Specter of Death Haunts a Once-Lively Park : Azerbaijan: 'Graveyard of martyrs' echoes to the stifled sobs and the shuffling feet of thousands of mourners.


Kirov Park here in the capital of Azerbaijan used to be a happy place, a combination amusement park and hilltop lookout point with the city's best view of the Caspian seaside below. It was full of music and young people, laughing and courting.

Now it is a place of death.

The carnival rides were under wraps Sunday, the trees festooned with mourning banners. Instead of laughter, there were stifled sobs, the funeral wail of a mullah, the sounds of thousands of shuffling feet.

Ironically, death has brought far more visitors to the park than recreation ever did--several hundred thousand daily, according to a commission that has supervised the site ever since it was transformed two weeks ago into the "graveyard of martyrs."

Eighty-seven people have been buried in the park so far, all in a long row punctuated at the end by a hand-lettered sign stuck into a pile of building stones.

"This is the result of the Russian imperialist genocide against the Azerbaijani people," the sign reads in Azeri, the Azerbaijani language.

The dead are all victims of the gunfire of army and Interior Ministry troops that began Jan. 20 when troops broke out of their blockaded barracks to impose a state of emergency on an aroused population that believed itself to be immune from being shot down in its own streets.

"Even now, people who died in hospital from wounds received then are being brought here," said Nariman Aliev, an architect and member of the 11-man funeral commission that has helped turn this hilltop into a powerful symbol of national resistance.

Authorities say the repressive action was necessary to restore order after three days of bloody anti-Armenian pogroms in the city. They blame the bloodshed on armed "extremists" intent on an anti-Communist coup d'etat.

But most Azerbaijanis seem to be convinced that this was just an excuse. What Moscow really wants is to strangle their nascent Popular Front movement before it humiliates the party with genuine democratic elections, they say.

Either way, the scene at Kirov Park suggests that a threshold has been crossed and that there can never be a return to the days when the Communist leadership in the Kremlin held unquestioned sway over this island of Islam in the Soviet Transcaucasus.

"I too stood before the tanks," a weeping Dr. Solmas Orudjeva, 50, shouted to a reporter Sunday. "Am I an extremist?" the woman, a physician, asked sarcastically.

"Now, those who remained alive are called extremists. But our only guilt is that we stayed alive when the tanks came in. Vandals!" she raged against the Soviet troops. "Fascists!"

There was more sullenness than shouting at the park Sunday, however. By early afternoon, the line to file past the graves extended the length of the park and into a square opposite.

"You can't enter without flowers," a dark-haired Azerbaijani advised as he steered a newcomer toward a stand where other men were handing out bundles of red carnations free of charge. "Carry them like this," the guide said, placing the flowers, their petals directed downward, in the visitor's hand.

Carnations placed side by side on the ground extended the entire quarter-mile length of the park, and in that portion of the park where the victims are buried, they were piled in such numbers that they formed a thick floral fence for about 200 yards.

Mourners filed past a black booth from which a Muslim cleric chanted prayers over a loudspeaker system. Azerbaijanis are considered perhaps the most secular of all of the Soviet Union's millions of Muslims, but many Islamic traditions survive.

There was a photograph at the head of the grave of almost every victim. A young couple pictured on their wedding day, a teen-age girl in her graduating best, a small boy, a policeman.

"Of course, the victims of that day are far more numerous--maybe by 10 times--than the number of graves here," said the funeral commission's Aliev, now a former Communist. He and several other members of the commission quit the party in protest, accusing it of ultimate responsibility for what happened here.

Some of the victims were buried elsewhere in family plots, but Aliev and nearly everyone else here swears that hundreds of other bodies were destroyed, taken secretly away or simply dumped into the sea to conceal the real death toll.

Baku is under martial law, and the deputy military commander, Maj. Gen. Anatoly Kirilyuk, said in an interview Sunday that 138 people died as a result of last month's battle in the city, 106 of them civilians and the rest soldiers, internal security troops and policemen.

"Our visitors include many nationalities--Jews, Russians, Tatars," Aliev noted. "It is not just Azerbaijanis, although of course they predominate."

Do any Armenians come?

The architect smiled in surprise at the question before answering: "Nyet. "

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