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Azerbaijan Diary: a sting in the tale

© UNICEF/SWZK00256/Mollazade
Left to right: Ali, Ravvan, Faiq and Anar outside their derelict den

by Lynn Geldof
 
The trick is not to call it a drop-in centre. No self-respecting kid on the streets of Baku wants peers or family to talk of them in those terms. If you step inside The House of Light, you do so for a training course. Dignity is intact.

Four such self-respecting lads are waiting for us when we arrive. They do not eagerly anticipate our arrival, they just hope that giving these UNICEF people a slice of their daily life does not affect their earning potential for the day.

Sudaba Shiraliyeva, 43, political scientist and director of The House of Light, introduces us to Anar Hasanzade, 15, Ravvan Abdullayev, 16, Faiq Agayev, 16 and Ali Novruzov, 15. Ali is the toughest of the group, their protector for being the best at fighting other groups of Baku children who also scavenge a life on the streets. The House of Light gets modest support from here and there and from UNICEF – in the form of computers and a TV and video set.

"We clean cars, that’s how we live," Ravvan

We head out garnering intelligence on the boys’ modus operandi as we go. "We clean cars, that’s how we live," explains Ravvan. It is generally not a windscreen washing operation at traffic lights. ‘We have regular customers who park their cars and we wash them. When they leave work, they pay us." The police don’t hassle them on the proviso that they take 60% of the boys’ earnings. So net profit usually ends up as approximately a dollar per boy per day.

"No, no, no. All earnings are shared," says Ali, emphatically sweeping his arm in an inclusive circular movement of the group, when asked who earns the most. This avowed solidarity is what confers the small comfort and solace behind the life-hardened faces of the four.

Didn’t they make a killing just the other day when a cement mixer drew up outside The House of Light and asked them to clean it as it churned!  In they hopped scrabbling for balance as round and round it went - each to emerge a little queasy but a dollar richer for the effort.

Ravvan plays continuously with a solid small steel ball. Someone gave it to him. "We don’t use knives," explains Faiq, "some of the other groups do. Ravvan has the steel ball to protect us."

Exactly how the ball protects them is left hanging in the air.

"They jeer at me for not having a change of clothes." Ravvan

All the boys live with a single parent or with a grandparent, all of whom are women. Fathers have either died or left. The boys drop in and out of school. Ridicule appears to be a feature of the alienation process. "They jeer at me for not having a change of clothes. Even the principal told me not to come to school if I didn’t wear the right clothes," says the hurt-determined face of Ravvan. But is there more to this rationale? Truth and untruth appear to vie for supremacy in the boy’s faltering narrative.

© UNICEF/SWZK00257/Pirozzi
Anar, like his friends, earns money washing cars in Baku

Going to "HQ"

We pass a building site and four pairs of envious eyes watch an elderly man lower himself down into a pit in the gaping claw of an earth-digger.

We round a street corner and the boys enter their HQ – a seriously derelict and dangerous building. Anar, the smallest toughie proudly explains the circumstances of their prestigious acquisition. "There was another group of boys here when we came. We threw them out and took over," he says. The boys swarm around the area, negotiating rubble and caved-in ceilings, balancing on planks and lifting boards to display with pride a hidden cache of car-washing tools. Without a trace of irony, they complain of people littering the place in their absence.

We proceed to a restaurant of their choice in a smart part of town. It is renowned for donor kebabs. The ceilings of the restaurant are vaulted and painted duck-egg blue. Fine, if small, chandeliers enhance the effect. The arches of the ceiling meet the chunky, handsome sandstone blocks that distinguish Baku architecture. Oh yes, they’d been here before. "We gave ourselves a treat last summer after washing lots of cars," says Faiq who cannot read or write. The boys modestly order the kebabs and cokes and Fanta.

Anar is dopey, not eating. Has he been sniffing glue? We had heard they get glue from time to time. "I was up half the night watching films on TV, action films," he explains.

How do they generally spend their earnings then in these expensive times? Mostly it goes to support the family. Otherwise to buy themselves something to eat. Yeah, they do buy glue from time to time at the stationers. But not often.

And what about internet cafes? "Oh yes, for 40 cents you can go into a chat-room for an hour or play games," says Ravvan. "I like to kill terrorists." He plays Russian games like Epoch Imperia but also High Fly and Counter-Strike. "I was on a chat-line to a boy in Moscow just recently," he adds. "His family is rich and he told me to organise a passport and get to Moscow and stay with him." Ravvan has a free email address and his chat-room name is ‘Scorpion’.

Ravvan would like to marry but doesn’t imagine he’ll have the means. He would like to study and go to a good college and become a photographer or a journalist, a TV journalist who covers issues like street children because he knows about them.

Anar has managed to eat up. He is not interested in school or studying. He would just like a job. Right now he would like to produce a newspaper for street kids. Could he do it online?  Ravvan looks at him and says that it might be possible. He’d show him how to do it. But Anar would really like to join the army.

 

 
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