Tuesday, March 20, 2007

With zagzen, we shall smash imperialism!

Just why is this blog getting so many visits from China recently? Over twenty hits in a day and a half! Why?!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Refugees, oil rigs, and true believers

One day in the spring of last year, I went with the UNHCR to visit a refugee settlement a few miles outside of Baku. The settlement (I hesitate to call it a refugee "camp" due to the lack of tents) consists of two or three decrepit buildings, one of them once a school. The area has the sort of scorched-earth look that you might find in a toxic waste site or a fertilizer plant that was abandoned in 1960.

The inhabitants are all from Nagorno-Karabakh. In fact, they are all from one village. The government even sends the children from the same Karabakhi villages to the same schools in Baku. This is done to bolster the refugees’ sense of regional identity, but some of the Karabakhis I talked to confided that this policy only hinders their ability to integrate into Azerbaijani society and will have deleterious downstream effects – politically, economically, socially.

Next are a few shots I took in an ancient oil field on the peninsula, just outside the town of Surkhany.

As I was taking pictures of oil derricks and pools of petroleum, security police for the oil company showed up, put me in their 4X4, and took me to the local Internal Affairs (people usually just say “KGB,” but that’s not quite accurate) police station in Surkhany. I was led down a hall and into an office where I spent 45 minutes with a very courteous, matter-of-fact sort of KGB station chief. (OK, I said "KGB.") After questioning me and making copies of my documents, he let me go. And he didn’t confiscate my film!!! Great guy!

Finally, stepping into the village of Nadaran is a very strange experience. Only 60 kilometers or so from Baku, but it looks and feels so utterly foreign, even for Azerbaijan. Nadaran is a stronghold of Shi’a conservatism, and the residents have a history of violent conflict with the Azerbaijani government. I visited Nadaran in late 2005, and met the leader of Azerbaijan’s Islamic Party, a man who spent time in prison for committing espionage on behalf of Iran. Reportedly, he has been back in Iran recently, telling whoever will listen that Shi’ites are oppressed in Azerbaijan – an absurdity, but he has an agenda.

Nadaran has it all: a huge mosque devoted to the sister of the eighth imam, pilgrims streaming in on rickety buses from Iran, and very zealous village residents - who burned the Danish flag during the cartoon controversy last year, among other politico-religious gestures. Not long ago, the entire village battled troops and police sent in to quell an insurrection. The villagers hung on far longer than they were expected to, and one of the partisans told me that "there were angels here that day, and they protected us!" He was sure that the twelfth imam was here on Earth, and that the day was near when he would begin his thousand-year reign.

The walls in Nadaran are covered with murals and slogans. I like this one - simple, direct: “There is no god but Allah!!”