Guivami Rahimli: Thomas Goltz – lover of Azerbaijan to the last breath
Thomas Goltz was a war journalist with his firsthand reports from conflict zones, having the right skills, at the right time, in the right place, giving passion to the unique stories that crossed his path.
Thomas was one of very few Western journalists that witnessed Azerbaijan’s emergence into independence in the tough period of the early 1990s.
Being a foreign journalist, Thomas Goltz met and interviewed the late national patriarch Heydar Aliyev in his hometown Nakhchivan in 1991. Heydar Aliyev had once been one of the most influential leaders of the Soviet Union with wealth of political experience uniquely equipped to lead Azerbaijan through the many crises facing the country and during these hard-bitten times, he had returned from Moscow, to rescue his country, not letting the war in Karabakh tear the nation apart.
In his ”Azerbaijan Diary”, a fascinating account of Azerbaijan’s path to independence from the perspective of a foreigner, Thomas Goltz tells the story of Azerbaijan’s struggle to survive and establish itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He visited the town of Khojaly very shortly before the massacre of Azerbaijanis, brutally ending the lives of 613 civilians in February 1992. Thomas was one of the first to alert the international media about this hair-raising event in Khojaly in ”Azerbaijan Diary”.
Thomas gave an undivided loyalty to any unjustly treated people, whether they were Chechens, Turks, Iraqi Kurds, Georgians, or the people of Azerbaijan. It was his mission to disseminate his knowledge about violation of rights and crimes that he witnessed, and he actively lectured at universities, think-tanks, and government institutions.
Once at the meeting in the George Washington University one of the participants from the Armenian lobby asked Thomas Goltz, the author of the books, – ”Azerbaijan Diary”, ”Chechnya Diary”, and ”Georgia Diary”:
“When will you write a book on Armenia”? and Thomas immediately retorted, “I did already; it’s called Azerbaijan Diary”. Thomas always thundered, especially when it came to talking about Azerbaijan.
Thomas Goltz witnessed the most historical moments in Azerbaijan, and I was honoured to have had opportunities to meet Thomas on several occasions.
One memorable meeting I recall distinctly was related to the arrangements of his famous “Oil Odyssey” event in 2000 – a 1700 km journey through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Türkiye by old Soviet-era motorcycles with sidecars, delivering the goods – and for the record, long before sanctioning the BTC pipeline project.
For many years, the critics of BTC project referred to it mockingly as the ”pipeline to nowhere,” trying to ignore the unflagging efforts of the President Heydar Aliyev, to promote the ”do-ability” of the BTC.
Traveling down the pipeline route and delivering the first symbolic barrel of Azeri Light crude oil from Baku to Ceyhan and publicizing this route, was Goltz’s contribution to BTC and played its part in the realization of what is now a ”pipeline to somewhere”.
The other meetings with Thomas related to his favorite topic: Karabakh, the territory that was under the occupation of Armenian forces. In those tough times in 1997, bp launched the Children’s Mugham Festival project – the competition of young mugham singers. Most of the talented children were from internally displaced families from Karabakh, the cradle of the most sophisticated form of Azerbaijani national music, and mugham competition designed to help the displaced kids to maintain their identity.
Later, my good old friend Jeffrey Werbock, an American devotee of the Azerbaijani mugham, who was part of a jury at the children’s mugham competition, traveled to the refugee camps in search of talented young mugham performers for the final round of the Children’s Mugham Festival.
This trip inspired Jeffrey to make a documentary film about Azerbaijani children who could sing mugham. And in 2008, together with Thomas Goltz, who has produced video documentaries on a range of subjects for ABC, BBC and CBS, Jeffrey visited the refugee camps again, working on a documentary film, called “Young Voices, Ancient Song”: a 53-minute documentary that took 8 years to finalise.
And for me it was a great pleasure to work on this film with these two professionals – Jeffrey and Thomas. The documentary was a great success, and was screened in London, Baku, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Ottawa.
But before this success, Thomas Goltz had already produced a 15-minute documentary about Mugham which won an Award of Merit in the short film documentary category at the La Jolia, California 2009 Accolade Film Festival.
Meeting Thomas was always unforgettable. With his wide, bald scalp, and a set off bushy eyebrows and an even bushier moustache, he cut an imposing legendary image of Robin Hood, actively fighting for justice.
As recently as May 2023, Thomas visited liberated Shusha in Karabakh and saw the refugees and displaced families returning to their homes. He was lover of Azerbaijan to the last breath and passed away on July 29, 2023; and his last trip was to Karabakh.
President Ilham Aliyev in a letter of condolence to Thomas Goltz’ family said that “the articles, books he wrote and films he made about the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict … made an invaluable contribution to conveying the true voice of Azerbaijan to the world.”
PhD, Professor at Baku State University
Senior Government Affairs Advisor,
bp Azerbaijan-Georgia-Türkiye region
This article originally was published by AzerTac on September 18, 2023.