Legendary ship captain shares his memories of breaking Soviet news blackout during tragic January 1990
In an interview with Azernews' Qabil Ashirov, legendary ship captain Karam Mammadov, who, in the face of imminent danger of arrest and physical destruction during the January 20, 1990, tragedy in Baku, displayed bravery and courage by preventing Soviet warships from carrying away dead bodies of Azerbaijani civilians to cover traces of their atrocities, and made successful attempts to break the media blackout on reporting about brutalities in Baku and regions.
Everyone is aware of the brutal massacre committed against Azerbaijan and its citizens on January 20, 1990, by the then-Soviet army. Everybody knows what happened onshore on that day, i.e. how the Soviet army mercilessly gunned down, beat, and tortured civilians in Baku, how Soviet tanks crossed over civilians, and how unarmed people challenged tanks without fear.
However, there was another epos at the sea. Showing solidarity with people on the streets of Baku, Azerbaijani seafarers sailed their ships to the Baku bay. They tore the information blockade and informed the world of atrocities happening in Baku at that time.
Our interviewee Karam Mammadov, one of the seven ship captains, who organized the process. With his help, we will try to find out how sailors joined the popular movement.
Q. How did the sailors join the process?
A. As is known, after the Treaty of Turkmenchay, Azerbaijan was divided into two parts and the process of creation of Armenia began in the part of Azerbaijan occupied by the Russian empire.
After the fall of the Russian empire, the imperialist Soviet communist government continued their Russian empire policy under a different guise and built an Armenian state within western Azerbaijan, mainly in the territories of the Iravan Khanate containing Aghbaba, Goycha, Zangazur, Kirkhbulag, Daralayaz, Vedibasar, Gamibasar, Abaran, Derachichak, Lori, Shorayel, Karbi and Pambak regions, etc. At the end of the XX century, as a continuation of this process, they tried to start the process of giving Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia from the remaining Azerbaijani territories. At that time, as the leadership of the Azerbaijani Republic was weak and the majority of [leaders] depended on Moscow, the popular movement started in 1988 with the aim of protecting our territorial integrity. Of course, the ships' crews were with the popular movement, as well.
Seafaring is our professional occupation, and of course, as children of this nation, we stood guard over the interests of our state, and I believe that our future generation of sailors will not spare their determination to fulfill their duty to the country.
Q. Some western outlets, more precisely of those Armenians abroad, claim that the Soviet troops entered Baku for saving Armenians. Do you think the 20th January massacre has any connection with saving Armenians?
A. During the 1988-89 events, the popular movement no longer received support from the republican authorities in terms of territorial integrity. Seeing that the local government at that time was controlled by Moscow, its inactivity, and finally, seeing that they were ready to give our lands to Armenia in order to show loyalty to the communist government of Moscow, people evaluated the situation as national and state treason, and the process of turning popular movement into national freedom started. The leadership of the Soviet Union sitting in the Kremlin, and the KGB, tried to use the factor of the so-called Armenian genocide, which was plotted before the crime, and the causes and consequences were calculated in advance. As far as I know, Armenians are trying to play political games according to their interests over the events of January, as in all the crimes committed by the Kremlin in this region. The presence of Armenians in this region is the result of international geopolitical games and is a destructive tool of non-regional forces against our historical development. By playing on the feelings of the international community, it has already become fashionable to bind Armenians to the steps to be taken to realize what they want in the region where the East and the West meet and it has turned into an Armenian reflex.
The Armenian massacres in Baku in January 1990, the product of brains sitting in Moscow offices, were planned by the KGB but prevented by the popular movement. It was impossible to tarnish the national liberation movement with such issues. Even today, after the 44-day war, we have shown the world that we are humanists, but at the same time, we are not a nation that will turn away from our own territorial integrity.
Q. What was the council of captains and how was it created?
A. On the night of January 19 to 20, 1990, the news of the brutality committed by the Soviet army against the unarmed people on the streets of Baku, killing more than 100 people with automatic and machine guns, and running over people with tanks was transmitted to the ships through a radio station. On January 20, the ships of the then-Caspian Sea Oil and Gas Fleet entered the Baku bay and anchored. The Council of Captains, authorized by the decision of the emergency meeting of the ship captains on the ship Sabit Orujov was elected in order to eliminate the chaos in the radio communication, negotiate with the heads of the occupation army that came to Azerbaijan, and manage the processes.
It became clear on January 20 that the leadership in the republic was absent or treacherously waiting for Moscow's orders. Thinking that the equipment of the Soviet army had broken the resolve of the residents of Baku, they [Soviet soldiers] moved through the empty streets and tried to hide the trace of the bloody terror they had committed from night to morning. That night, Moscow watered the territory of Azerbaijan with blood and lost Azerbaijanis against the desire to see a republic according to its plans in the future. In Baku, the people went out to bury their martyrs on January 22 and thus started a new form of protest of millions. After that, the people spent 40 days mourning and did not go to work, the flood of carnations on the streets, and the waving of black flags on the balconies became the detonator of the movement of the people of the USSR to centrifugal process.
Q. How did you hinder throwing the martyrs into the sea?
A.On January 20, military equipment was continuously arriving in the territory of the military fleet. At that time, the location of the fleet was on the side of the current Flag Square. According to the information we received through the radio station, this equipment brought the bodies of our martyrs to the military port, and wanted to take them out to sea and throw them into the sea.
The next steps of the military increased the probability of the truth of this information. They asked us to create an opportunity for the warships to go to the sea. In return, we requested to inspect the warships, but they did not agree. This has made us determined that the inspection is important. By the decision of the captains' council, we restricted the entry and exit to the military port by anchoring three of our ships at the entrance of the military port. What was on those warships is the work of our intelligence officers and researchers of the archives nowadays, during our independence period. For that period, we sailors were able to prevent the exit of the ships as much as possible, and by ensuring the publicization of the events, we disrupted the plans of the force sent from Moscow to Baku.
Q. Soviet military ships open fire on civil ships. Can you speak about it? How and why did it happen?
A. Seeing the activity of our ships, the military command created a relative movement in the sea. They unexpectedly opened fire on the "Cheleken 1" ship. I guess they were testing our resolve. As I said before, we were firm in our decision to inspect the warehouses of every military ship due to the news of our martyred children being put out to sea in the warehouses. Later allowed us to inspect military ships. A ship named “Babazade” headed by captain Muzaffar Aliyev sailed into the military port for inspection. However, they hindered inspection by surrendering “Babazade” and its crew.
Later, making our firm statements that we will sink military ships by ramming them, we managed to remove the "Babazade" ship from the military port. The next attempt of warships to go to sea resulted in the first collision. As a result, only one of the four warships managed to go to the open sea. The rest had to stay at the military port. In the annals of world naval battles, such a large-scale confrontation between civilian ships and warships resulted in military negotiations.
Q. As it is known, Baku was under an information blockade. You, the sailors, informed the world about the tragedy. Can you speak about it?
A. The task of writing texts of the SOS signal was given to active captains. After that, an SOS signal was sent to the world 3 times every hour through global communication. The text of SOS was roughly “Soviet troops entered Baku and hundreds of people were killed”. Soon we got responses from different ships on different seas. They expressed their solidarity with us and wrote that they had informed their government about the massacre committed in Baku. The speed with which the signal spread and the addresses it reached were already reverberating around the world. Thus, we broke the information blockade. The crime of the Moscow imperialists was conveyed to the world by us. I think that this action of the sailors greatly hindered the continuation of the terrible crime of the criminals. Later, the sounds from Moscow proved that our voice created problems for criminals in their cradles. Our national unity and national pride were a lesson to our enemies in those days. Exactly thirty years later, in the 44-day war, the enemies saw our unity again. Believe me, very few nations in the history of the world have had the opportunity to show such unity.
Q. What was and is the impact of your movement?
A. Baku streets were empty on January 20 and 21. With the whistles we gave from the ships, we gave the message "Azerbaijan is not dead, the children of Azerbaijan are not dead" to the residents of Baku and encouraged the people and called them to the streets.
Soviet flags were lowered on the ships, and black flags were raised on the mast in connection with the mourning days of our people. Today, thank God, our tri-color flag is above our heads, and state institutions are developing day by day; the successes of our foreign policy and the first results and prospects of the 44-day war are in sight.
As for future generations, they can evaluate what happened in those days. I believe that our tricolor flag has been raised in these areas for life, and there will be no generations that will live the bitter memory of black flags again, I am sure that they will only be proud of those historical days of ours. May God have mercy on our martyrs.
Q. How did the negations with civil authority start?
A. Although it is difficult to imagine it today, at that time the country's leadership no longer existed. The occupation chiefs from Moscow made all decisions. We made the statement that the occupation troop should leave our land, otherwise we indicated in the statement that we would take more drastic steps i.e. sinking ships at the entrance to Baku bay, blocking access to the city from the sea once and for all, and burning ships inside the port of Baku. Apparently, this statement had its effect. A meeting was held with the member of the Captains` Council. The head of the Supreme Soviet of the Azerbaijan SSR Elmira Gafarova, People's Deputies of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR Tofig Ismayilov, Arif Malikov, and others were present at the first meeting. In our capital city, we were thanked for the resistance we had organized, and in the end, we were asked to temporarily suspend the implementation of our demands due to the meeting of the Supreme Soviet. According to Ms. Elmira, they could not organize the arrival of communist deputies to the Supreme Soviet.
In the further development of the events, meetings were held with the Minister of Defense of the USSR, Army General Dmitry Yazov, who came with the aim of suppressing the struggle for independence of Azerbaijan, with the Minister of Internal Affairs of the USSR Vadim Bakatin, and from March 1988 - with the military inspector-advisor of the Inspector General Group of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR Nikolai Smirnov. At the end of those meetings, the decision they made in the face of the sailor's will and the captain's sternness was known at a later stage.
Q. How was the sailors' mutiny suppressed or were they able to suppress it?
A. At the end of the events, they were able to drive the visible part of our movement away from the port of Baku with military ships and tank cannons, and machine guns from the shore. But the struggle we waged with our ships bought time for state institutions and encouraged them to persevere. What we did was our duty to our country. I do not agree with the thought that the movement was suppressed.
I do not share the opinion that the movement was destroyed. Even today, our sailors have trained personalities who will take decisive steps for the interests of our state if necessary. My advice to them is to put state interests ahead of personal interests and have common sense.
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