Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Shafi's Story

Political prisoner tells the life story of a young cellmate who spent his teenage years living homeless on the streets of Baku.
By Zaur Qurbanli

While I was in prison, I changed cell a number of times. “Moving home” in this way allowed me to get to know and talk to countless prisoners.

It’s a tradition for the old lags to tell the newcomers how things stand, for example what they need to get from home. The cell I am going to tell you about became my home on April 2, 2013. Half its residents were later transferred to other cells or sent off to the prison camps. Those who passed through it were educated and uneducated, honest and less so. A lot of the time we talked about me, simply because my case was a high-profile one.

I sometimes helped out my fellow-inmates with advice. My legal education proved very useful. I wrote statements and petitions for them, offered advice and explained the law.

At one point a new prisoner called Shafi was brought in. After we were introduced, I started advising him on the basics, as is customary – “Tell your folks at home to bring you a sports bag.”

“I don‘t have any folks at home,“ he replied.

“How can that be?” I asked. “Well, I don’t have a home. I live on the streets,” he said.

“What about your parents?”

“I don’t have any.” 

Every prisoner has been through at least one dramatic event. Shafi’s life consisted of nothing but drama. Initially, he was reluctant to talk, but over time we became closer. I still found out very little about his life. Sometimes he did seem to be getting around to telling me a lot, especially about his mother. But I was transferred to another cell, and that prevented me from hearing the details of his story.

In 2013, Shafi was 19. He was raised in the town of Ali Bairamli. I am not sure when he lost his mother. I only know that he left home after the last in a serious of blow-ups with his father. He said the relationship with his father got so bad that if he saw him now, they would likely have a knife fight.

At the age of 12 he found himself in Baku. A middle-aged man took him on as a shepherd in a rural area called At Yali. In truth, it was slavery, because for three long years the boy was exploited in return for a crust of bread. For the slightest transgression, and sometimes for none at all, his master would hang him upside down and beat him. Shafi took out his anger on the sheep, cutting their throats and watching the blood gush out. He said it made him feel calmer.

I know it seems incredible, but Shafi really did go through this ordeal. At Yali is flat desert land, although Shafi did not have a clue where it was actually located. He could only guess at how far he was from central Baku.

After three years Shafi ran away from slavery and came to the city, where his life as a homeless person began. He joined the army of tens of thousands of homeless adolescents living on the streets of Azerbaijan, mostly in Baku. He used to talk about his time on the streets with such enthusiasm that one would think they were happy days.

He spent about three years wandering one of Baku’s avenues. He did not get into theft and robbery, but joined the street children who earn their bread and money. He busked with a guitar and got occasional handouts from acquaintances.

Sometimes he did not bathe for months on end, but he washed his fine head of hair in the toilet facilities of the Park Boulevard shopping centre. He was repeatedly thrown out of there, but came back again and again to keep up his neat appearance.

Just before he was due to be conscripted for army service, he cut his wrists and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. While he was being held there, he managed to do underworld-style tattoos on his wrists and fingers. That meant he could not get a job later on.

At one point he got to know missionaries from some Christian group, who did a lot to help him. He began reading the Bible and moved away from bad ways and negative thinking. He even arrived in prison with a Bible in his hand.

Shafi’s renunciation of his old ways did not change the police’s attitude towards him. They made no secret of their intention to arrest him even if he committed no crime, although he always got out of it.

“They used to beat me as though I were an Armenian,” he said. “They threatened to do things to me that I don’t even want to talk about. While they were giving me a kicking, they told me, ‘You’ve been messing with us for so many years?’ When one of them got tired, another would take over.”

Shafi hated these officers from the police station on Neftchilar Avenue, next to the Sahil metro stop. He told me how a homeless man he had known for a long time came to visit him in the detention cell, bringing fruit and other things for me to eat and drink. “The policemen ate the lot and left me half a banana,” he recalled. “Can you imagine, they ate half the banana?”

All these experiences and the arbitrary actions the police led Shafi to become opposed to the lawless regime. He was excited by the demonstrations held on January 12 and 26 [2013]. He and I talked about the NIDA movement, about opposition, and about opposition activities. Shafi spoke about mindset, faith and the evils of dictatorship. He was a strong-minded person of high moral character.

He spoke about all the children and adolescents living on the streets. They have their own ways, their own rules. The police sometimes caught them, but they paid no heed to them the likes of the police. They lived from robbery, burglary, and theft, or earned money by begging or playing the guitar.

There were all sort. Sometimes they were joined by girls who had run away from home, and whom the worst of the boys exploited. Shafi told me how a girl under 18 attached herself to some boys who were staying in some house. “All the boys slept with her in turn. Of course she didn’t want to, but she wasn’t in a position to object as she was getting food and a roof over her head. If she had refused, they would simply have raped her,” he said. “They offered to let me sleep with her, but I felt sick at the thought and left that house.”

Sometimes the girls’ parents found them, beat them and took them home. Others ended up with pimps who exploited them as prostitutes.

Shafi was given a six-year sentence for a knife crime. His cellmate told me was sent to the toughest of prison camps. By the time he was transferred, I was in a different cell.

I learned a lot from him. I remember our last conversation, when we spoke about mainly spiritual values and the political situation. He had drawn intelligent conclusions from his [early] life at home, from the foreign missionary centres and above all from life at the bottom. I have faith that he will become an honest, freedom-loving citizen, as long as the unjust system does not break him.

There are tens of thousands of people like him living on the streets who are wasting their lives away in crime or idleness. The state has a constitutional obligation to provide mandatory secondary school education and a decent life, but it has thrown these youngsters to the winds of fate, it torments them and ruins their lives, and it takes away the only thing they have left, their liberty.

One time it was raining heavily outside. We watched it from our cell window in silence. For a joke, old man Sadiq said, “Shafi, kid, here you are in a comfortable place, on a clean bed, with food and water. If you weren’t here, God only knows where you’d be.”

Shafi smiled and replied, “I’ve sometimes had to sleep on a bench outside when it’s been raining. I’d still rather be on that bench than in this comfortable prison cell.”

His words seemed to me to be the most natural description of what freedom is. I can remember Shafi’s last words – “I’m proud to have shared a cell with you.”

Zaur Qurbanli.

The author, Zaur Qurbanli, was released at the end of 2014 after being granted a presidential pardon. Arrested in March 2013 after the NIDA youth movement he belonged to took part in demonstrations against the deaths of army conscripts, Qurbanli was convicted with seven other members of the group in May 2014. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.The judge accepted the prosecution case that the accused had stored Molotov cocktails and were planning to stage an armed uprising financed from abroad. The defendants denied that the charges had any foundation.

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