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The Wrong Side of the Tracks

TOL slide show: The residents of Baku’s “Shanghai” settlement don’t like living a few feet from passing freight trains – but they like being kicked out even less.

by Abbas Atilay 7 September 2010

BAKU | The houses in “Shanghai” are very close together – one reason the residents of this neighborhood in the Nizami district not far from central Baku named it after the crowded Chinese city. Tiny dwellings cluster around small shared yards. The two lines of homes are separated by a narrow alley through which freight trains rumble all day, two or three times an hour.

 

Freight trains traversing Baku's Shanghai neighborhood sometimes pass within a meter of occupied homes. Photo by Abbas Atilay.

 

When they do, everything in Shanghai stops. In some places the trains pass within a meter of the houses, and there isn’t room to do more than step aside and wait for them to pass. Children scamper off the tracks, their only playground. Residents say there are two or three accidents a year, usually causing serious injury, most involving kids.

 

Shanghai sprang up alongside the rails in the 1950s and ’60s in an otherwise industrial area of Azerbaijan’s capital, housing workers at the nearby oil refinery, meatpacking, paper, and tobacco plants, and other, small factories. Only the refinery and tobacco plant are still operating, and today about 2,000, mostly low-income people live in the residential strip.

 

Many say they would leave if they could afford it. Soon they might not have a choice. At the behest of Azerbaijan State Railway, a government commission formed this year to deal with the country’s hundreds of thousands of illegally built houses has slated the Shanghai homes for demolition.


 

“We submitted photos and copies of registration documents of these buildings to the commission, as the houses located near the railway impede the normal movement of freight trains,” said Nadir Azmammadov, a spokesman for the railway. “We think the buildings were built illegally … but the final decision will be made by the cabinet.”

 

Building so close to the railroad tracks is indeed illegal, but denizens of Shanghai insist their homes aren’t. And as much as some might like to leave, they complain bitterly about being forced to do so. Residents say the houses received proper municipal permits at the time of construction (in Soviet-era Baku, they note, it would have been virtually impossible to build something that escaped official notice), and their addresses have been officially registered for decades.

 

Almost as worrying to Shanghai residents as the demolition order is the lack of information so far on what help they might get if evicted. The South Caucasus Network of Human Rights Defenders says they are entitled to remuneration or new homes. Azmammadov said the question of compensation is up to the commission on illegal housing. Residents say they have been told only that the houses must go, not what they might get in return.

 

“My house is small, but I know I’ve got a house,” said Rasul Mirzoyev, who has lived all his 49 years in a 26-square-meter home by the tracks. “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

Abbas Atilay is a correspondent in Baku for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani Service.

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