Baku's `Martyr's Cemetery'

Azerbaijanis keep victims alive in memory as Jan. 20 anniversary of the massacre nears

THEY come in ones and twos, and sometimes in village-sized crowds, bearing flowers and prayers. Some weep silently. Others chat quietly among themselves as they make their way slowly down the row of some 150 black wrought-iron grave markers, stopping periodically to remember the victim before them.

An Azerbaijani woman grabs a visiting foreigner by the hand and leads her to the grave of a little girl. A doll and a pair of tiny shoes lie at the foot of the marker.

The woman, mutely indignant, holds up three fingers. Three years old, she means to indicate, judging by the dates on the grave. That's how old the little girl was last January when Soviet soldiers stormed the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, intent on crushing an insurgent Popular Front that threatened to depose the Soviet republic's Communist government.

Hundreds of civilians were killed in the invasion, which eyewitnesses describe in the most brutal of terms.

NEARLY a year after the ``January events,'' the memories remain as fresh as that day's roses at Hillside Park, now also known as Martyrs' Cemetery, where some of the victims are buried. Yes, Baku residents say, it was terrible when Azerbaijanis massacred scores of Armenians, an event that preceded the Soviet invasion. But Martyrs' Cemetery is for those who perished during the Jan. 20, 1990, invasion.

``Many of us went outside to see what was happening,'' says the cashier at Baku's Hotel Azerbaijan. ``I never thought they would just shoot wildly into the crowds like that. Those soldiers were not men, they were animals. Their faces were not human.''

For Ziya Buniatov, a top Azeri academic and war hero, the Jan. 20 invasion meant the death of his 98-year-old mother-in-law. But it wasn't a Soviet Army bullet that killed her; it was just hearing the news. ``She went that very day,'' says Mr. Buniatov's wife. ``Until that moment, she had been completely healthy and of sound mind.''

A stop at Martyrs' Cemetery is now a must for any visitor to Baku. Some of the larger groups have come from small Azerbaijani towns for other business, but are here for their own piece of the national catharsis.

At this hillside park overlooking Baku, there is also a feeling that the story of Jan. 20 isn't over. The city has been kept under martial law ever since the invasion, and the citizens of Baku can only speculate what would develop if it were lifted.

But for now, Martyrs' Cemetery stands as a symbol of a crumbling Soviet empire.

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