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Azerbaijan: Chlorine for Sale

Industrial collapse in Azerbaijan has spawned a popular street trade in a poisonous substance.
By Leila Amirova

"Khlor var! Khlo-o-o-or var! (Chlorine for Sale!)" Every resident of Baku knows this merciless early morning cry coming up from the street.

Once the streets of Baku were lent an exotic oriental atmosphere by hawkers peddling silks and other valuable materials - they were the subject of the opera "Arshin mal alan," one of the first ever operas of the Muslim east.

Nowadays, the traders are all selling a poisonous yellow liquid - chlorine.

Outsiders are often puzzled by how this particular chemical has become such a saleable product. The answer is that it is an extremely cheap bleach, costing just 1,000 manats or 20 cents for a one-litre glass jar. It is popular with housewives for cleaning bathrooms and toilets.

And it is in abundant supply in Azerbaijan. Almost all the sellers come from Sumgait, the industrial city 30 km north of Baku. The management of the synthetics factory in the town, unable to pay their workers' wages in cash and on time, gives its employees chlorine instead of money.

In order to feed their families, the workers go to the Azerbaijani capital each morning, whatever the weather, and traipse the streets selling the Baku residents chlorine as well as acetone, furniture oil and other chemical products.

Zemfira Nurieva is one such khlorsatan, as they are known in Azeri. For the past five years, she has travelled to Baku each day with her young son, who is now aged ten. "I have to get up at six, stand in a queue from seven to nine for chlorine and then go to the city," she told IWPR. She sells her wares in the suburb of Yasamal, which is not far from a bus stop on the Baku-Sumgait route.

"By three in the afternoon, I have gone round all the streets in Yasamal. By evening my arms are hurting - it's hard to drag 20 litres around with you all day. It's good that my son helps."

Unofficial estimates suggest that there are now around 200-300 chlorine sellers, like Zemfira in Baku, each earning about 10-12,000 manats a day. They have divided up the whole of Baku into spheres of influence. And as the years go by they grow ever more inventive, learning for example to sing out their cries so melodiously that they can compare with opera singers.

There is almost no work for them in Sumgait. It is a new city, which was founded only in the late 1940s as a workers' town. Now it has around 250,000 inhabitants, but most of its plants closed down in the industrial slump that followed the end of the Soviet Union. Today only six factories are working in the entire city.

In the 1980s, Sumgait had a frightening reputation amongst environmentalists as one of the most polluted towns in the Soviet Union. Its children had an extremely high incidence of diseases, resulting from chemical poisoning.

Nowadays, the unchecked chlorine trade poses serious health risks for both sellers and buyers.

"Chlorine is dangerous for a person's skin, it can poison you, even just the smell of it can damage a person's respiratory tract and lungs," Eyub Husseinov, the director of the Union of Free Consumers of Azerbaijan told IWPR. "And chlorine destroys clothing because it corrodes cloth."

The factory owners say they have no choice but to do as they do. "We do give out chlorine, but we simply have no other way of dealing with the economic crisis," said Rahman Mamedov, press spokesman of the Azerkhimia factory in Sumgait. "Besides the head of the workshop strictly controls the amount of the substance that is sold."

"We have asked the management of the Sumgait factories several times to stop giving out chlorine as salary payments," confirmed Husseinov. "But that does not work at all, so we just have to carry on telling the public about the harm this chemical substance does."

Husseinov's organisation has also done research into the wider ecological damage that chlorine causes. "In a few words, what happens is that the chlorine passes through the sewage system to the Caspian Sea and pollutes the plant-life of the sea, which is already damaged," he said.

Nothing, it seems, will stop the trade any time soon. The hawkers used to be a source of irritation to Bakuvians, waking them up early in the morning and ringing their doorbells.

These days, the most discontented people are the bus-drivers travelling between Sumgait and Baku. Zemfira Nurieva says that the drivers are reluctant to let her on board, complaining about the sharp smell of chlorine, which disturbs them and other passengers on the 30-minute journey.

Most consumers by contrast seem reconciled to the untimely street cries. Fifty-seven-year-old Besti Dashdamirova, who tries to keep a household of herself, her husband and four children afloat said there was nothing even to discuss. "We can't buy cheap bleach?" she exclaimed. "And who was it who proved that chlorine is so terrible? Wasn't it the firms who are producing really expensive bleaches?"

Leila Amirova is a freelance journalist based in Baku

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