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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
Eyewitness: A republic loses faith
Soldiers in Baku during the unrest
The shootings in Baku left more than 130 people dead
By Elchin Halilov in Baku

In the last days of December 1989 and the first of January 1990, it seemed as though there was no government in Azerbaijan of any kind, Soviet or otherwise.

One after another, trains kept arriving in Baku bringing Azeris who had been kicked out of Armenia.


In that one awful night, people lost all faith in the Soviet Union, the centre, and the Soviet Communist Party

Many seemed to be in shock. Tearful women described the horrors they had experienced and called for revenge, but officials remained resolutely silent on the subject.

Everything merged into one - the crying women, the sense that Nagorno-Karabakh had been lost, resentment over Moscow's claims of Islamic fundamentalism threatening Azerbaijan, the power vacuum in Baku, the daily mass demonstrations by the Popular Front, the gloomy weather... and the sinister silence of the Soviet Communist Party.

Arrival of the military

Soviet troops entered the city from several directions on 19 January 1990, shortly before midnight.

Earlier, at about 7.45pm, television screens and telephones went dead, while foreign radio stations were drowned out by heavy jamming.

With nothing else to do, people went to bed - but at roughly 11.30pm the night sky lit up with tracer fire from rifles and mortars.

Baku city centre
No-one left home in Baku for three days
The crack of bullets merged with human cries and groans, the rumble of tanks, and the hoots of fishing boats and oil tankers sounding the SOS signal in Baku bay.

In that one awful night, people lost all faith in the Soviet Union, the centre, and the Soviet Communist Party.

No-one slept. As morning approached, the shooting tailed off slightly, and at 6am local radio started up. An unfamiliar voice - a military presenter - announced a curfew.

Aftermath

The shooting continued for three days, during which practically no-one left home. To do so was dangerous, as Soviet soldiers fired at citizens of the then still Soviet Azerbaijan, apparently without twinges of conscience.

The first morning of the curfew, I went out to buy bread at the nearest shop. I looked around at the other people on the street. They kept their eyes down, as if they felt ashamed to be alive.


Because of this I, personally, felt a need to talk, to tell the story of what happened to as many people as possible

According to official figures 137 people died, and 700 or 800 received injuries of varying severity. The soldiers used bullets with an offset centre of gravity designed to swerve after entering the body.

Almost the whole population of Baku turned out to bury the dead on the third day - 22 January. For another 40 days, the country stayed away from work in a sign of mourning and mass protest.

It seems to me that by 20 January Azerbaijan was already a changed country. The citizens of Baku had witnessed events that the Soviet government tried to hush up.

Because of this I, personally, felt a need to talk, to tell the story of what happened to as many people as possible.

At that moment I felt it was impossible to remain a physicist - the career I had been educated for - and I became a journalist.

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