My visit to the Oklahoma City National Memorial last summer left a lasting impression. Walking in the serene garden dedicated to the memory of the victims, one is amazed by the ability of Oklahomans to cope with the tragedy and emerge even stronger from its aftermath.
There, in the garden in Oklahoma City, I remembered the hilltop memorial in my hometown of Baku, Azerbaijan, half a world away. Although the memorial in Baku commemorates victims of a different time of violence, both gardens testify to the enduring impact on the events in Oklahoma City and Baku on their respective communities.
On Jan. 20, 1990, Soviet leadership ordered a full-scale surprise military attack on Azerbaijan's capital, committing an indiscriminate mass murder of about 150 unarmed civilians, including women, children and elderly. Later, the Human Rights Watch described the Soviet army's actions as “an exercise in collective punishment” and “a warning to nationalists, not only in Azerbaijan, but in the other Republics of the Soviet Union.''
On Jan. 20, 1990, the majority of our people, me included, lived through a personal transformation of abandoning their Soviet identity and becoming citizens of the independent Azerbaijan at the time when such independence still seemed unreachable. Symbolically, the faces of tragedy, from a newlywed couple and children shot by soldiers, to bullet-ridden ambulances and doctors dying as they protected their patients, represent my people and their dedication to freedom and one another. Victims of that night also speak of Azerbaijan's diversity, as they include a young Azerbaijani boy, a teenage Jewish girl, an elderly Russian man and many others from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The tragedy united the people of Azerbaijan into a community of citizens of an independent nation and strengthened their resolve to achieve that independence.
Importantly, instead of suppressing and terrifying the community, the Soviet attack brought out the best in our people, made them more confident and appreciative of their community, diversity and values. I believe that with all the differences between the two tragedies, these lessons apply both in Baku and in Oklahoma City.
Perhaps, therefore, joining my friends at the Oklahoma National Guard, a state partner for the Azerbaijani military, at their annual celebration and being honored by the Thunderbird Medal had a special added significance for me.
Just as a vibrant and independent Republic of Azerbaijan stands as the best way to honor the sacrifice of the victims of the Soviet empire's crime, the lively, growing Oklahoma City and the strength of its community keep memories of those who perished in 1995 alive today.
Suleymanov is Azerbaijan's ambassador to the United States.