988. Therefore, the plight of the people displaced by the 1991 deportations is very serious and the gross violations of human rights inflicted on them are still causing severe suffering. This is a factor in the contemporary political equation which cannot be ignored.