Building Collapse Shakes Azerbaijan

Azerbaijanis are worried about the safety of thousands of Soviet-era buildings.

Building Collapse Shakes Azerbaijan

Azerbaijanis are worried about the safety of thousands of Soviet-era buildings.

Nurana Allahverdieva, a 24-year-old refugee from Azerbaijan’s occupied Jabrail district, says she thanks God every morning when she wakes up to find herself and her family still alive.


Allahverdieva and her family of six live in a nine-storey apartment block in the Khatai district, on the edge of Baku. The typical Soviet-style grey building, a few hundred metres from the shores of the Caspian Sea, is home to almost nearly 130 families, most of them internally displaced persons, IDPS, from the Karabakh war of 1991-94.


The building used to have 16 storeys but the top seven were demolished after it slid some 12 metres away from its original site ten years ago.


The tower, surrounded by piles of garbage and hundreds of blocks of concrete, is now tilting backwards by five to eight degrees, and experts worry it may come down at any time.


Allahverdieva’s grandmother, Tukazban Jafarova, 65, says that every night the family goes to bed fearing that something bad will happen. “I am not afraid for my life. I have lived long enough. I only feel sorry for these little kids,” she says, pointing to her two small grandsons.


Jafarova says she is ill and needs to receive medical treatment at home, but the doctors are afraid to come to her unsafe apartment. “We are helpless people,” she said, her wrinkled hands trembling. “If we had a place to go to, would we come to live here?”


The IDPs, who are mostly from areas now occupied by the Armenians, settled in the building in 1993, when its construction had not been fully completed. In the strong earthquake that shook Baku three years ago, deep new cracks spread through the walls.


It is not only refugees who are at risk. On January 29, an apartment building collapsed in the town of Lenkoran, 400 kilometres south of Baku. Seven people were killed and nearly 20 were injured when two sections of a five-storey apartment building tumbled down.


Experts said the 30-year-old building collapsed because its foundations had been eroded by underground water. While officials claimed that they had told residents the building might be in danger, the latter said they had received no warnings.


Government spokesman Akif Ali said a commission has been set up under prime minister Artur Rasizade to investigate the tragedy, and will report back to President Ilham Aliev. He said the commission is also examining three other buildings in Lenkoran which are also believed to be in a perilous state.


But the problem for Azerbaijan is that thousands of concrete apartment buildings were put up in Soviet times and no one seems to have a good idea of what kind of state they are in now.


Omar Gochulu, a well-known architect who also heads the Projects Institute for Azerbaijan’s communications ministry said that Soviet-era buildings, although very ugly, were generally very strong and he could not fault their basic design. It was the actual building process that was to blame.


“I think the constructors of the buildings are to blame,” Gochulu said. “There were numerous reports of building materials, such as cement and sand being stolen by builders and their bosses in the Soviet period.”


Furthermore, he said, in their haste to meet deadlines and win competitions during the housing boom of the 1960s and 70s, Soviet builders often failed to examine properly whether the sites they were using had subsoil waters or poor soil.


And it seems that where those fundamental problems exist, the authorities are not doing anything to tackle them. In calls from IWPR to the mayor’s office, the refugee commission, and the architecture and construction committee, no one appeared to be aware of the precarious position of the apartment building in Khatai.


The residents said they had been visited by officials who assured them the block was safe. But Gochulu told IWPR that even an inclination of one degree was dangerous, and suggested that the building was slowly falling over, possibly due to underground water.


Allahverdieva said that there was no water and no electricity in the building when they came here five years ago. She recalled, “We collected money from the residents and paid to have a sewage system built and for water to be pumped out of the basement five times. But water is still leaking into the basement.”


President Aliev signed a decree last week ordering new towns to be built in western Azerbaijan near the occupied territories, to house thousands of refugees. The government will allocate 395 billion mantas, 80 million US dollars, from the state oil fund to finance the project. But even the Khatai residents seemed unenthusiastic about moving to a new place and making another new start.


Another resident, Dilare Ojagova, said that she was well aware of the dangers of living in the tilting tower block, but added fatalistically, “What can people do? This is the cheapest place to buy a home. People don’t care about the state of the building.”


Zulfugar Agayev is a correspondent with newspaper Baku Sun.


Karabakh, Azerbaijan
Support our journalists