Azerbaijan Diary: a sting in the tale
by Lynn Geldof, UNICEF
|"We clean cars, that’s how we live," Ravvan
|Left to right: Ali, Ravvan, Faiq and Anar outside their derelict den
trick is not to call it a drop-in centre. No
self-respecting kid on the streets of Baku wants
peers or family to talk of them in those terms.
If you step inside The House of Light, you do
so for a training course. Dignity is intact.
such self-respecting lads are waiting for us
when we arrive. They do not eagerly anticipate
our arrival, they just hope that giving these
UNICEF people a slice of their daily life does
not affect their earning potential for the day.
Sudaba Shiraliyeva, 43, political
scientist and director of The House of Light,
introduces us to Anar Hasanzade, 15, Ravvan
Abdullayev, 16, Faiq Agayev, 16 and Ali Novruzov,
15. Ali is the toughest of the group, their
protector for being the best at fighting other
groups of Baku children who also scavenge a
life on the streets. The House of Light gets
modest support from here and there and from
UNICEF – in the form of computers and
a TV and video set.
We head out garnering intelligence on the boys’ modus
operandi as we go. "We clean cars, that’s
how we live," explains Ravvan. It is generally
not a windscreen washing operation at traffic
lights. ‘We have regular customers who
park their cars and we wash them. When they
leave work, they pay us." The police don’t
hassle them on the proviso that they take 60%
of the boys’ earnings. So net profit usually
ends up as approximately a dollar per boy per
"No, no, no. All earnings are
shared," says Ali, emphatically sweeping his
arm in an inclusive circular movement of the
group, when asked who earns the most. This avowed
solidarity is what confers the small comfort
and solace behind the life-hardened faces of
Didn’t they make a killing
just the other day when a cement mixer drew
up outside The House of Light and asked them
to clean it as it churned! In they hopped
scrabbling for balance as round and round it
went - each to emerge a little queasy but a
dollar richer for the effort.
Ravvan plays continuously with
a solid small steel ball. Someone gave it to
him. "We don’t use knives," explains Faiq,
"some of the other groups do. Ravvan has the
steel ball to protect us." Exactly how the ball
protects them is left hanging in the air.
jeer at me for not having a change of clothes."
All the boys live with a single
parent or with a grandparent, all of whom are
women. Fathers have either died or left. The
boys drop in and out of school. Ridicule appears
to be a feature of the alienation process. "They
jeer at me for not having a change of clothes.
Even the principal told me not to come to school
if I didn’t wear the right clothes," says
the hurt-determined face of Ravvan. But is there
more to this rationale? Truth and untruth appear
to vie for supremacy in the boy’s faltering
We pass a building site
and four pairs of envious eyes watch
an elderly man lower himself down
into a pit in the gaping claw of an
|Anar, like his
friends, earns money washing cars in
We round a street corner and
the boys enter their HQ – a seriously
derelict and dangerous building. Anar, the smallest
toughie proudly explains the circumstances of
their prestigious acquisition. "There was another
group of boys here when we came. We threw them
out and took over," he says. The boys swarm
around the area, negotiating rubble and caved-in
ceilings, balancing on planks and lifting boards
to display with pride a hidden cache of car-washing
tools. Without a trace of irony, they complain
of people littering the place in their absence.
We proceed to a restaurant
of their choice in a smart part of town. It
is renowned for donor kebabs. The ceilings of
the restaurant are vaulted and painted duck-egg
blue. Fine, if small, chandeliers enhance the
effect. The arches of the ceiling meet the chunky,
handsome sandstone blocks that distinguish Baku
architecture. Oh yes, they’d been here
before. "We gave ourselves a treat last summer
after washing lots of cars," says Faiq who cannot
read or write. The boys modestly order the kebabs
and cokes and Fanta.
Anar is dopey, not eating.
Has he been sniffing glue? We had heard they
get glue from time to time. "I was up half the
night watching films on TV, action films," he
How do they generally spend
their earnings then in these expensive times?
Mostly it goes to support the family. Otherwise
to buy themselves something to eat. Yeah, they
do buy glue from time to time at the stationers.
But not often.
And what about internet cafes?
"Oh yes, for 40 cents you can go into a chat-room
for an hour or play games," says Ravvan. "I
like to kill terrorists." He plays Russian games
like Epoch Imperia but also High Fly and Counter-Strike.
"I was on a chat-line to a boy in Moscow just
recently," he adds. "His family is rich and
he told me to organise a passport and get to
Moscow and stay with him." Ravvan has a free
email address and his chat-room name is ‘Scorpion’.
Ravvan would like to marry
but doesn’t imagine he’ll have the
means. He would like to study and go to a good
college and become a photographer or a journalist,
a TV journalist who covers issues like street
children because he knows about them.
Anar has managed to eat up.
He is not interested in school or studying.
He would just like a job. Right now he would
like to produce a newspaper for street kids.
Could he do it online? Ravvan looks at
him and says that it might be possible. He’d
show him how to do it. But Anar would really
like to join the army.
For more information:
Lynn Geldof, Regional Communication Adviser: (+ 4122) 909 5429
Ayna Mollazade, Communication Officer, UNICEF Azerbaijan (+99 412) 923 013