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The end of Shanghai — Baku’s district on the railway tracks

21 August 2018
Shanghai, Baku (Vafa Zeynalova /OC Media)

Shanghai, the nickname of a small district running alongside Baku’s main railway line, is set to be demolished, and the tracks fenced off in the houses’ place. While locals tell of the tragic deaths of children hit by trains in Shanghai, some say the compensation offered by the government for demolishing their homes is not enough to move elsewhere in the city.

No one really knows how ‘Shanghai’, a small slum in eastern Baku’s Keshla neighbourhood, got its name, not even the people living there. Trains run several times a day between the one-story houses crammed alongside the railroad, skimming the branches of trees in their yards as they do. In Soviet times, the trains ran even more regularly, with frequent freight trains hauling building materials into the city.

The whole life of the settlement takes place beside the railway tracks. Children play on the railway; there are shops looking out onto the tracks.

Shanghai, Baku (Vafa Zeynalova /OC Media)

But Shanghai has a sad reputation; in the 60 years since springing up, residents tell of the numerous children killed by passing trains. Without an accurate train schedule, careless or absent-minded residents risk injury or even death.

‘I lived here for fifteen years’, recalls Mikayil, a resident of Baku, ‘my whole childhood was spent on the railway tracks. Half a meter from the tracks there used to be a shop — an open window in a shed selling essentials. Sometimes I would run for bread and then a train would come. I’d have to wait until the whole train passed, sometimes 30–35 cars, before I could go back’.

While in winter, children spend most of their days in school, locals say that during the long summer holidays, constant vigilance is required. ‘One of the elders is always watching the children, they can not be left without attention’, Rasmiya, another local resident, tells OC Media.

Shanghai, Baku (Vafa Zeynalova /OC Media)

Rasmiya moved to Shanghai nine years ago to start a family. At first, she says, her husband refused to let her out of the house — afraid that she would be hit by a train. ‘I still can’t get used to the sound of the trains, they pass day and night’, she says.

Rasmiya says she has witnessed several accidents on the tracks. ‘Once, when I’d just moved here, a young girl, a student, came to visit relatives. She didn’t know the local “customs” and she was hit by a train’.

Life besides the tracks

Past Heydar Aliyev Avenue, Shanghai sits behind towering stylish glass skyscrapers. There are many settlements like it in Baku, with narrow alleys, fenced-in vineyards, and children playing outside.

Shanghai, Baku (Vafa Zeynalova /OC Media)

The settlement arose in the sixties and grew through the mid-nineties. According to local residents, the owner of the first house in Shanghai had a deed and a bill of sale. The owner himself is no longer alive, but according to locals, his many children still live in his large two-storey stone house.

Other residents were not so lucky in obtaining official documentation. People from the countryside moved in gradually over time and Shanghai grew and sprawled spontaneously. ‘It’s mostly Talysh people from Lankaran living here’, one local tells OC Media.

Galib Mammadov, an ethnic Talysh shop guard from Lankaran came to Shanghai with his wife Gulnaz, building a house for themselves. Soon after, relatives and fellow villagers followed, building houses for themselves nearby.

Almost all the buildings in the settlement are ‘nakhalstroy’ — unauthorised with no permission from the authorities having ever been issued.

But for many residents of Shanghai, leaving is something they can only dream about.

Even though residents of Shanghai have no rights to the land they live on, there are public services, with water, gas, and electricity meters are on each house. ‘We installed sewage pipes ourselves’, one local resident says. ‘We bought pipes, hired craftsmen, and they lay them between the two rails’.

The end of Shanghai

In late 2017, the authorities announced that Shanghai was to be demolished. They first began demolishing houses along the existing railway tracks. A spokesperson for the local authorities of Nizami District told OC Media that they plan to build a fence to isolate the railroad. But some locals who had heard rumours of this expressed concern.

Shanghai, Baku (Vafa Zeynalova /OC Media)

Eynulla, a pensioner living in Shanghai, said he was afraid the settlement would not be demolished, but simply fenced off from the rest of the world. He built his house in the sixties, when he worked at the local concrete plant.

Eynulla’s neighbour Ali, a former colleague at the concrete plant, came to Shanghai as a 22-year-old in 1964. ‘I was an orphan, without a father or a mother. I built a house here by myself. Then I got married, started a family, and built a house for my son across the tracks. We’re like migratory birds, we built where we landed’, he says. Despite the living conditions, he doesn’t want to move. ‘We are close to the city centre, you can [easily] get to any part of the city, but it’s still quiet and there are trees here, where else in the city could you see something like this?’, he says.

Despite having no documents for their houses, residents are still entitled to compensation when their houses are demolished. Rasmiya’s house is set to be demolished. ‘We’ve lived here for the last month, and I can’t wait to move’, she says. Their house has two small rooms, and the compensation is small — ‎₼1,000 ($590) per square metre. For this amount of money, she won’t be able to buy an apartment within Baku, so she plans to move closer to her parents in the Garadagh District, about 25 kilometres outside the city. When houses are demolished in other districts of Baku, compensation is slightly higher — from ‎₼1,500 ($880) per square metre.

Shanghai, Baku (Vafa Zeynalova /OC Media)

Many residents say they can’t move out because the compensation offered is too little. Ahmad’s flat is only 20 square metres, so he is entitled to only ‎₼20,000 ($12,000). ‘They say this is the market price, but for this amount, nothing can be bought, even in the suburbs. They don’t think about the poor at all!’ He points to the children playing nearby: ‘These are mine, and I’m the only breadwinner’.

Ahmad has a higher education, but works as a security guard earning ‎₼350 ($210) per month. With this income, he says it’s not possible for him to save up for a new apartment. Instead, Ahmad is waiting for the state to offer him more compensation.

An elderly resident of the settlement, Mukhtar, believes that the authorities are to blame — as they failed to control the construction which is why the situation arose.

The spokesperson for Nizami District blamed this on the previous government, saying the settlement expanded until the early 1990s, when the People’s Front was in power. ‘There was no order in the country, people built houses without permission.’

Journalists and foreign tourists often come to Shanghai to photograph life on the railway tracks. A short film set there, ‘Shanghai, Baku’ by Teymur Hajiyev reached a number of prestigious international festivals. But with the district soon to disappear, hardly any local residents say they will mourn its passing.

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES.

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