Voice From the Sea
version of the story
on the eve of January 20, 1990, Soviet troops entered Baku and
attacked 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 "The Russian Bear's Voracious Appetite," AI 3.1, Spring 1995). Azerbaijanis
now refer to it "Black January".
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 stated at 16.
But in Baku under the pretense of "restoring order to the
city," the Soviet army entered the city and brutally attempted
to squelch the independence movement, which had been gaining
momentum. They mowed down everything in sight with their tanks
and submachine guns.
Peaceful demonstrators were shot in the streets. Tanks crushed
cars loaded with passengers still inside. A nine-year-old child
and her father, returning from a wedding, were shot while riding
the bus home. Even people looking out of apartment windows and
balconies were shot and killed. Unbelievably, soldiers opened
fire on ambulances.
Officially, 132 people died that night, but Azerbaijanis suspect
that the number was drastically underreported, perhaps by several
hundred. Nobody really knows how many victims died in "Black
January." Corpses were gathered before daybreak and hauled
off to ships until they could be dumped at sea.
Azerbaijanis, though still under Soviet rule, went into shock
and mourned for 40 days. The city was draped in black. Windows
and balconies were covered with black material; black strips
of cloth were tied to windows, car antennas and trees. Adults
boycotted their workplaces; children stayed home from school.
The nation writhed in pain-in essence, these were the labor pains
that would give birth to a new independent Republic. Even staunch
communists burned their Party membership cards openly.
Sabir Ahmadli, who was honored as an Azerbaijani People's Writer
during the Soviet period, heroically dared to publish the first
literary short stories about this crisis, even though the dissolution
of the Soviet Union would not take place for another 18 months.
This collection of short stories 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 described as surreal. In "Voice
From the Sea," a son, murdered on that chaotic night, describes
the events that surrounded his death as if he were writing his
mother a letter. All the while, his corpse, which had been disposed
of in the sea, floats around, bumped by seals.
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.
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 searching for me in all the hospitals and morgues in the
city. Not a single son would dare tell his mother the agonies
that I'm going to tell you. But I want you to know everything.
One moment...Oh, oh!
On the night of January 19th, that disastrous 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
We were walking down Tbilisi Avenue, somewhere near Bilajari
Heights, when the army started attacking the city. We were among
the first to see the troops. Tanks descended on us. None of us
could understand what was happening. We thought they were simply
trying to frighten us-that once they reached us, they would stop.
The bullets of the soldiers streaming after the tanks seems to
be just 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 around me were killed. 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.
stopped nearby. Soldiers got out and began gathering the bodies
that were lying in the road. There were dark, bearded men among
them. They were wild and frantic. 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!")
of thousands of people gathered in Lenin (now Freedom) Square
to attend the funeral of the victims of Black January 20 (1990).
They swept down and gathered us up, piling us inside the covered
vans and moving on. I didn't know our whereabouts in the city,
though I could tell that we were heading down towards the docks.
Military helicopters circled above. Two tankers were anchored
nearby 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 momentso many seals are swimming around me here in
They took us aboard the Hydrograph tanker. The plan had been
highly masterminded. This time they had stretchers. Again they
checked us, shining lights into our faces, right into our eyes.
Bending down, they tried to find out 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. On board, they covered us with canvas.
Many of us were tied with rope and carried down into the cargohold
of the ship.
The ship moved away from the pier. It was already dawn. They
knew they had to leave, but they didn't know where to go; they
started getting worried. The Caspian Coast Guard 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
hold. We could hear the Soviet military forces ordering the Caspian
Coast Guard 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 that moved in closer, threatening our ship. "If you
don't open an exit, 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 prison holds of the
ships. On hearing that the victims of this event were to be buried
up on the hill overlooking the city, someone mumbled, "If
we could only be buried there, too, I wouldn't complain."
The fourth day, the military ship opened fire on the Caspian
ships. Our ships answered. But the civilian ships could not withstand
the torpedo attack. Holes appeared in many tankers; some of them
caught fire. The blockade had been broken.
Our tanker headed out to the open seabut wait, Mother, one moment.
Be patient, Mother, oh, how many seals there are in this sea!
Even white ones...3
We sailed all night. At dawn, the ship's cranes began their work,
lifting the cargo out of the holds. The bundles 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-followed.
It was great torture! As if it wasn't enough what they had done
to us, in addition to kicking us and shouting, "Vot vam
Shahidlar Khiyabani!" (Here's your "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
doors opened and 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 wishes. Now I'm a sailor, Mother; I'm sailing. We
sailed for five days, then we were thrown into 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 fishermen saw them. The villagers understood. The
fishermen surrounded us with their boats. But the coast guard
cutters were keeping close watch. The fishermen and the things
they saw just disappeared.
Just one moment. Oh, how many seals are here in the sea!
It is snowing here 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. The waves can't drown us, nor can the hurricane
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 Azerbaijani 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
1 Darband, an ancient Azerbaijani city where many
Azerbaijanis still live, is located north of Azerbaijan's present
border in the Russian Federation of Dagestan. Up
The "Sabit Orujov" is the triple-decker ocean liner
that served as the headquarters for the Caspian Coast Guard.
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.Up
"White" implies Russian. Up
by Zeydulla Aghayev
(7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.