Nagorno-Karabakh: Remembering the victims of Khojaly

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Turkish and Azeri flags are waved in Ankara in memory of the 20th anniversary of an attack on Khojaly in 1994 (26 Feb 2012)Image source, AFP
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Thousands of people gathered in Ankara and Istanbul as well as in Baku

Azeris around the world have been remembering the 20th anniversary of the bloodiest episode in their country's recent history, when Azerbaijan says more than 600 civilians, including women and children, were killed.

It was one of many violent incidents in Azerbaijan's brutal war with Armenia, which erupted in the 1990s amid the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now there are growing fears the conflict could flare up again.

It was a freezing, snowy night when Armenian troops marched into Ramila's home town of Khojaly. She fled with her family into a nearby forest.

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Azerbaijan is still struggling with the large numbers of people displaced by the conflict

It was there that her husband was shot dead. She survived only because she was carrying her two-year-old son on her back. As she ran, he was shot instead of her.

Her daughter with whom she was pregnant at the time is the only child she has left. Those events still haunt Ramila today.

"I can't forget," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "It's like it happened yesterday. I re-live it every single day."

Azerbaijan's government says that in one night alone, on 26 February 1992, 613 Azeri civilians died, including 169 women and children.

According to Azerbaijan, they were either shot dead by Armenian soldiers or froze to death as they tried to flee Khojaly in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia disputes the account and the number of deaths. It says that Azeri soldiers were also involved in the violence that night and accuses Azerbaijan's authorities of failing to move their civilian population out of the area in time.

'Dehumanising Armenians'

To commemorate Khojaly's anniversary on Sunday, tens of thousands of people gathered in the Azeri capital, Baku, and in the Turkish cities of Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey is a close ally of Azerbaijan.

Across the US and Europe, Azerbaijan's government staged exhibitions and films and ran newspaper ads about the killings.

Armenian political analyst Alexander Iskandaryan says this illustrates how the government of Azerbaijan uses the Khojaly killings as a propaganda tool to demonise Armenia and win international sympathy.

"It happens in every conflict in the world. You have to explain to your people that the enemy is aggressive and not good," he said. "It's a way of de-humanising Armenians."

But what is clear is that the 1990s war has had catastrophic consequences for both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Up to 30,000 people on both sides were killed. And, according to Azeri government figures, almost one million people were forced to leave their homes, before a tenuous ceasefire was agreed in 1994.

Humanitarian crisis

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For almost 20 years, thousands of people have lived as refugees in appalling conditions

Today the region is in Armenian hands. And those Azeri civilians who fled during the war have not been allowed back.

This flood of displaced people has led to a humanitarian crisis with which Azerbaijan is still struggling.

For almost two decades, thousands of people have been living as refugees in terrible conditions. Saleh Karimov, 62, and his family of eight share a tiny 20 sq m (215 sq ft) room in a crumbling former student dorm.

It's stuffed with the carpets and the few treasured possessions they were able to carry when they fled the war.

Twenty-one families on this floor share one dirty toilet and shower. And even those don't always work. "We used to have comfortable houses and good jobs," Saleh said. "But now we are just suffering, dying second by second."

"We would rather die fighting the Armenians than stay living in these conditions," said one mother, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Some human rights activists say the Azeri government is now finally starting to take the refugee crisis more seriously and is organising better accommodation.

But Azerbaijan is also investing heavily in weaponry, and now spends more on its military than the entire budget of Armenia. The main aim, says the Azeri government, is to win back the disputed territory - by force if necessary.

Lawrence Sheets from the International Crisis Group (ICG) believes this arms race increases the risk of a conflict, which could then drag in regional allies such as Russia, Armenia's military ally, or Turkey, which has close ethnic links to Azerbaijan.

"Both sides have been arming themselves, and building weaponry, and engaging in hostile rhetoric," he said.

"There are hundreds of incidents every month of firing between the two sides. Several dozen people die each year on both sides of the front lines. The danger is that these minor incidents could spiral out of control into a larger war."

But Alexander Iskandaryan sees the increasingly bellicose threats, coming from both governments, as populist rhetoric.

"Armenia has no reason for war because they won in the early 1990s. And for Azerbaijan, war would be a great risk."

Strategically, Armenia is in a much stronger geographical position. And Azerbaijan's army is seen as demoralised. So analysts agree that, despite its huge military investment, Azerbaijan would not right now be able to win back the territory.

That may not always be the case, though.

Peace talks, mediated by Russia, France and the US, have completely stalled and both sides are adamant that they should control Nagorno-Karabakh.

Neither has so far shown any willingness to compromise.