“When will you finally demolish it all?” A group angrily approach us, but interest soon fades as they realized we were not government representatives but journalists. Press is of no use for the people in Shanghai, a jigsaw of low houses crammed together and crossed by a maze of narrow passages, just a few kilometres from downtown Baku.
“Every week you come, talk, film, and go. What for? Has anything changed?” various people shouted.
The steel-and-glass futuristic skyscrapers mirroring Azerbaijan’s oil wealth can be easily spotted in the distance, yet they belong to another world. Here, houses are made of stones and debris, squashed one to each other in serried ranks right along the train line. The crowded slum reminds residents of densely populated China - thus one day someone called it Shanghai and the label stayed.
Generations have grown up in houses that would rattle as trains pass through – since the first house was built in the early 1960s, talks dismantling what has become a dangerous settlement have come and gone. Nothing has changed.
“The Soviet Union was hammered down faster than these houses,” says bitterly Akram Mamedov, 75, one of Shanghai’s oldest residents as he plays backgammon with other men in his house slippers. When people learn that journalists have arrived, they point at him as the person in charge of doing the talking.
Residents must learn how to navigate the danger from a very early age. Amicably called “the yard,” the tracks are a children’s playground –– one that can have fatal consequences.
“See that house?” says Amver, our taxi driver, pointing at one small shack. “Two years ago a family with children came for a visit, one kid was hit and killed by the passing train. If you grow up here you know how to avoid the train.”
“It is so dangerous here, that even guests rarely come,” he adds.
Elderlies sit quietly on the benches along the tracks – some knitting, some rolling dice on the nard board, or others just chatting. They are in fact on guarding duty, ready to jump in to take the little ones off the tracks.
“What else can we do? These three women are neighbours, see they are keeping a close eye on our families kids. We essentially are guards on shifts.”
Residents claim that early this year, representatives of Baku city hall visited the area and said that half of the houses will be destroyed to build a new road and a bridge. No one heard the word “compensation.”
“They don’t say anything official about compensation,” laments Selim, a 65 years old pensioner. “I am a citizen, that’s my home, it has an official address. My son received the call for military service to this address, so the state does recognize us. And it should also be to compensate us if they raze our houses.
Poverty is rampant in Shanghai. Those who manage to scrape together some cash leave for safer, healthier areas. Most don’t use the Internet, and information has spread fast via word of mouth – rumors is all they have.
“I heard that they will pay 1,200 manat per square metre.” “They say they will pay 1,500 manat for the square meter, if so it is good.”
Some people do not believe any longer what officials say. Akram is one of them.
“The first time I heard about the demolition of Shanghai was in 1968,” says the man, 75 years old. “A commission was set up, then architects and representatives of the air-conditioning factory which is nearby came and told us that the area will be razed, and we would be moved to five-story buildings.”
History has it that the first house was built by a worker called Izzat Lezgin (the surname identifies him as a member of the Lezgins, a minority ethnic group). In the 1960s when workers from the kolkhoz, USSR’s collective farms, got internal passports (issued to travel inside the country, not abroad), many moved to Baku to work. Housing was scarce, so many settled here.
“My father arrived then. I was born here and it was here I’ve remained,” explains 60 year old Hussein Babullayev, whose house is one of the first in the entrance of Shangai. Many of the residents are his relatives, he asserts. “I grew up, went to school, and worked for fifteen years at an air-conditioner factory. Throughout those years various directors promised me an apartment. Then, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the factory went bankrupted and I was left with nothing.
The second large wave arrived in the 1990s – thousands of people fleeing the war in Nagorno Karabakh flooded the capital and squatted in the quarter, making it their permanent home. The most recent migration featured people who came to Baku seeking “the long oil manat.”
As the district ballooned, people slowly transformed it into a full functioning area – they built the sewage system, connected electricity and gas to the national grids, and constructed their residences. Bribes made it all possible.
“It is impossible to put a stone on a stone here without a person from the municipality,” says Selim. "I payed for this house, I pay for the electricity, for gas and water, so I think I have a right to demand appropriate compensation.”
Those residents who moved to Shanghai from various areas of the country own houses in the regions, but they are not in hurry to go back as they would have to leave their jobs behind.
“If compensation is paid, I will stay here and buy an apartment, even in the suburbs would be fine,” says Sahib Mamedov, 40, whose house is a mixture of bricks, slate, plastic, and plywood. “I can earn around 300 AZN ($200) here in Baku. But neither me nor my children have future in the village. We’ve been living in limbo for decades, we cannot leave because of money. But here we are afraid for our children, and we’ve waited and hoped for a solution for so many years.”
In 2005 the Cabinet of Ministers’ decision number 33 outlined the demolition of the houses built along the rail track in the Shanghai settlement. The decision remained on paper. In 2014 the then-deputy head of Azerbaijani Railways, Javid Gurbanov who became the company’s chairman in 2015, stated that a modern road and parks will be built to be re-placed in the quarter. Void promises though as, to date, Shanghai’s situation hasn’t changed a inch since 1968.