Agonising Scenes at Razed Baku Cemetery

Relatives distraught as bodies exhumed to make way for new highway.

Agonising Scenes at Razed Baku Cemetery

Relatives distraught as bodies exhumed to make way for new highway.

Wednesday, 26 September, 2007
The Montin cemetery in the north of Baku is an appalling sight today. It is disappearing fast. The graves are ravaged, gravestones ruined and metal railings have been removed and sold for scrap. There’s a terrible stench from scattered black plastic bags containing exhumed remains.

Just four days after officials announced that graves would be transferred to cemeteries in the Govsany and Karadag districts of the city, mechanical diggers descended on the place and started pulling out the railings and crushing the headstones.

The cemetery, which dates back to the end of the 19th century, used to be called “Armenian”, as many Armenians were buried there. Many graves also belonged to Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians, as well as Cossacks and members of the Molokany religious community. Azerbaijanis took to bringing there dead here after Armenians and Russians had fled the country in the 1990s.

The arrival of demolition teams so soon after the August 27 announcement that the cemetery would be transferred, meant that many had no time to rebury the remains of their loved ones and are now trying to find them in a place where there are no longer any graves and the ground has been levelled by the diggers.

“Bulldozers have destroyed everything here, making it very difficult to identify anything,” said Galina Kalugina, whose parents are buried in Montin. “We found their headstone, but the grave turned out to be empty.”

“May God spare anyone from going through such an experience,” said Tatyana Kolosovskaya, who managed to rebury her father before the mechanical diggers moved in.

The cemetery is being moved to make way for a new highway to relieve traffic congestion in the area. Only a small part of the burial ground will be left intact, though it may be levelled in future too, according to director of the cemetery Kyamran Mamedov.

There are currently agonising scenes here every day, as people wait for their turn to have their dead taken by lorry to Govsany. There isn’t enough manpower to attend to everyone and conflicts between the mourning relatives and the management of the cemetery occur frequently.

Officials say the reburial procedure costs nothing. “We provide everything that is needed,” said Mamedov. “The dead are buried in the presence of their relatives and friends in the Govsany or Karadag cemeteries. If the relatives disagree, they are free to have them reburied - at their own expense - in any cemetery they choose.”

But an Azerbaijani man, who had come to rebury the parents of distant ethnic Armenian relatives living in America, insists that he had to pay to have their remains transferred.

“Initially, we were asked for 300 dollars, but later we agreed on 50 dollars with the workers,” he said.

Mamedov said the remains of Armenians were reburied in the presence of their acquaintances or relatives living in Azerbaijan, but in most cases the authorities simply move the graves to Govsany.

Eldar Zeinalov, the director of Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Centre, says that relatives of the dead were not given sufficient warning of the decision to transfer the cemetery.

“It was absolutely clear that none of them had been notified properly,” he said. “As for the Armenian graves, there was the problem of the relatives coming [to Azerbaijan] to attend the reburial. As a result, a number of graves were pronounced ‘derelict’ and just bulldozed.”

Zeinalov believes that since Azerbaijanis have been affected by the destruction of the cemetery, the move is unlikely to have been linked to the Karabakh conflict. “It is the usual commercial cynicism of those who are now running the show in the construction of Baku,” he said.

International organisations have so refrained from commenting on the destruction of the cemetery, although the Russian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Valery Istratov, has expressed concern.

As the relatives of dead struggle to get the remains of their loved ones transferred to the new cemetery, vagrants and several refugee families, who have sheltered in Montin for years, wander what fate awaits them.

“We have nowhere to go, the dead will be reburied, but what’s going to happen to us, the living?” complained one refugee woman.

Leila Amirova is a freelance journalist based in Baku.

Karabakh, Azerbaijan
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