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Novruz, under Coronavirus lockdown

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For the first time in Azerbaijan’s history perhaps the most important and beloved holiday in the country was marked amid a quarantine.

Translated from Persian, the word Novruz means “new day”. It coincides with the day of the vernal equinox, which falls on 20-21 March each year. Novruz is a holiday that signals the arrival of spring according to the astronomical solar calendar of Iranian, Kurdish and Turkic peoples. Although Novruz is mainly marked in Muslim countries, it has nothing to do with Islam and is considered a religious holiday derived from Zoroastrianism.

Novruz without its traditional festivities

At the state level, Novruz is marked in the Central Asian countries, Azerbaijan, Albania, and Macedonia.

In 2009, Novruz was included in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Ever since, 21 March was declared International Day of Nowruz.

Novruz has been marked in Azerbaijan for five to six millennia now. A ban on celebrations, which was lifted in 1988, existed in Soviet times.. Since the day Azerbaijan gained independence, the official Novruz holiday season has been five days long. This year, the holiday season includes the period between 20 March and 28 March. However, Azerbaijanis spent these eight days at home due to the quarantine because of the coronavirus.

How is Novruz normally marked?

Preparations for Novruz begin a month in advance. Tuesdays are celebrated in the run-up to the holiday. The first Tuesday of Novruz – “Su Chershenbesi” (Water Tuesday) – falls on the last Tuesday of February. It is followed by “Od Chershenbesi” (Fire Tuesday) and “Yel Chershenbesi” (Wind Tuesday).

According to old beliefs, on “Water Tuesday” rivers are freed from their icy cover, on “Fire Tuesday” bonfires need to be made to warm the earth. On “Wind Tuesday” the breath of spring renews our spirit and, finally, on the last Tuesday the earth awakens from winter. It is believed that on the last Tuesday, soil is ready to be cultivated and sowing can begin. The last pre-Novruz chershenbe is marked on the last pre-holiday Tuesday. This year it fell on 17 March.

Since the holiday originates from fire worship, fire is one of the main symbols of Novruz. On all pre-Novruz Tuesdays and on the actual holiday evening, it is customary to make bonfires as dusk sets in and jump over them while uttering the words, “let all my hardships burn in the fire.”

A Novruz bonfire

A Novruz bonfire

Source: Meydan TV

On 20 March, the Baku Boulevard and Fountains Square in the center of the capital city host grand-scale public festivities, a festive fair, and concerts.

How was it marked this year?

On 10 March Azerbaijanis learned that there would be no traditional boisterous celebrations or festivities in the country. It was on that day that the government announced that all traditional Novruz festivities were cancelled.

Preventive measures taken in Azerbaijan as a result of the Covid-19 global pandemic made traditional Novruz festivities impossible.

True, Baku’s central streets were traditionally decorated for the holiday, but they were empty. There were not too many people at the capital city’s marketplaces, which are normally crowded and packed with customers during Novruz.

From 19 to 29 March, public transportation services between towns and regions of the country are stopped. Therefore, many people have had to give up on plans to travel to the districts to celebrate the Novruz holiday with relatives.

There was no one at cafes and restaurants, which closed at 2100 on 20 March in line with quarantine regulations. But there were not too many customers in them even before that either.

Things were slightly different on Novruz on the outskirts of the Azerbaijani capital. In some parts of Baku’s dormitory areas people still made traditional bonfires. Someone even ventured out together with their children.

A market in Baku

A market in Baku

Source: Meydan TV

Yet another one of numerous Novruz traditions is the following: On the holiday evening, children knock on neighbors’ doors, put hats at their doorsteps and hide. The owners of those houses are supposed to return the hats with Novruz sweets in them and, sometimes, money. This time round, children wore medical masks when putting hats at doorsteps. An Azerbaijani Facebook user even joked that they had stockpiled on masks, alcohol and sanitizers especially for this Novruz. The user planned to put those items, not traditional sweets, in kids’ hats, and advised others to follow suit.

Although the virus has driven Novruz from the streets into homes, Azerbaijanis are trying to mark their holiday the best way they can. This time, they are doing it quietly, surrounded by their families.

“The virus is out there, there is nothing you can do about it. But you cannot forget about Novruz either. After all, it is such a big part of our culture. You need to mark it, but take all precautions,” a man who lives in one of Baku’s dormitory areas tells us by a Novruz bonfire.

/With the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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Baku: City of Millionaires and Slums

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Baku: City of Millionaires and Slums – A special report by hromadske

Of the countries formed after the fall of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is considered one of the richest – all thanks to its oil and gas reserves. Its capital city Baku hosts the Formula One races and invites Lady Gaga to perform at the new stadium opening ceremony. It seems almost irrelevant that, for the third decade running, the country is ruled over by the Aliyev dynasty. And while Azerbaijan boasts some of the worst scores in international corruption and freedom of speech ratings, could it be that, similar to the Gulf States, civil liberties are a small price to pay for overall prosperity and generous welfare handouts? What lies behind the skyscrapers and fancy residentials? How much of the oil profits actually reach the population? And does all this prosperity benefit the refugees and displaced persons of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, 25 years since the violence subsided? Find out in this Hromadske special, reporting from Baku, Azerbaijan.

“I’ll find you where you are: in the darkest depths, under land or water, in the Caspian deeps.” The mid-century Soviet oilman song pours from the speakers. A giant Azerbaijani flag waves over Azneft square in central Baku. This section of the waterfront is a real showcase: the view includes the Four Seasons Hotel, the pristine and vigilantly guarded Presidential Palace up the street, and is topped with the Flame Towers – three skyscrapers resembling three tongues of fire. At night, they light up in the colors of the Azeri flag, and serve to remind the world that Azerbaijan is home to history’s first oil well, commercial oil production having been introduced here as early as the mid-eighteen hundreds. Upon regaining its independence in the 1990s, Azerbaijan set about signing billion-dollar contracts with Western oil companies. The subsequent decade was marked by vigorous construction work, courtesy of the newly acquired petrodollar.

A view of the seafront and Flame Towers in Baku, Azerbaijan, on August 29, 2019.

A view of the seafront and Flame Towers in Baku, Azerbaijan, on August 29, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Baku now hosts the Formula One races. Lady Gaga performs at the 2015 European Games opening ceremony. The Heydar Aliyev Center, dedicated to current leader Ilham Aliyev’s father, ex-president and ex-First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan SSR Heydar Aliyev, was designed by the late Zaha Hadid, one of the world’s most prominent architects. In 2014, it won the Design Museum’s Design of the Year Award.

This picture shows the Heydar Aliyev Center, which was designed by architect Zaha Hadid, in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 29.

This picture shows the Heydar Aliyev Center, which was designed by architect Zaha Hadid, in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 29.

Source: Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

The Black and the White City

“There used to be an industrial park here, factories and refineries, too,” comments Baku-based photographer Bashir Kitachayev as we stroll down the Black City. At least, that is the old name, the one commemorated by Georgian-born Russian writer Boris Akunin in his book “The Black City”. But this stretch of land, conveniently located both near the sea and the city centre, is the White City now. Gone are the old buildings, and in their stead, modern multi-storey residentials have been erected “in the French style”, as they call it here. Construction works began in 2000, yet most of the flats remain uninhabited  property here is simply too expensive.

Standing right across the road is a rundown one-storey building reminiscent of a slum. In Baku, these districts are known as “nakhalstroy”, or “insolent construction”. Many of them sprouted up in the early 1990s, when the capital was flooded with refugees from Armenia, and also Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijani region annexed by Armenia.

In another such settlement, referred to on the map of Baku as “Khutor” (the Ukrainian word for hamlet), there are more people outside in a narrow sidestreet than on the sprawling boulevard of the White City.

A side street in the Khutor settlement in Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

A side street in the Khutor settlement in Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Rosa, a local, is 75. She approaches us to lament over her meager pension, which is only enough to pay the bills, and that light and gas are prohibitively expensive. She shows us her room, where she lives cooped up with her daughter, two sons, and several grandsons. Thirty years ago, she worked as a kindergarten teacher in neighboring Armenia, but had to flee because of the war. The violent phase of the conflict ended 25 years ago, in 1994. She says she was never offered to move out of Khutor.

75-year old Rosa lives in Khutor, and complains that her pension is only enough to pay the bills, Azerbaijan, 30 August 2019

75-year old Rosa lives in Khutor, and complains that her pension is only enough to pay the bills, Azerbaijan, 30 August 2019

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Khutor residents treat journalists with some caution, and ask us where we are from before agreeing to talk. According to Freedom House, Azerbaijan is among the most repressive countries in the world for freedom of speech. Independent media is nonexistent, while journalists always run the risk of landing behind bars.

We meet Nazim, a middle-aged man who once lived in Kherson, Ukraine, before returning to Baku to tend to his sick father. He welcomes us in and offers tea. The flat is tiny, with a small kitchen, his large family call it home. His wife occasionally enters to tell us how comfortably they live, and to praise President Ilham Aliyev. They, too, have not been offered alternative housing arrangements.

Nazim and his wife invited us in for a cup of tea in Khutor, Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Nazim and his wife invited us in for a cup of tea in Khutor, Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

The authorities have been tearing down such districts since the mid-2000s, especially those in prime locations, by the sea or downtown. The inhabitants are relocated to the outskirts, and some find this to be a good thing. An example of this is the notorious Sovietsky district in central Baku. It was well known throughout the 1990s for its gangland showdowns, and “Sovietsky boys” made good enforcers for the local mafia. The district has since been leveled and replaced by a public park.

Azerbaijani law stipulates that the state is under an obligation to compensate any loss of property at market value. Yet according to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report on the forceful eviction of Baku denizens, the compensations offered were often incommensurably small, no more than €2,000. Yet those who refused could be left with nothing at all.

A sidestreet in Khutor village, Azerbaijan on August 30 2019.

A sidestreet in Khutor village, Azerbaijan on August 30 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

The Three Comrades

The district of Darnagul is a nakhalstroy based on Khrushchev-era apartment blocks. Balconies of brick, wood, plastic, weatherboard, or rusty metal, the ground strewn with cotton left to sun-dry. The people inhabiting these houses are refugees. A young man offers to give us a tour, and we see a communal kitchen with leaking pipes, a sewage system in disrepair, a washroom with shards of glass scattered on the floor, moldy walls. One woman tells us that she has been on the waiting-list for 26 years, but should be receiving a new flat “anytime soon now”.

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Nakhalstroy in Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, Darnagul, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

“This is a vulture, here is a golden eagle, two more eagles there, pheasants as well,” Eldaniz Imanogly points each bird out to us. He is no refugee, but a Nagorno-Karabakh war veteran. Right outside of his home stands a memorial he has built in honor of his three fallen comrades. Next to it is a small zoo for children. The birds and landscape are intended to resemble the trees and mountains of Karabakh. Imanogly fought in the war from 1991 to 1996. He received three injuries from sniper fire, and now has a sever disability. He has been working on the Karabakh memorial for two decades now.

“I vowed: If any of you dies as a hero, I promise that – if I survive, if I do not die as a shaheed – I will build a monument for you. This I promise you. Then I saw them in a dream, and they said to me: ‘Dear one, make it so that we are pleased’. So I planted all of this so that they have a nice view.”

Karabakh war veteran Eldaniz Imanogly constructed a memorial outside his house in honor of his three fallen comrades, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Karabakh war veteran Eldaniz Imanogly constructed a memorial outside his house in honor of his three fallen comrades, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Karabakh war veteran Eldaniz Imanogly constructed a memorial outside his house in honor of his three fallen comrades, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Karabakh war veteran Eldaniz Imanogly constructed a memorial outside his house in honor of his three fallen comrades, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Eldaniz lives in a single-bedroom flat opposite his monument. He insists that he wants nothing from the state, not a house or a car, not even a better pension (he receives 400 Manat, or 200 Euro). What he does want is for the government to invest in state-of-the-art weaponry: “For the Azerbaijanis of the world, the war is not yet over. We can forgive the Armenian who lives abroad, but those who laid hands on our homeland, on our children and our elderly, those we do not forgive. It says ‘Death to Armenians’ right here,” he points to the monument.

A small children's zoo next to the memorial, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

A small children’s zoo next to the memorial, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Nearby residents admit they were annoyed at first. Over the years, though, most have grown to respect Eldaniz and his monument, taken in by the man’s open and kind personality. “He has a deep love for all of our national heroes. That’s why he brought all of these stones. He didn’t get help from a single organization. He brought them all by himself, on his own back” says one of his neighbors.

A vulture adorns Eldaniz Imanogly's memorial, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

A vulture adorns Eldaniz Imanogly’s memorial, Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Millionaire officials and the semifeudal provinces.

“No, we regular citizens of Azerbaijan do not see our country as very rich at all. Of course, we have the oil profits. Yes, roads and institutions are constructed. But if you imagine a pyramid, very little actually makes it down the walls to the common people,” asserts political analyst Shahin Rzayev.

He illustrates with public healthcare, which is free in name only. For instance, when calling an ambulance, “palms must always be greased, otherwise they might not come next time”.

Indeed, as we drive past a state hospital, one of our companions quips: “You get admitted with a cut or a nosebleed, you sign out with cancer”. Over the next few days in Baku, we hear the same joke in reference to a number of medical institutions.

Political expert Shahin Rzayev in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 31, 2019.

Political expert Shahin Rzayev in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 31, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Togrul Mashally, economist, explains the difference between Azerbaijan and oil majors such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia: with all of Baku’s aspirations to resemble its Gulf counterparts, in Azerbaijan, the state prefers to finance the construction of parks, airports, and skyscrapers while turning a blind eye on social concerns.

When oil prices fell in 2014, living standards plummeted. The Azerbaijani economy is dependent on oil and gas, which make up 92% of all its export. Before September 2019, the average countrywide wage was $317. The minimum wage, raised recently, was less than in neighboring Armenia, which Azerbaijan is still at war with.

There are many Western consulting firms, such as McKinsey, operating in Azerbaijan. The government commissions architects from Europe for its building projects. And while such specialists are handsomely compensated for their work, their input is usually limited to planning or designing strategies, not actually investing in the country.

Economist Togrul Mashally speaks to Hromadske in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 31, 2019.

Economist Togrul Mashally speaks to Hromadske in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 31, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Construction similarly contributes little to economic development: the market is dominated by three or four large holding companies with ties to relevant state officials.

“Any construction company needs to be licensed by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which is headed by Kamaleddin Heydarov, himself believed to be one of the country’s most affluent developers,” says Mashally, and goes on to clarify: “According to the State Statistics Committee, there are no millionaires in Azerbaijan. It is no secret, however, that the holding companies belong to a number of officials – ministers and deputy ministers doubling as major stakeholders in these companies. Corruption is rooted in government tenders, not bribes, yet the corresponding information is closed to the public.”

Oil derricks near public beach in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Oil derricks near public beach in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 30, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

For Mashally, an over-regulated business environment and the corruption implicit are the reason why many Azerbaijanis choose to set up shop abroad despite the country’s bountiful resources. Government agencies see their purpose as essentially punitive, fines are slapped preemptively, whereas proving one’s case in court is expensive. Better to go into business elsewhere, say, Georgia or Russia.

According to official census data, Georgia and Russia are currently home to 280,000 and 600,000 Azerbaijani citizens respectively. The overall population of Azerbaijan is roughly 10 million.

“Around here, every other household has someone working in Russia,” says a man who himself is only visiting from Moscow for his vacation.

His neighbor sports an LDPR (Russian party lead by Vladimir Zhirinovskiy) t-shirt.

The man’s house is in the village of Qarasu, 145 kilometers from Baku. He tells us that there is little employment to be found outside the capital, which is why many choose to leave. Incidentally, it turns out that he and our driver worked together in Moscow. Our driver owned a store back then, but had to close it down and now mans a taxi.

Qarasu village in Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Qarasu village in Azerbaijan on September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

The village lies close to Qaciqabul, the regional center. Located on the highway not far from the capital, the town can hardly be called remote. Yet there is nothing here to remind of Baku, with its luxurious and expensive residentials, boutiques, supermarkets, and shiny gas stations. In fact, there is an overall lack of notable infrastructure: all in all an entirely unremarkable post-Soviet town. Several men play backgammon in a square next to a time-worn railway station, the sign missing half of its letters. A faded portrait of Ilham Aliyev peers out at us from the local news-stand.

The locals are reluctant to talk on camera. In the capital, a journalist can mix with the crowd fairly easily: around here, strangers arouse suspicion. Those we talked to complain that jobs are scarce, the only work to be found being on the railway. Others stress that the president is not at fault, he is most likely ignorant of what goes on outside Baku. The blame, they say, is on the local authorities.

Regional centre Qacikabul, time-worn railway station, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Regional centre Qacikabul, time-worn railway station, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Nataliya Gumenyuk / hromadske

As we exit the town, we pass by a brand-new and completely empty park near the local Heydar Aliyev Center. Its gates are locked.

“Over the past ten years, the government has indeed built some 1,500 schools and hundreds of hospitals. Our schools may have been renovated, yet we are seriously lagging behind in terms of staff. Teachers and doctors receive the lowest salaries in all of Azerbaijan, 250 to 350 manat (125-275 euro). What’s more, wages outside of Baku are usually half of what can be earned in the capital. Most regions don’t have a single banking facility. By and large, life out there is semifeudal.” In Togrul’s view, this is the reason for the increased influx of people to Baku over the past few years. Yet with the cost of living also on the rise, newcomers have to settle in nakhalstroys on the periphery.

Shahin Rzayev explains that there are no ideological distinctions in Azerbaijan, one either supports the republic or is loyal to the monarchy: “Ilham Aliyev essentially inherited Azerbaijan from his father, yet his agenda is not to preserve this inheritance. He is only interested in consolidating the power of his own fold. Cosmetic changes aside, I do not expect to see any dramatic shifts in policy.”

Unregulated roadside trade, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Unregulated roadside trade, Azerbaijan, September 1, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Only a few years ago, the first modern oil well (bored in 1846), located by the sea on the outskirts of Baku, was surrounded by suburbs. Today, it is surrounded by a fence, and a memorial plaque details the historic value of this location.

Oil pump, Baku, Azerbaijan, August 30, 2019.

Oil pump, Baku, Azerbaijan, August 30, 2019.

Source: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Around the fence is an empty park. Our guide is baffled – there is no trace or even mention of the old settlement where Baku’s first “kachalka” (the local word for oil well) was drilled. We drive off. Several kilometers away, a fence runs alongside a row of shabby one-storey residences, the familiar nakhalstroy. The local boys perform an oriental dance for the camera. And just meters from their houses, oil pumps work to produce this country’s most cherished treasure.

/Report by Nataliya Gumenyuk and Bohdan Kutiepov

/With support from the Russian Language News Exchange

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Animal Rights Activists’ struggle to save stray dogs in Azerbaijan

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Animal rights activists were detained after a protest they held in defense of stray animals and taken out of the city. They returned to the city with a pregnant stray dog and named her Gizil.

Animal rights activist Elkhan Mirzayev and his friends found the dog, whom they nicknamed Gizil (Azerbaijani for “Gold”), in a wasteland on the outskirts of Baku a little more than a month ago. The dog was about to give birth, and so they immediately decided to take her with them.

A dog named ‘Gizil’

The animal rights activists found themselves in the deserted area about 20 km off Azerbaijan’s capital city after they held a protest in defense of stray dogs in the city center on 23 February. As has become common lately, police officers quickly dispersed the protest, forcibly pushed the protesters in buses, drove them a long way out of the city and dropped them off. This had the effect of ending the protest without much hassle.

There, a stray dog approached Elkhan Mirzayev and the other protesters, who were waiting for friends to arrive by car to pick them up.

“She was yelping and crying. I could see immediately that she was pregnant and she would deliver soon. When labor approaches, dogs always try to be close to people,” Elkhan says.

“It was the first time I had seen the place where the police officers dropped us. We learnt later that the wasteland is located in the village of Gizildash (“Golden rock”) in Garadag district. So, we decided to give the name Gizil to the dog that we found there.”

On the very day Gizil arrived in Baku, she gave birth to eight puppies. The animal rights activists put Gizil together with her puppies in one of their garages. They visit them every day, feed, and look after them. Mirzayev says that they had to put Gizil in the garage because all other shelters were packed. And, they do not trust state institutions, which operate under the guise of shelters for stray animals.

“Certainly, the garage is not the perfect place for them, but it is still better than a wasteland. And, unlike thousands of puppies born on the streets, Gizil’s puppies stand a greater chance of surviving here. After the puppies are two months old, we will try to find people who will adopt them and then sterilize Gizil,” Elkhan says.

Gizil's puppies are currently housed in a garage. Baku, March 2020.

Gizil’s puppies are currently housed in a garage. Baku, March 2020.

Source: Meydan TV

Horses, dogs, and cats

Animal rights activist Elkhan Mirzayev is a journalist by profession. He graduated from the journalism department of Moscow State University and lived in Russia for many years, working for NTV and Channel One as a correspondent, editor, and producer. One day, however, he decided to leave everything and return to Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan, he bought a plot of land in the village of Gunashli in Lerik, built himself a house and realized his long-standing dream: To live far away from the hustle and bustle of the city together with his favorite animals. He has horses, six dogs and about a dozen cats. All these cats and dogs were strays who suffered violence at the hands of humans. Elkhan found them all in different places, nursed them back to health, and gave them names that matched their characters – Bertha, Jesse, Pirate, Deniz, Kazbek, Minashka.

The dog nicknamed Pirate, who is extremely disobedient, is missing a leg and an eye.

“Some punk set a pit bull on him. The pit bull severely maimed his leg and damaged his eye. And there was a large wound on his back that look liked something hot had been poured on it. Our doctor friends tried to attach a prosthesis to Pirate’s leg, but it did not work out. The leg started to fester and had to be amputated. The eye was also operated on,” Elkhan tells us about his pets. “And this is Jesse. She acts like a cat, and her favorite thing to do is to lie at people’s feet.”

'Pirate' at Mirzayev's home. Guneshli village, March 2020.

‘Pirate’ at Mirzayev’s home. Guneshli village, March 2020.

Source: Meydan TV

Under Azerbaijani legislation, torturing and killing stray animals are not regarded as a crime, and those who commit these kinds of acts simply get an administrative penalty – a fine of about 500 Manats (289 USD): “Regarding animal rights, there are only three articles in the Code of Administrative Offences: One of them is more about veterinary medicine, the second is about regulations regarding keeping pets, and the third is Article 274. The article says that if you kill or maim an animal, you will be fined 500 Manats,” Elkhan says. Previously, the fine was only 25-45 Manats (about 15-26 USD), but animal rights activists lobbied for the fine to be raised. Yet they say that is not enough. The activists have been fighting for animal rights for years, and believe that it is high time the state began to implement a programme to sterilize stray animals.

“Stop Toplan”

During the protest that took place in the center of Baku on 23 February, the animal rights activists raised a placard reading “Stop Toplan”. Toplan is the name of the care center for stray animals that the animal rights activists pinned great hopes on.

When Toplan (Toplan is the most common dog name in Azerbaijan – editor’s note) opened in February 2019, they first breathed easily, thinking it would be easier for stray dogs to live on the streets of Baku.

Leyla Aliyeva, vice-president of the foundation and daughter of the incumbent Azerbaijani president, took part in the opening of the center which was established within the framework of a joint project by the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and the Baku executive authorities to improve work with stray dogs. She oversees the center.

Toplan operates on money provided by the state. On the location previously stood the sanitary engineering unit of the Housing and Utility Services Department of the Baku executive authorities. The animal rights activists argue that one of the jobs done by the department, which people commonly referred to as ‘the kennel’, was to collect stray dogs from the streets and shoot and kill them or burn them.

“It was previously called ‘Department to fight against stray animals’. In essence, its name shows what kind of work they did. They walked around in the streets and shot stray dogs in broad daylight. In 2013, journalist Nazakat Zeynalli filmed a video of officers from the department shooting street dogs. We used the video as a basis for a lawsuit that we filed against the department. The trial lasted three and a half years. The case reached the Supreme Court, then it was sent back to lower courts. They tried to persuade us to withdraw the lawsuit. We refused to withdraw it. We held protests outside the department, we blocked the roads, we went there every week to feed the dogs and we did not let the dogs be killed. We got the department shut down after all. Last year, Leyla Aliyeva opened a care center for stray animals called Toplan, which is located exactly where the department used to be located, and horror started there again,” Elkhan Mirzayev says.

Both the official website of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and Leyla Aliyeva in her speeches at conferences said that in accordance with the law the center was to collect dogs from the street, deliver them to the center, sterilize and vaccinate them and release them back into the streets.

All of the animals at Mirzayev's home are former strays. Guneshli village, March 2020.

All of the animals at Mirzayev’s home are former strays. Guneshli village, March 2020.

Source: Meydan TV

“The animals awakened humanity in my heart”

There are about 500 animal rights activists in Azerbaijan who collect maimed stray animals from the streets, nurse them back to health and keep them. There are three official and about 20 non-registered shelters.

Elkhan Mirzayev, however, is against shelters in principle.

“For example, do we want to be in jail? Even if they give us food and sometimes come to check on us, so what? A shelter is almost the same thing. Therefore, there should be not shelters, and every dog and every cat should have a family.”

Mirzayev believes that it is not that hard to resolve the problem of stray animals. It is just necessary to toughen the penalty for the killing of animals and cruelty toward them and to launch a program to sterilize and vaccinate animals. And it is also very important to teach people to love animals.

“If people keep dogs, they will find indispensable friends,” says Elkhan Mirzayev. “The more I communicate with dogs and cats, the more I understand that in reality we do not save them but they save us. The animals awakened humanity in my heart.”

/with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

All of the animals at Mirzayev's home are former strays. Guneshli village, March 2020.

All of the animals at Mirzayev’s home are former strays. Guneshli village, March 2020.

Source: Meydan TV

“The animals awakened humanity in my heart”

There are about 500 animal rights activists in Azerbaijan who collect maimed stray animals from the streets, nurse them back to health and keep them. There are three official and about 20 non-registered shelters.

Elkhan Mirzayev, however, is against shelters in principle.

“For example, do we want to be in jail? Even if they give us food and sometimes come to check on us, so what? A shelter is almost the same thing. Therefore, there should be not shelters, and every dog and every cat should have a family.”

Mirzayev believes that it is not that hard to resolve the problem of stray animals. It is just necessary to toughen the penalty for the killing of animals and cruelty toward them and to launch a program to sterilize and vaccinate animals. And it is also very important to teach people to love animals.

“If people keep dogs, they will find indispensable friends,” says Elkhan Mirzayev. “The more I communicate with dogs and cats, the more I understand that in reality we do not save them but they save us. The animals awakened humanity in my heart.”

/with the support of the Russian Language News Exchange

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