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Last Updated: Saturday, 9 December 2006, 11:59 GMT
The orphans of Sumqayit
By Nigel Green
BBC News, Azerbaijan

With some of the biggest oil reserves in the world, Azerbaijan is fast becoming an energy giant.

But although foreign investors have pumped billions into the economy in the 15 years since the country gained independence, some grim aspects of the Soviet legacy remain.

Sumqayit. Photo courtesy Nigel Green
Sumqayit was once the Soviet's biggest petro-chemical centre.
Sumqayit may be a seaside town but it is not somewhere you would want to spend your holiday.

Not unless you like a place that looks like the backdrop for a science fiction movie.

Sumqayit is just an hour's drive from Baku, the oil-rich capital of Azerbaijan.

But here, rather than the gleaming office blocks and the marble squares, green parks and fountains, all we could see were derelict factories, twisted, rusting metal pipes and tankers abandoned on broken railway lines.

There were few people to be seen - and the only animals we came across were wild dogs.

My guide for the day was Akif Askerov, a likeable young man who once played football for his country and now has a well-paid job as a health and safety officer employed by a western oil company.

As we got out of the car, Akif pointed out we were walking on crushed sheets of asbestos. The smell of chemicals, aggravated by dust churned up by our car, hit our throats.

Birth defects

Just 20 years ago, Sumqayit was the biggest petro-chemical centre in the Soviet Union.

Map showing Sumqayit, Azerbaijan

Under Stalin's orders, this town had been built in the 1930s to feed off the huge oil reserves nearby.

After World War Two, Sumqayit's population grew to a third of a million. The workers were mostly young and relatively well-rewarded.

The list of substances they used to manufacture at Sumqayit is long, but it included huge quantities of lindane, a pesticide that has been compared to Agent Orange, the chemical so widely used during the Vietnam War.

And, like Agent Orange, lindane has been blamed for causing birth defects.

In Soviet days, the workers were given extra cheese and milk in the misguided belief that this would strengthen their bodies' defences. It did not.

Exact figures are hard to find but numerous reports link the town with high levels of deformities in new-born children. The number of girls and boys here with Downs syndrome, cerebral palsy and spina bifida is way above average.

The new, independent government of Azerbaijan declared Sumqayit an ecological disaster zone and closed most of its factories. But they seem to have left an appalling legacy.

'Twisted limbs'

Akif wanted to show me the work that he and his British oil worker friends have done renovating an orphanage not far from Sumqayit.

Children in the orphanage. Photo courtesy Nigel Green
Local people believe pollution is the root of the children's problems

It is a large, white four-storey building and as our car pulled up outside, we were mobbed by children - all clearly handicapped.

But these children were the relatively healthy ones, the ones able to wander out into the fresh air by themselves.

Inside it was different.

Rahila Hasanova, the nurse in charge, agreed to show me around the orphanage. As we started to walk along its corridors, there was a strong smell of urine.

We went from room to room, seeing children with twisted limbs or distorted faces.

They ranged from toddlers in cots, sleeping eight to a room, to teenagers who, because they could not walk, were left to drag themselves along the floor.

Many were screaming but the handful of nurses seemed to be doing their best to care for them.

One boy in particular grabbed my attention. He was about 10 years old and his arms were wrapped around his body by a makeshift strait-jacket.

Using her own hands and pretending to scratch at her face, Rahila tried to explain to me that this boy had to be kept like that, otherwise he would tear at his face.

Rahila could not speak any English but, through Akif, she told me she had worked at the home for 22 years.

Medical conditions

She earns just $30 (15) a month - around a third of the average wage in Azerbaijan.

Rahila and her grand daughter Fatima. Photo courtesy Nigel Green
Rahila's grand daughter was born with a heart defect

But she cannot bring herself to leave the children - most of whom have been abandoned by their parents.

None of these boys and girls have undergone detailed medical tests and so it is impossible to know the precise cause of their conditions, but Rahila told me that everybody believed that the disabilities had been caused by the pollution.

There are around 160 children in the 20 rooms of this building. It was worse in Soviet times, when the orphanage had been home to 400 youngsters and conditions here were much tougher.

As we left, Rahila took me to her house nearby to show me her own two-month-old grand daughter Fatima, who was born with a heart defect.

She said her baby was in desperate need of an operation and would probably be dead by the age of two if she did not get it.

Another victim, Rahila believes, of the legacy of Sumqayit.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 9 December, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Azerbaijan
26 Nov 06 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Azerbaijan
26 Nov 06 |  Country profiles


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