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Giving Up Their Homes for a Song

With police at the ready, Baku evicts families and razes residences to make way for Eurovision.

by Shahla Sultanova 7 March 2012

BAKU | On 14 May 2011, Emil Azizov and his family spent the evening raptly watching the Eurovision Song Contest finals on television. “When we heard Azerbaijan winning, we screamed with joy, we were so happy,” he recalled.

 

As a result of what happened that night, Eurovision 2012 will take place in Baku on 22-26 May. Also as a result, scores of families were forced to leave their homes. Last week the Azizovs were among the final residents evicted from buildings near Baku’s National Flag Square, where Crystal Hall is being built to host the gala event.

 

“We would never have imagined that the victory would destroy our houses and leave us without shelter,” said Azizov, a commander in Azerbaijan’s navy

 

The homes were razed as part of an extensive beautification and construction campaign by Azerbaijani authorities to ready the city for its unprecedented moment in the international spotlight (see slide show below). But the works are also bringing attention of a less welcome sort. On 29 February Human Rights Watch issued a report on the demolitions and evictions, its second in two weeks on the subject, accusing the officials of violating national and international laws that set strict conditions for forced evictions by the state. Some local organizations have also protested.

 

“The Azerbaijani government is not just demolishing homes, it’s destroying peoples’ lives,” wrote Jane Buchanan, a Europe and Central Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of that group’s report. At a subsequent press conference, Buchanan said, “Those who lost their homes and suffered emotionally should be compensated fairly.”

 

Families living near Flag Square in Baku’s prosperous Bayil district were told by city officials last fall of plans to clear their homes to make way for the Eurovision construction. Those who lived in houses owned by Azerbaijan's navy, like the Azizovs, were offered 10,000 manats ($12,700) each in compensation. Those in privately owned flats received 1,500 manats ($1,900) per square meter, which residents and Human Rights Watch contend is well below the market rate in the waterfront area.

 

During a brief interview on 27 February as families were being evicted from the remains of a high-rise apartment building, Zulfali Ismayilov, the senior city hall official in charge of the reconstruction effort, said the compensation offered residents was fair and sufficient to find lodging in the capital.

 

“These buildings must be destroyed due to state need. All residents should obey that rule,” Ismayilov said. “They aren’t leaving their houses because they are greedy. They want more. We paid them according to the market price.”

 

Ismayilov would not answer any additional questions from a reporter. But when a member of one of the last families in the building said she would immolate herself if police came to forcibly remove her, Ismayilov offered to help her do so.

 

FROZEN OUT

 

Though they did not own their homes on Agil Guliev Street, Emil Azizov said he and his immediate neighbors invested their own money in fixing up houses they received from the navy as “only empty, ugly walls.” His wife, a noncommissioned naval officer, took a second job as a cleaner to earn enough “to make those walls a house for us to live in,” he said.

 

Azizov dismissed the 10,000 manat payment as “ridiculous” but said most of the 30 families in the navy-owned housing accepted it, not trusting that they’d get a better offer. His and two other families stayed.

 

In October, the street’s gas, electricity, and water supplies were cut off. The three families illegally tapped the power supply from a neighboring building and brought home water in buckets. During the ensuing winter, the coldest in Baku in a century, “the water we kept in buckets froze,” Azizov recounted.

 

He and another holdout, Ilgar Allahverdiev, lost a court case to stop the evictions. Their first attorney, Bakhtiyar Mammadov, was arrested in late December after the naval official handling the relocation process accused the lawyer of seeking a bribe. Mammadov’s attorney, Anar Gasimov, said his client was prosecuted for defending the residents, not just in court but by writing “media articles portraying the injustice those families face.”

 

Attorney Shefa Jamalzade, who took over the cases, said the judge “played a game” in order to deny Allahverdiev’s claim, ruling that the paperwork he received when he moved into his flat in 2006 was invalid, ignoring a three-year statute of limitations for nullifying such documents.

 

In Azizov’s case, the judge ordered the eviction and awarded him 118 manats ($150) a month in addition to the original 10,000 to rent an apartment until new military flats under construction are ready. But Jamalzade said the new housing will not be completed before December, when Azizov is due to retire from his naval commission and will no longer be eligible for military housing or the accompanying rental subsidies.

 

In the meantime, Azizov said he has been demoted by the navy to a position that pays 100 manats less a month, and his wife, a 19-year military employee, has been getting citations at work for offenses such as arriving three minutes late.

 

The three holdout families were warned by the city to leave by the morning of 29 February. Two days before that, Emil Azizov was arrested and briefly detained for protesting at his house. On the 28th about three dozen special-forces police officers surrounded the homes and demanded the families leave. Their belongings were forcibly removed, as were Ilgar Allahverdiev’s elderly parents and his brother, an invalid. Workers began demolishing the Azizovs’ house while the family, including their two children, were still inside.

 

The families are now living in rented apartments, the Azizovs paying $200 a month, the Allahverdievs $300.

 

COMMANDEERING THE VIEW

 

The Mammadzade family was one of the last to leave a nine-story apartment complex just off Flag Square. Built in 1987 for military officers who were given an option to buy their units after the end of communism, the apartments offered commanding views over the Caspian Sea and to central Baku. Matanat Mammadzade said the State Property Issues Committee told residents that they had to be razed for Eurovision because it “blocks the view from Crystal Hall.”

 

Until last fall, 72 families lived in the building. About half were out by January, with the last holdouts evicted on 27 February. The Mammadzades left in mid-February.

 

“They cut our gas, electricity, and water supply. They were destroying the house while we were still inside,” Matanat Mammadzade said. “My family was stressed out all the time, but we took all this and didn’t leave. But when they destroyed the sewerage system, the house stank. Then I couldn’t stand it.”

 

Now the family lives in Ahmadli, about 10 miles from Bayil, in a rental house that costs 300 manats ($381) a month. At the set government compensation rate of 1,500 manats per square meter, the Mammadzades received 117,000 manats ($148,000) for their flat in Bayil. They say that does not come close to matching prices in booming central Baku; even in their new neighborhood on the outskirts they will have to borrow 20,000 manats to buy a place – a financial stretch given that Matanat’s husband, Etibar, the family’s sole breadwinner, earns 800 manats a month.

 

“I am a refugee in my own country, in my city,” she said. “I used to see people leaving their homes because of the conflict with the Armenians. My own nation made me a refugee.”

 

The Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy, a civic organization, asked two local real estate firms to research prices in the neighborhood. One of them valued the Mammadzades’ apartment at 146,000 manats ($185,000). The second firm estimated the market rate for property there at 1,700 ($2,150) to 2,100 ($2,660) manats per square meter. 

 

“No matter what the condition of the house was, all apartment owners were given 1,500 manats for each square meter,” said Zohrab Ismayil, the center’s head. “They have not been shown any documentation proving on what basis they were evicted and how [city officials] decided to offer them only 1,500.”

 

The Huseynov family received 105,000 manats ($133,000) for their flat in the high-rise. They were offered a choice between compensation at the government rate or a new house in Baku’s Padamdar district, about three miles west of their old apartment. “Those homes are in horrible condition, as if they built the entire house overnight,” said Mehman Huseynov. “We had neighbors who agreed to move into those houses instead of getting compensation. All of them complain.”

 

Like the Mammadzades, the Huseynovs moved out to Ahmadli and are renting an apartment. And unlike most of Azerbaijan, they will not be tuned in when the international song contest is broadcast in May from Crystal Hall.

 

“Eurovision made me leave my beautiful apartment. It caused my children so much stress. They destroyed it when my kids were inside,” Mehman Huseynov said. “We simply cannot watch it.”

Shahla Sultanova is a freelance journalist in Baku.

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