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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Azeri Town, Oil Brings Only Misery

ILYICH BAY, Azerbaijan - Man's greed for oil has turned life into a living hell for the inhabitants of one of Azerbaijan's largest oil-fields, Ilyich Bay.


Even as a glass of tea brews, a scum of crude oil forms on its surface. Laundry left to dry blackens with a crust of condensate. The sun shines only hazily through the thick smog that forms above the thousands of clanking "nodding donkeys" that line the shore of this part of the Caspian Sea.


Oil is Azerbaijan's sole significant natural resource. But the exploitation of Azeri fields by the British in the last century, then the Soviets in this, means that the rich flow of "black gold" has brought only poverty to the local population.


Oil output is now secret under the state of emergency in Azerbaijan and the facilities themselves are closely guarded for fear of sabotage. But the flight of Russian experts and difficulties in repair and maintenance mean that production is estimated to have fallen 10 percent over the past year.


While independence may mean good business - even after midnight - for the beach-front Mercedes showroom in the Azeri capital, Baku, all that has changed in Ilyich Bay is the name of the town that serves the oil field.


The town, christened Stalinsky in the 1930s, then renamed Kirovsky after Stalin's best friend and victim, then again as The 26 Baku Commissar's Town, has now been renamed Freedom in honor of Azerbaijani statehood.


But Freedom remains only a ramshackle settlement of one-story stone and concrete shacks. Leaking oil pipes weave between the houses, forming climbing-frames for the local children. Anyone not suffering from an eye, nose or throat condition is considered a wonder by inhabitants. Many long for the return of the old Soviet Union.


About half of the homes in Freedom are without running water, even in their yards, forcing inhabitants to beg from neighbors. The lucky families who have a tap say that water only runs in the mornings and evenings. Buckets and bowls of water stand in every room in readiness for when the water finally gives out.


Aliik, 70, settled in what was then Stalinsky in 1953. He says that the water must be boiled before it can be drunk. "The pipes are so old and cracked that oil seeps into them", he says. In all Aliik's time in the town he has never seen any repair of the pipes.


Not surprisingly, most of the inhabitants dream of leaving. But Azerbaijan's war with Armenia has robbed the locals of even this slim hope, as all new flats are now automatically allocated to the flood of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, perhaps 500, 000 in a country of only 7 million.


"They are just waiting for all of us to die", said a despairing Tatar woman named Rosa. The woman, 45, lives in a richly decorated two-room shack with her grandfather, husband, three grown children and their families and has spent 25 years on the waiting list for housing.


Education also provides little hope for escape. According to two 15-year-old schoolgirls, the local school has been turned into a trade house, where even the teachers buy and sell. Alongside fruit and vegetables, the school diploma was also on sale, for 25, 000 rubles. Most children leave even this appearance of formal education at 13 or 14 to be trained for jobs on the oil field.


Despite all its inadequacies. Freedom can seem a refuge for some.


One sallow-faced young man declared that he preferred living with his mother here because "it's a quiet place". He said he was one of 30 survivors from an Azeri "division" of 1, 500 men cut to pieces at the front in Karabakh. He is now in no hurry to return to the war.


Freedom may well become a ghost town before life gets any better. The Ilyich Bay field, one of the world's oldest, is estimated to hold only enough oil for another 15 years of pumping. The seagulls - co-inhabitants with humanity of every Caspian shore town - have already all left, driven away by pollution.


The people may not find it so easy.