The children’s cemetery in Sumqayit is a dark reminder of the high level of children born with birth defects. The Sumgayit cemetery reveals the tragic story that was hidden for so long during the Soviet period. Dead babies don’t lie.
“A mixture of strange feelings came over me when I first heard about the children’s cemetery in my home city of Sumgayit. Curiosity pushed me forward to learn more and I started to gather information and asked the older generations including my parents about the cemetery. But to my surprise, I got only scanty information so far. My Internet searches ended up with poor results as well. Yet many trip advisors suggested the unique cemetery with an entire section of childrens’ graves as a must see place in Sumgait. I decided to visit the cemetery. A collection of little headstones all of the same size and age made me feel depressed and melancholic. I talked to Mollah (title of respect used in Islamic countries for one who is learned in Islamic law) and he said that the cemetery is the final resting place for the children ranging between the age 1 to 5 years old. It is said that the plant producing lindane had fatal environmental consequences and as a result children with poor health died. The plant was closed after two year of production which took away so many innocent lives. The image in front of me was hard to comprehend, it was painful to see that those little children would have been my age…”
Sumqayit, one of the largest and youngest cities in Azerbaijan (after Baku and Ganja), located on 30 km away from the capital Baku on the Caspian coast, and founded on November 22, 1949, is home to one of the largest chemical industrial complexes in the entire former USSR.
“Sumgayit was a major Soviet industrial center housing more than 40 factories that manufactured industrial and agricultural chemicals. These included synthetic rubber, chlorine, aluminium, detergents, and pesticides especially chlororganic products such as hexochlorine, DDT, Lindane, and caustic sodium. While the factories remained fully operational, 70-120,000 tons of harmful emissions were released into the air annually.”
Sumqayit is included in the world’s top 10 most-polluted cities in the world. This list was published in 2007 by the Blacksmith Institute, a New York-based environmental health NGO.
Many children were born with defects such Monoglism, anencephalia (no brain), spina bifida (absence of one or more vertebra arches), hydrocephalus (enlarged head with excessive mount of fluid), osteochandro dystrophy (bone disease), and mutations such as club feet, cleft palate, four or six fingers or toes. Once a child was born with its heart on the right side. Others injure the heart, internal organs, bones, and teeth. Others suppress the immune system. Now I remember that when we were small, our haemoglobin was below common standards, but the doctors said that it was normal for Sumqayit. The mutations such as four or six fingers or toes I have seen among my classmates at school, who were born in this period of time.
As a result of the Soviet planning of the industrial boom era, the city became heavily polluted. The city was famous for the industrial and agricultural chemicals industry that led to the highest rate of child mortality and as many as 275,000 people have potentially been affected by heavy metal and chemical contamination in the city.
Sumqayit had one of the highest rates of cancer in the USSR that it was as much as 51% higher than the national average and genetic mutations and birth defects were commonplace according to a study by UNDP, WHO, the Azerbaijani Health Ministry and the University of Alberta.
The city administration prepared an environmental protection plan from 2003–2010 which steadily helped to decrease the levels of pollution to minimal amounts. For instance, the amount of waste water from industrial production went down from 600 thousand m3 during the 1990s to 76.3 thousand m3 in 2005. The government used to compensate workers by providing milk, cheese, and meat to those at factories where toxicity was known to be high. Some changes have been made; still revolutionary changes are needed. Environmentalists have managed to get a few factories closed including the Lindane factory.
Azerbaijanis are proud of this city. They built it with their own hands during this century and they appreciate its ethnic mix of Azerbaijanis, Russians, Georgians, Jews, Udins, Lezghins, Moldovians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Kurds, Talysh and Armenians (an estimated 200 still live in the city today according to the mayor).
Today, the majority of factories have been closed down and others were renovated by local state agencies such as SOCAR. But the city still bears the scars of its industrial past — with heavy metals, oil, and chemical contamination.
Four cities in the former Soviet Union appear in Blacksmith’s top 10. The others are Chornobyl in Ukraine, and Dzerzinsk and Norilsk in Russia.