The path curved, like a snake, as it led us to the village of Jangayib. As the car moved slowly through the mud, which was thick after a recent rain, we approached a mountain and a tiny dot on the horizon gradually grew into a house.
Then, suddenly, we had arrived. A chicken and a dog rested lazily in the sun in front of the house, soaking up the rays of light after the rain…the house itself was silent. There were no sounds, no signs of life from the structure, which appeared to be trying to hide under layers of white-colored lime wash. Only the dilapidated windows showed its age.
As I circled the house, I called "is anybody there?"
A female voice broke through the silence and I turned around to see a middle-age woman carrying a basket full of freshly washed clothing.
She didn't ask who I was or why I was there. Without hesitating she let the basket drop to the ground and gave me a hug. "Welcome!" she said.
The woman, Zabita Kichikbekova, is a member of the last family to live in Jangayib village, a tiny outpost 10 kilometers from Shabran district (formerly known as Davachi) in the northeast corner of the Great Caucasus mountains.
Jangayib is not the only village that has been all but abandoned in Azerbaijan. A recent report by the State Committee on Statistics shows that there are nine villages with fewer than 10 residents. As many as 20 villages have been completely abandoned in the country.
Zabita, 59, moved to Jangayib when she got married, 31 years ago.
“When I moved here as a bride, most of the other 40 families had already left the village. And I watched as the others left, too,” says Zabita.
"Why did people leave?" I ask
"Unemployment, no services … No school, no kindergarten, no medical services, no natural gas…The wood is running out, there are not many trees left to cut, which is why - in order to not freeze – people have left. Before, when residents first started to leave, government officials came and said, ‘Do not go, gas lines will be installed here’.
"More than 30 years have passed, but still there is no gas line. Perhaps people would return if gas lines were installed. They actually were coming here to check on the situation with water, gas, and electricity, but later they lost all hope that it would improve, and 'their legs carried them away forever.' Some moved to Baku, some moved to Russia, some just went to the center of Shabran city," she says, and then cries out - ‘Look, my husband is coming.’
Pushing his wagon, which is full of cut wood, 59-year-old Elkhan Kichikbekov walks towards us. Zabita starts to speak about her husband, who has a tired face and wears a cap, shabby clothes and military-issue boots. “Everybody left, except Elkhan. He said 'This home belonged to my ancestors; it is all that is left of them. If I leave it, they will disappear.' When he was fixing the roof, he fell and was seriously injured. He fell on his head, his brain was damaged and, since then, he has some mental problems,” she says with tears in her eyes.
Over the past five years, the family has survived a series of shocks and tragedies. The worst was the death of their 25-year-old son, Eldar, who died while trying to save his dog from drowning in a nearby river.
"Our dog Garaboz fell into the water. Eldar went after him, he saved Garaboz, but he drowned. We didn’t know anything. Garaboz came home, whining, barking… He led us towards the channel. And then…,” Zabita cannot stop crying.
Trying to change topic, I ask different questions regarding the village. However, Zabita does not listen to me.
“We buried him here, near the village. I didn’t allow them to put his photo on the gravestone. I visit his grave often and bring him sweets and candies. He had a one-year-old daughter and my daughter-in-law was pregnant with a second child.”
After the tragedy, Garagoz, the family's most loyal friend, was overcome with guilt. Three days after Eldar's death, Zabita says the dog ran off and has never returned.
“I was sitting next to the spring, crying. Garaboz approached and sat next to me. I said 'Garaboz, you took my son from me, you were the reason.' Then I looked at the dog, his eyes were full of tears. He stood there in silence, with his head down and he left. He has never come back. Five years have passed and we haven’t seen him,” she says.
Eldar’s widow and two children now live in Baku.
The family has two more sons living with them, one of whom is married and has children. The grandchildren include five-year-old Sevgi, who runs around and tries to help her grandfather and grandmother.
Even though she should start school this year, Sevgi cannot. The closest school is in the neighboring village, 3.5 kilometers away. And, even if the family could manage to get her to school, they do not have enough money to buy her any of the basic supplies she needs, like a bag or school books or notebooks.
Money is a constant concern in the family. One son works but his entire salary - 140 AZN (80 dollars) goes to pay off a bank loan. Since Elkhan Kichikbayov is unable to work due to his head injury, he receives 127 AZN (roughly 75 dollars) a month in government assistance. Even with Zabita's pension – 57 AZN – the family does not have enough money to live on.
There is not much in the old house anymore: they do not have a refrigerator or washing machine. There is no TV set or any other electronic devices. The house is heated by a wood-burning stove.
The first thing I notice when I enter the house is a baby – little Sevgi's brother, Elkhan…the children's father wants to build them a house but he does not have enough money.
Zabita says her son has tried to build a home using homemade mud bricks but the rain always washes the bricks away.
The ruined remains of a wall and foundation are still visible, not far from Zabita's house.
Zabita remembers how a small mosque use to stand in the hills, near the village, in Soviet times. She says Soviet officials used to come and drive people away if they tried to go there to pray.
"Ehh… Where have these people gone?! Everybody left… Only we stayed. My man didn’t want to move from this place,” Zabita says as her husband tosses another piece of wood into the fire to heat the samovar.
"Aren’t you bored here alone?" I ask.
"If you come here in spring, everything is so green… The smell of the fresh grass blends with the smell of the soil. We freeze in the winter, but the ice melts in the spring," she says.
A long time ago, the family had a field, located near the village, in an area called Lejet. They were forced to sell it three years ago, however, and lost their barley and grain crops.
Zabita adds that she was also forced to sell the family's turkey and chickens at the open market in Shabran because the family needed money to buy medicine for Sevgi.
Now only a small garden remains, in front of the house, where Sevgi goes every day with her grandmother and grandfather to collect peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and greens.
The small plot provides most of the family's food, supplemented by the seasonal fruit that Elkhan collects in the forests and Zabita uses to make jam and compote.
Warmed by the company and the samovar tea with homemade blackberry jam, I was reluctant to go back to the capital.
But dark clouds were slowly covering the sun over Jangayib, the abandoned village tucked in the foot of the mountains, beneath the towns of Galagah, Lejet and Biliji.
And so I was forced to leave before the muddy road was made impassable by the rain.
The car moved slowly as if it, too, was reluctant to follow the winding path down and away from Jangayib and its loyal residents.