Azerbaijan - My First Mission

    September 2007

    'Where?' was the question I was repeatedly asked, as I announced to family and friends that I was setting off to Azerbaijan. 'Why?' followed shortly afterwards.

    A few months ago, I officially started employment at a charity where I had been a volunteer for over five years. My role was that of a field worker and development officer; someone who goes out to the various locations to review current operations and suggest improvements and new projects that effectively aids the local needy people. I was (and still am, I am reminded) the new boy and so it was decided that a senior officer, Brother Iqbal Rawat, was to accompany me to train me and supervise my development.

    Azerbaijan was my chosen location. Though there are almost 300,000 local Azeri refugees in oil-rich Azerbaijan, the report I was to file was on the situation of the Chechen refugees there.

    The Chechens left their homeland due to their being persecuted by the Russians. They fled to neighbouring Georgia, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Armenia and, of course, Azerbaijan. Approximately 3,500 Chechens have fled to Azerbaijan and have received recognised refugee status.

    Getting to Azerbaijan

    Our flight was direct from Gatwick to Baku (Azerbaijan's capital city). We noticed, alarmingly, the level of corruption immediately upon arrival. The cost of a single-entry, travel (and even business) visa for a British Citizen is £27 (approximately $54). This was not the price we were made to pay. Getting off the plane, Iqbal and I went through a maze of procedures to get a visa. This included having our passports checked, approved and stamped by passport control to get the go ahead to get a visa from the visa desk where passports are also checked, strangely, in exactly the same way. At the visa desk was a wonderfully plain laminated A4 page on display, with overly large writing stating that the price of a visa for British Citizens was $100 (approximately £50 – due to the Euro they no longer accepted Sterling). We had no choice but to pay as they absolutely refused to point to anything other than the displayed sign. When we asked for a receipt for the visas we were shooed away by the security guards without a word. Everyone working there (at 20:30 on Wednesday 8th August) was in on the scam. (I would think that parts of our Politico-judicial system would be proud of such open and notorious execution.)

    It got worse from there. From the airport we were picked up by two Azeri brothers who took us to our hotel. Upon arrival at our hotel we saw police officers apprehend two one-legged men. We didn't know what the reason was but saw them being carted off in a police van. Their treatment though not brutal, however, was strangely disconcerting. It was suggested by our guides that they may have been 'professional' beggars. These people weren't Chechens but locals. Three days later we saw these two 'beggars' in the same place again. We asked our new guide about this and he replied that they probably were beggars and the reason that the police apprehended them was, in all likelihood, to take a share of their proceeds.

    So, besides the blatant corruption, how is Azerbaijan as a place to live?

    The Azeri people, generally, were pleasant. OK, as soon as we stepped through the doors past customs, the masses stopped, and for a full silent moment, stared at us (well, I was dressed in black; with a black, bulging outdoor vest; and a long black beard – so I guess they could be excused). However, as soon as I smiled and greeted any of them, they would, with few exceptions, reply and smile back.

    The weather fluctuates between two extremes. During the summer months the heat and humidity can become overbearing, but thankfully, both are kept in check by a regular cool breeze coming in from the Caspian Sea. The wind does no favours, however, during the winter, as its chill factor can make even the winter of Moscow feel pleasant. If anyone wishes to live there then they really do need to be resilient against the weather.

    The cost of living, for people from the UK, is fairly cheap. A decent meal at a restaurant will cost you only two to four pounds. Groceries, foodstuffs, etc are really cheap when we look at it from our point of view. But what about the locals; how do they find things?

    Speaking to a local Chechen (who works as a translator and was appointed as our guide during the last day of our visit), we were told that Azerbaijan has a population of approximately 8 Million. From that, approximately 5 Million were in the city of Baku itself. The reason for this is that jobs are very hard to find anywhere else. This has created an economic imbalance in Azerbaijan; the capital at this moment cannot cope with such a number, and because of this house/property rent and prices have soared. Azerbaijan, and in particular Baku, for the majority of the locals is very expensive.

    We didn't even have to ask to see the divide between rich and poor. Everywhere we turned we saw the difference. Baku is going through a building boon. Whichever direction is faced the sight of scaffolding and building work greets the eyes. On the business side, high-rise buildings are dotting the landscape as Baku races to try to compete with Dubai. On the personal side, those with money spend lavishly in transforming their family homes into three-storied villas with luxurious external architecture (as we weren't invited into any of these buildings, we can't comment on the décor and trimmings there).

    That was the state of the rich, now what about the poor? In the shadow of these three-storied villas, almost obscured from view, the true state of Azerbaijan is seen. The less well off live in squalor. Grime covered buildings with broken and dilapidated wares come into sharp focus when one looks towards the needy. For $80,000 one can buy a three roomed (only two bedrooms) flat, which otherwise costs $250 a month to rent. The fact that the refugees get no more than $100 a month shows that they particularly suffer. Locals earn wages that allow them to make ends meet comfortably but not enough to pull themselves out of the slums.

    UWT's Involvement

    The primary aim of this visit was to ensure the correct procedural distribution of funds for the Chechen orphans who have been sponsored. Here, UWT works in hand with a reliable charity called IHH from Turkey. IHH oversees the support of up to 270 (minimum 250) orphans in Baku, of which 150 are through UWT.

    The sponsorship rate for a Chechen orphan in Azerbaijan is £25 ($50) per month. This, as we have seen, is good enough to provide food but affords no help to the children's mothers/guardians in paying the rent. Not all the 150 orphans are specifically sponsored by donors, most are through generic donations. While this temporarily serves the need, it is very much needed that people step up and help through sponsorship.

    There is no orphanage in Azerbaijan. UWT's partner charity I.H.H. has, however, opened a school in Baku. This functions as much more than a school, as because there are so few men among the refugees, the teachers/workers at the school also form the council for the refugee community, with many of their issues being brought here to have resolved.

    It was what happened here, at this school from which many of my more vivid memories of Azerbaijan come.

    Most of the orphans sponsored have either no parents at all or only the mother to look after them, those with no parents are looked after by other relatives.

    One such example, that will never leave me, was when we met an elderly lady who had lost her five sons and her son-in-law in the war. She lived with her daughter and together they looked after nine children. She told us her story (through our local Azeri translator) with a fierce pride which stated that whatever had happened to her sons she would always be proud of them. She told us of her family life back in Chechnya, and of how her peaceful life in a mountainous village was shattered when the Russian army came one day and without provocation started raining missiles and spraying bullets over their village. Tears welled up in her eyes where she recalled how her sons had grabbed their rifles to save their family. She stopped, and then thanked us for coming and showing support. She bade us to take her greetings and news of her prayers back to those who continue to support her needy people. She paused, resignedly, and said, 'With God's help we'll get by.'

    After she left, we were told by others that one of her sons' head had been left by the Russians to be found just outside their village: nothing else; just his head.

    There were many other similar stories, where even the children vividly remember what had happened against their fathers and in some cases even their mothers.

    A five year old toddler, by the name of Muhammad, was brought before us by his grandmother. Our translator softly told us his story. Muhammad was only five months old when his father was killed. His mother had escaped and was forced to move from place to place until when he was 2 and a half, she decided to try to cross the border into Azerbaijan. At the Russian side he and his mother were separated and he was found two days later by a tourist inside a dog kennel. He was agonisingly close to starvation and covered in animal waste. As he was nursed back to health he refused to talk to any body. It was only afterwards when a news channel was reporting on torture and brutality and at their showing a scene of a man getting viciously beaten did he say in a quite voice, 'That was what happened to my mother.'

    Officials at the school say that it seems the child has not come to understand that his mother has died. Anytime he is given something, be it a sweet, he will always try to save some of it. When asked why, he will defiantly say, 'I am keeping it for my mother, for when she comes and finds me.'

    More Problems

    As mentioned before, price of accommodation is a significant burden for those suffering poverty. Add to that, very poor, yet very expensive medical assistance, and a high dose of insecurity, and the result amounts to a very big problem.

    Chechens refugees move between countries. The reason that many have not settled in a specific place to rebuild their lives is because they do not feel safe. The lack of security is due to some Chechen families recently going missing and being found dead in politically sensitive areas. To understand this, one needs to understand the political area and its history.

    The Chechens left their homeland due to their being persecuted by the Russians. The Azerbaijan government and people have always welcomed the Chechens who they have felt sympathetic towards. Azerbaijan itself is not entirely safe, as approximately 10% of its land mass is under the occupation of Armenia. The Armenians are backed by not only the US and Russia but also by much of the Christian world and also by some factions within Iran, who are ill-disposed towards the Sunni Chechens taking refuge in the 50-50 passive country of Azerbaijan. Frankly put, almost everyone apart from the Azerbaijani people, do not want the Chechens there. The simple solution is thus to create distrust between the Azerbaijanis and the Chechens in whichever way they can to try to break the relationships. Many incidents have happened but have been unsuccessful. However, kidnappings and killings do exist and this is what the Chechen refugees fear, as they are unable to defend themselves. It is also because of this that Most have asked that we do not use their real names. Who is doing this, is unclear.

    The able-bodied, male, Chechen refugee population is very small. In fact, they are only a handful. There are approximately 30 who are either seriously injured or ill. We went to an 'office' that was called 'Salaam'. This 'office' was in a miserable residential building, where a one-legged Chechen gentleman worked keeping records of the families in Baku. He had heard of our coming from our guide beforehand and as we entered we witnessed him move remarkable swiftly around his coffee-table desk to greet us. We started to move towards him to prevent him from taking the trouble and to save our selves from further discomfiture. He, however, gestured that we remain where we were and take our seats.

    The gentleman told us in detail of the problems that many of the injured and infirm Chechens faced. Amputees were forced to carry on with their lives with either no artificial limbs or old, worn out ones which, at any moment, could give way under them. The limbs of some of these victims had not even been amputated properly. Some were known to have infections and were in critical need of help to prevent the fatal spread of gangrene and septicaemia.

    Effects of war were not the only problems as some refugees were also suffering from cancer, TB and other serious ailments.

    These problems were not only among the adults, but many children were also afflicted by the same problems as the adults.

    The lack of decent medical facilities in Azerbaijan meant that they could not get the required treatment locally. On top of that the combined cost of travel and treatment anywhere else, made all hope of a remedy futile.

    Iqbal and I were thoroughly depressed on hearing about the helplessness of the abandoned and forgotten Chechens; how despite our working there and having representatives through which support maybe could be reached, we were still were so ignorant of their plight.

    On the way back to our room we were discussing the situation of the people, when Iqbal asked our Chechen guide if there were more disabled or invalid Chechens in Azerbaijan. He sharply looked away from us and went silent (as this was in the middle of a conversation it really struck us). As I was in the front seat of the car I could see his watery eyes as he paused. He answered in a lowered voice, that barely two months ago a man from Canada had come and had requested him to show him the state of his people. As he took this person around, he too grew increasingly aware of the sheer extent of their suffering. The Chechen refugees had some element within them that would prevent them from even discuss their ailments among themselves. He was certain that despite 'Salaam's' efforts in trying to represent their full community, he knew only too well that many, if not most of the cases were concealed even from them. Only a few of perhaps the most excruciating of cases were recorded by them.

    Stepping up to Help

    We noticed many things on our short visit to Azerbaijan. Some that filled the heart with hope. That happened whenever we saw an orphan smile. It was truly an immense moment every time we saw a child's smile radiate through his/her pained face.

    Not all of what we saw was so wondrous. The Chechen refugees were in need and there was no escaping that. Their fundamental needs were in three main areas: financial support, education, and empowerment.

    Support in the financial area includes: continuous orphan sponsorships; family sponsorships - in helping Chechen families meet their rent and have food; and medical support – which includes transport and in some cases, the purchasing of prosthetic limbs.

    Education means to help support the school which currently needs help, as the age differences between the students widens, and as such more classes and courses are needed. The group overlooking the school had suggested that if it were possible a few students should also be sent abroad to learn necessary skills to help their community.

    Empowerment means that skills training and vocational courses are provided to some of the adults (or as many of them as possible) immediately. With this, the Chechens can eventually take themselves out of poverty and help support themselves and others in the community.

    The outcome of meeting these remarkable people – remarkable as they had gone through so much, and already they were ready to forget their trauma and move forward – was seeing their thirst in becoming independent. They left their homes with nothing. They are now refugees with nothing. The only thing they wish for is an opportunity to get on the ladder of self-sufficiency. They ask us to provide this one opportunity.

    Ebrahim Moosa - UWT Field Worker & Development Officer