Unsafe at home in Azerbaijan

Ulkar Natiqqizi, Emin Mathers,

When shopping for an apartment in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, people think about price, not safety codes, according to real estate agent Nazim Mehdizada.

Mehdizada has been selling real estate in the capital for eight years, a period of time that has seen gross neglect and blatant construction violations by developers.

"People rarely ask questions about safety…We deal with customers all day and hear no questions about that. That is because they don’t think anything will happen. They think if the building was built, that means it is solid," he said.

While construction quality experts note that the situation is slowly improving, years of poor standards and a general lack of oversight means that hundreds of residential buildings in Baku do not meet the building codes.

That has led to deadly consequences on more than one occasion.  The most famous case was the 2015 Binagadi apartment fire that resulted in the deaths of 15 people – including children – and over 50 injured.

In 2015, this building -- 200/36 Azadlig Avenue in Baku’s Binagadi district -- caught on fire. Fifteen people were killed by the blaze, which was reportedly caused when poor-quality siding caught fire.

Poor quality building materials – in this case low quality of plastic siding – caught on fire. The flames quickly engulfed the entire building.

Sevinj Fadai was renting an apartment in the Binagadi building at that time. When the fire broke out, she was at home with her infant son.

The fire spread so quickly she and her baby were trapped in the apartment. Fadai turned off the lights, opened the door and started to breast feed her son in the hopes he would not swallow too much smoke.

“He was an anxious child who cried a lot. But I was so happy to see him crying during the fire. I tried not to let him sleep,” she says.

Fadai and her family never returned to their Binagadi apartment after the fire.

“Of course, we didn’t go back. We moved into a home with a garden. I don't feel comfortable in a high-rise building because it is difficult to escape when something happens," she notes.

The new facade is reportedly safer than the plastic siding that was originally put on the building. Construction safety experts warn, however, that many residential buildings in the capital fall short of safety standards.

That feeling of unease has permeated apartment dwellers in Baku over the past decade. The number of fatal incidents – including facade fires like the one that destroyed Fadai's apartment as well as construction site deaths and falling buildings – have resulted in residents fearing for their safety even at home.

Social researcher Togrul Abbasov notes that traditionally, a person's home is their castle: the place they feel protected against the threats posed by nature and other people. But when we lose the guarantee that our homes are safe, "it makes us feel more insecure and causes us to live in anxiety and fear," he says.

Abbasov notes that older buildings, i.e. those built during the Soviet Union, were seen as a symbol of hope in the future and confidence in modernization. They were built by the state, and the process was controlled by the state: people knew who was responsible.

But the situation is different today.

Over the past 20 years, luxury plazas and apartment buildings in Baku have replaced old buildings. The city underwent a chaotic and massive housing building boom at the beginning of the 21st century, when there was a lot of oil money – but no urban planning and very little oversight on construction standards.  As new buildings started to appear in the city like mushrooms growing after rain, the question of safe shelter gained importance.

"It is unclear to people who built the buildings during the 'building boom' in Baku and who gave them permission to do so – or who controlled the process – and that robs them of a sense of trustworthiness," Abbasov says.

Those fears appear to be well placed. Out of the 470 residential buildings in Azerbaijan that have not filed the safety information required by law, 413 of them are in Baku, according to the sector manager of the State Agency for Construction Safety Control, Bakhtiyar Taghiyev.

Taghiyev told the ona.az online media outlet that 350 out of 413 have severe shortcomings. For instance, 200 of them do not meet fire safety requirements.

A building in Baku’s Khatai district. Residents use the emergency stairwell to hang laundry.

Journalist Ramal Huseynov worried about the quality of his residential building in the capital's in Khatai district even before a fire broke out in 2015.

Huseynov recalls protesting over the quality even as the workers were putting up the façade.

“We live in 5-storey building, next to a building that burned down. When they were putting up the facade, I saw the materials and protested. But they didn’t listen. When they finished their work, they swept the trash up into a pile near the right corner of the building.  I was told they would clean, but nothing happened," he says.

Huseynov took a piece of the façade and checked its quality. The polyurethane immediately caught on fire when put to a test. The residents agreed that it was dangerous but no one complained, he says.

He recalls that the building next to them burned down very fast and then, just two or three days later, his building caught on fire. Luckily, the residents were able to put it out quickly.

"It seems the fire started from that pile of trash. Then we were told someone threw a cigarette from the building. But we didn’t know the real reason," he notes.

Huseynov adds that residents began to remove the façade themselves after the fire. Once the city saw how angry they were, all the polyurethane facades were replaced.

“We were worried until the facade was removed. We felt that we were in danger. But then it was replaced with bricks. There is no danger anymore," he says.

Social researcher Togrul Abbasov notes that people have more faith in buildings that were built during the Soviet Union, when construction was seen as a sign of progress and people believed buildings were safe.

A view of Baku, from 200/36 Azadlig Avenue. Construction has been rampant in the city over the past two decades, but until recently little attention was paid to building standards.

This building is going up near the city’s Gagarin Bridge.

Construction expert Ramil Osmanli notes that frequently the fires are caused by construction mistakes and are preventable. The rash of fires at Baku residential buildings were "directly related to breaches in safety regulations by construction companies," he says.

“It is possible to prevent these events, but relevant executive authorities don’t interfere on time.” Osmanli said. 

He notes that the government is starting to hold companies responsible. For instance, new sanctions and penalties are being imposed on construction companies. While they are still not fully complying with safety regulations, construction companies are doing a better job than in the past, Osmanli says.

“As a result of several actions that were taken, especially in multi-apartment buildings, the quality problems are no longer an issue, even though there have been some violations of the buildings standards," he notes.

The head of the two companies that produced the polyurethane façade and installed it on the Binagadi apartment where Sevinj Fadai lived in 2015 was arrested after the fire. Out of the eight people charged over the fire, three were released long before they had served their sentence. 

Despite the arrests and jail sentences, Fadai still doesn't know exactly what caused the fire that put her and her baby in danger. The former residents have been told the fire started from the trash and then spread to the building. 

But Fadai argues the trash cans were in the courtyard, nowhere near the facades. "We could not have known that our building was not safe or that there was some sort of danger," she says.

"Their claims are baseless. Of course they knew about the danger beforehand but they did nothing to prevent it."

Graffiti in the courtyard of a building in Baku’s Khatai district. The writing says “our neighborhood.”

Ali, Bashir and Azer live in high-rise apartment buildings in Baku’s Khatai district.

The courtyard of a building in Baku’s Khatai district.

Emergency exits are also seen as a safe place to smoke.

Common space in Baku apartment buildings is used for private purposes, like to hang laundry.

An interior stairwell in a building in Baku’s Khatai district.

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