When 32-year-old Aygun Baghirova thinks about her life, it plays back like a movie, a film starring Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, bad apartments, evil landlords and back rent.
Each move—each chapter—reflects a slice of history in Azerbaijan and the capital Baku, for even as the country has grown rich on oil and gas money, many families--like Aygun--have fallen further into poverty, debt and instability.
Divorce, war and a new start
Aygun first moved house when she was five. It was 1995 and Azerbaijan was at war. The family lived in a village in Ujar district, a region about 230 km from Baku, in the center of the country. For little Aygun, it also felt like the center of the war that was raging between Azerbaijan and neighboring Armenia. She could hear shots at night and how a neighbor was killed in an explosion.
The family lived with her father’s parents until they learned her father had taken a “new wife” in Russia and was expecting a new baby. Her mother, Aybaniz, tried to stay with her in-laws, but her sister-in-law was abusive.
In the end, they moved in with her parents. But there were too many mouths to feed and not enough food to eat. “My grandparents told mom ‘take your children away from here and build a good life,’" Aygun recalls.
At the time, there was a wave of people moving to capital Baku from rural communities.
“Soviet-era collective farms had stopped in the regions, and there was a lack of work...In the early years after independence only men came to Baku and rented flats. They stayed together and earned money for their families, later they had to bring their families to Baku. Therefore, the number of people living in rented houses in Baku increased,” notes sociologist Sanuber Heydarova.
It was a difficult time to start anything in Azerbaijan. The country had declared independence in 1991, exiting the Soviet Union and falling into a war with Armenia. Officially, the average income fell to just a fourth of its pre-independence level between 1991- 1994.
For Aygun, it meant being born into the first generation in years that would not receive housing from the state. By 1995, the government was only helping families secure housing if they had someone in the civil services.