Spring 1996 (4.1)

Voice from the Sea
A Contemporary Short Story (Black January 1990)

by Sabir Ahmadli

Left: Hundreds of Azerbaijani fishing and oil vessels blocked the escape of Soviet military naval vessels from leaving Baku's harbor after they had attacked the city on January 20, 1990. In the end, Azerbaijan's unarmed vessels were no match for the Soviet military ships.

At midnight on the eve of January 20th, 1990, Soviet troops attacked Baku from all directions, including the sea. It was an unprecedented attack by Soviet troops on unarmed citizens in Soviet Azerbaijan and it sent shock waves throughout the Republic (See Azerbaijan International, "The Russian Bear's Voracious Appetite," 3:1, 56, Spring 1995).

There had been earlier attacks in other Soviet Republics but never on the scale that took place in Azerbaijan. In 1986, Soviet tanks attacked Almatai, Kazakhstan, and two people allegedly died. In April 1989, an attack was made on Tbilisi, Georgia, with official deaths at 16.
But in Baku, under the pretense of "restoring order to the city," the Soviet army entered the city brutally attempting to squelch the independence movement that was gaining momentum. They mowed down everything in sight with their tanks and submachine guns.

Photo: Mass Burial at "Shahidlar Khiyabani" (Martyr's Lane) after Soviet attack on Baku on January 20, 1990.

Peaceful demonstrators were shot in the streets. Tanks crushed cars loaded with passengers still inside. A nine-year child and her father, returning from a wedding, were shot while riding the bus home. Even people looking out from apartment windows and balconies became fatalities. Unbelievably, soldiers opened fire on ambulances. Officially, 132 people died that night, but Azerbaijanis suspect the number is drastically under-reported by hundreds. Nobody really knows how many victims died in "Black January". Corpses were gathered before daybreak, hauled off to ships until they could be dumped at sea.

Azerbaijan, though still under Soviet rule, went into shock and mourned 40 days. The city was draped in black. Windows and balconies were covered with black material; black strips were tied to car antennas and trees. Adults boycotted their work places; children stayed home from school. The nation writhed with pain-in essence, they were the labor pains that would give birth to a new independent Republic. Even staunch communists burned their Party membership cards openly.
Sabir Ahmadli, an Azerbaijani "People's Writer" heroically dared to publish the first literary short stories about this crisis though the dissolution of the Soviet Union would not take place for 18 more months. They first appeared in the monthly magazine, "Adabiyyat" ("Literature") and came out as a collection of 20 short stories in "January Stories" ("Yanvar Hekayalari," Baku, 1992, 125 pages in Azeri Cyrillic).

Ahmadli's style could be called surrealistic. A son, murdered on that chaotic night, describes the events that surrounded his death as if he were writing her a letter. All the while, his corpse, which had been thrown into the Caspian, floats around, and is bumped by seals. "Voice from the Sea" is published for the first time here in both English and Azeri Latin.

Dear Mother,

First of all, hello. In case you're wondering about me, well, I'm not so very far from Baku. I'm near the city of Darband
1. The weather is cloudy and rainy. But don't worry, I'm not cold at all. It's snowing at sea, but that makes no difference to me. I'm not alone here, Momma.

It would be better if I told you everything just like it happened. I know you haven't been able to sleep or rest. I know you've been looking for me in all the hospitals and morgues throughout the city. Not a single son would dare tell his mother the agonies which I am going to tell you. But I want you to know everything.

One moment...Oh, oh!

Photo: "Khojali" by Faig Ibrahimov (1993)

On the night of January 19th, that ugly night, remember how you didn't want to let me go out of the house? I tried to reassure you that there was no need to be afraid as I would be with friends and they would feel hurt if I didn't go out with them.

We were walking down Tbilisi Avenue, somewhere near to Bilajari Heights when the army started attacking the city. We were among the first to see them. Tanks descended on us. None of us could comprehend what was happening. We thought they were simply trying to frighten us and once they reached us, they'd stop. The bullets of the soldiers running after the tanks seemed to us as if only flares...

One moment...Oh, oh! There are so many seals in the sea, Mother! One just passed by, swimming towards another body.

Yes, mommy dear! A lot of young boys fell victim near me. I couldn't believe it. It was only when the bullets seared my own chest that I began to understand. The tanks moved ahead, sub-machine guns blasting steadily, mowing everyone down. Then more armored vehicles appeared in the streets. The electricity suddenly went out, leaving the carnage in total darkness. What was going on? What had happened to my friends? I raised my head to see if I could find them.

Medical vehicles stopped nearby. Soldiers got out and began gathering the bodies which were lying in the road. There were dark, bearded men among them. They were frantic and uncontrollable. They began searching through all the shrubs and bushes. Whenever they discovered anyone lying on the ground, they fired their pistols and sub-machine guns again, killing those who had only been wounded and making sure the dead ones were really dead.

I heard their voices, "Bistro ubrat! Chtobi do utra nichego ne ostalos! Chisto!" (in Russian, "Take them away quickly! Don't leave any evidence for the morning! Clear it away!").

They swept down and gathered us up, piling us inside the covered trucks and moving on. I didn't know our whereabouts in the city though I understood that we were somehow heading down towards the piers.

Military helicopters circled above. Two tankers headed up towards the bridge. Other military vehicles followed us. Their freight was being transferred to the ships immediately in order to make way for more vehicles that followed.

Mother, one moment...so many seals are swimming around me here in the sea!

They took us aboard the tanker, "Hydrograph." The plan had been highly masterminded. This time they had stretchers. Again they checked us, shining light into our faces, right into our eyes. Bending down, they tried to detect if any of us were still breathing but they rarely fired their pistols, as they didn't want to attract attention. They were saving their bullets. Seagulls were flying all around. They covered us with a tarp on board. Many of us were tied by rope and carried down into the holds of the ship.

The ship moved away from the pier. It was already morning. They knew they had to leave, but they didn't know where to go and they started getting worried. The Caspian Navigation Department was not allowing the military ships to leave the bay. Oil tankers cut off their escape and blockaded the bay. They began communicating by radio. We could hear everything from where we lay in the icy, steel holds. We could hear the Soviet military forces ordering the Caspian Navigation to open the way immediately.

But they refused, insisting that they must inspect the ships. "What are you taking away?" they demanded.

"We're taking the families of our military men," came the reply. But the Caspians insisted on checking the military ships before they would allow a single one to leave the bay.

For three days, the Caspians held the military ships at port, not allowing them to enter the open sea. On the third day, a special Deputy Commission arrived and came out to the "Sabit Orujov" tanker
2 where we were being kept. Even the Commission wasn't allowed to check the military ships which moved in closer, threatening our ship. "If you don't open an exist, we'll open fire!"

The Caspians stood determinedly, "Your ships are full of corpses. During the night, when the army burst into the city, you carried those you murdered down to the piers. Now, you want to cover every trace of your crime." The gun turrets of the military ships took aim at the Caspian ships.

On the morning of January 22nd (the third day) all the Caspian ships began blasting their horns. Their bleak mournful cries could be heard throughout the entire city. That's when they were burying the victims, Mother! The words of the Koran were being read. The voices penetrated even into the prisonholds of the ships. On hearing that the victims of this event were to be buried up on the hill overlooking the city, one of those among us mumbled, "If we could only be buried there, too, I wouldn't complain."

The fourth day, the military forces opened fire on the Caspian ships. Ours answered. But civilian ships couldn't withstand the torpedo attack of the military ones. Holes appeared in many tankers, some of them caught fire. The blockade had been broken.

Our tanker headed out to the open sea...but wait, Mother, one moment. Be patient, Mother, oh, how many seals there are in this sea! Even white ones

We sailed all night. In the dawn, the ship's cranes began their work, lifting the cargo out of the holds. The tarpaulin covered cargoes were carried to the edge of the boat. "Raz! Dva! Vzyali!" ("One, two, heave away!") and the corpses were thrown into the sea. Afterward, body parts-arms, legs, heads-all followed.

It was a great torture! As if it wasn't enough what they had done to us, in addition, to stamping on us with their feet, they shouted, "Vot vam Shahidlar Khiyabani!" ("Here you are in the 'Avenue of the Martyrs'").

Then we saw helicopters circling above us, Mother. Had they come to help us? They swooped down nearly touching the waves. Their door opened, more men were pushed into the sea. They had no parachutes and so they soon disappeared into the waves, never to reappear. Oh, they weren't men of airborne troops, they were ours. But they were brought by helicopters. Mother, it was if the entire sea had turned into a vast graveyard from Astrakhan in the north to Lankaran in the south.

My dearly beloved Mother! Do you remember, one evening my sisters, you, and auntie from the neighborhood were sitting with us? It was spring; our exams had already begun. I told you my wish. I told you how I wanted to go to Odessa and enter the Sea Academy. You didn't approve. "You must stay beside me, my sweet one," you had told me. "You're the only brother of five sisters, you are the only man of our house."

Now, look at my fortune, Mother. It's the first time I've acted against your will. Now I'm a sailor, Mother; I'm sailing. We sailed for five days, then we were thrown up the sea. Some in Shah-dili, others in Turkan, not far from Baku. You know the sea doesn't keep corpses; it always washes them ashore.

The Turkan fishers saw them. The villagers understood. The fishermen surrounded us in their boats. But the coast guard cutters were keeping close watch. And the fisherman, and the things they saw just disappeared.

One moment, Mother. Only one moment. Oh, how many seals are here in the sea!

It is snowing at sea. Spring is coming. Snow is falling on my head. It's very stormy near Darband. But neither snow, nor wind can hurt us. Nor can waves drown us or typhoons silence our voices.
Along the cliffs, the Darband lighthouse shines brightly. I'm sailing towards the shore embraced by the waves. If God so permits, the citizens of this old Azerbaijan city will see me and if they do, I know they'll save me.

Kiss my sisters, don't wait for me.

Your sailor son,

February 1, 1990

Translated from Azerbaijani by Zeidulla Agayev.

Darband, an ancient Azerbaijani city where many Azerbaijanis still live today, is located north of Azerbaijan's present border in the Russian Federation of Dagestan.

2 The "Sabit Orujov" is a triple decker ocean liner which served as the headquarters for the Caspian Navigation Department. It was so heavily damaged during the January 1990 events that it is no longer considered seaworthy and lies anchored at shore next to the Terminal Port across from the Absheron Hotel where it has been converted into a restaurant and bar.

3 White seals are a rare kind of seal in the Caspian Sea.


Translation assistance by Jamila Pashayeva and Jala Garibova.

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