Spring 1999 (7.1)


Sabir Ahmadli

Voice From the Sea
(February 1990)

Azeri version
of the story

At midnight 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.

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 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 them.

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.

Ambulances 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!")

Phot above: Tens 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 the sea!

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...

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

2 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

3 "White" implies Russian. Up

Translated by Zeydulla Aghayev

From Azerbaijan International (7.1) Spring 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.