It was February 1992, the day after the massacre of Azerbaijanis
in Khojali. An old woman was looking for his son and husband among
the hundreds of bodies brought into the main mosque in the neighboring
town of Agdam. Suddenly, she raised her hands,screaming: “Oh Allah,
why did you allow this to happen?” Armenians had hollowed out the
eyes of both her son and husband with bayonets. The screaming of
the woman drew the attention of Reza Deghati, a French photojournalist
who was working for Newsweek and National Geographic at the time.
Deghati was in Azerbaijan between 1990 and 1992 as part of a mission
called “Peace doctors and pharmacists without borders and the International
Red Cross”. The mission had been organized by Bernard Kushner, secretary
for the then French President Francois Mitterrand for humanitarian
issues. He had filmed the massacre of peaceful protesters by Soviet
troops in Baku in January 1990. In 1992, Reza visited Agdam to report
on the Karabakh war.
Eighteen years on, the picture of the Khojali woman taken by
Reza Deghati caused a diplomatic row in Paris that also involved
the Armenian ambassador to France, Vigen Chitechiyan. The dust-up
started after Reza exhibited the picture at a photo exhibition
organized by the Paris Transportation Department at the Luxembourg
station of the city metro in March 2010. The caption of the picture
read: “Agdam, Azerbaijan, 1992. She found her son and husband
with their eyes hallowed out… Very few of the Khojali residents
survived the mass murder carried out by Armenian armed forces.”
The powerful Armenian diaspora in Paris was concerned about this
picture. They demanded that Reza remove the picture and the caption,
threatening him with “tough action”.
The Armenian ambassador in Paris, Vigen Chitechiyan, also intervened
in the row. On 3 July 2010, he unofficially invited Reza for a
meeting, during which Chitechiyan said that the picture and the
caption could cause tension in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations
and also within the Armenian diaspora. He tried to convince Reza
that the massacre in Khojali could have been committed by the
Azerbaijani military - in order to portray Azerbaijanis as victims
- or by the Afghans or Turks fighting on the Azerbaijani side
as well. Chitechiyan asked Reza to remove the words “Armenian
armed forces” from the caption. But the photojournalist provided
incontrovertible evidence that the massacre had been committed
by Armenian armed forces. Reza said that, as an independent journalist
he would not give in to outside pressure. He added that he rejected
any “order” from political or non-governmental organizations that
were trying to hamper his mission as an independent photojournalist.
Having realized that he would not get anywhere by diplomatic
means, the Armenian ambassador started to threaten him openly.
“From today on, I cannot guarantee that the Armenian diaspora
will not hold protests against you,” he said. The meeting was
followed by “protests”. First, the picture was torn up. Armenian
extremists wrote this below the picture: “Attention! This is an
anti-Armenian propaganda by Reza, who is an Iranian Azerbaijani.”
Indeed, Reza is an Azerbaijani. He was born in Tabriz in 1952.
But he has always tried to refrain from bias while reporting.
In 2005, he was awarded the order of the National Honor of France
for his unbiased coverage of the fight for independence and freedom
of speech in over 100 countries over the past 30 years. A picture
by him on the capture of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 by supporters
of the Islamic Revolution ran on the front page of Newsweek. He
later worked for Time, Life, Figaro, Le Monde, Stern, Der Spiegel,
Observer and other leading publications of the world. Reza currently
works for National Geographic magazine.
Reza’s first works on Azerbaijan were reflective of his desire
to reveal the truth about our country. He visited Baku on 24 January
1990 to document the crime that had been committed by Soviet troops.
He was one of the first Western journalists to report the truth
about the massacre that had taken place in Baku.
Because of his courage, he was allowed to visit Azerbaijan again
as part of the mission “Peace doctors and pharmacists without
borders and the International Red Cross”. The main goal of this
mission, which was based in Agdam until 1992, was to negotiate
with the commanders of Armenian forces that were occupying Khojali
and the surrounding villages to return the bodies of Azerbaijanis
that were killed in the fighting. It also provided assistance
to those who had fled their homes and received injures.
Reza Deghati has always exposed the Armenian atrocities in Nagorno-Karabakh
via his exhibitions. One of those exhibitions was held at the
Luxembourg Park outside the French Senate in 2003. The exhibition,
which was supported by the Senate, also featured pictures about
Karabakh. Angered by this, Armenian lobby groups in France appealed
to the Senate to close down the exhibition. But the Senate said
it trusted Reza’s objectivity.
After that, Armenians attacked the Paris Transportation Department,
which had hosted an exhibition by Reza at the Luxembourg station
of the city metro. Lawyer Raffi Peshdimajyan, who defends the
interests of the Association of Armenians of Paris, “Siamanto
Friends” and other Armenians organizations, wrote a letter to
the Transportation Department, demanding that the picture of the
Khojali woman and the caption be removed. The letter read: “The
facts in the text speak about unbelievable atrocity, and do not
reflect the reality. The notes there are racist and full of hatred
for humanity. They damage the integrity of the Armenian people.”
The lawyer demanded that the caption be removed within 48 hours,
threatening to sue the department if it refused to do so. In order
to “sooth the ire”, the head of the Transportation Department
proposed that Reza either replace the picture and the caption
or keep the torn up picture as it was. Thus, the Transportation
Department of the French capital backed down under the Armenian
pressure. Now Reza has been left alone in the fight against the
Armenian diaspora in France, which is acting as one united body.
The countries of the European Union are viewed as the cradle
of democracy. Regrettably, however, it is very difficult to tell
the truth through photos and documents in those countries too.