Azerbaijan: Despite state neglect, villagers make their own way

Journalist: Durna Safarova,

Photographer: Chichek Bayramli

Edition: Rural Life

If someone gets sick in Azerbaijan’s Yergi Kek village and needs urgent care, it will take around three-four hours to get them from the village to the main highway. A remote village that lacks a hospital or properly paved roads, Yergi Kek depends on residents’ ingenuity.

“In 2005-2007, I remember that we used ox sleds to transport seriously ill patients. Once my brother had a sudden pain in his kidney, and we found a car from the neighbors and took him to the doctor. Or someone got food poisoning and there was no way to take him, so we called and got advice from a doctor we knew about what first aid measures we could manage at home,” says Elshad Shahverdiyev, a resident of Yergi Kek village.

Yergi Kek, the view from the highest point overlooking the village. According to Elshad Shahverdiyev, today there are five occupied houses in the village and 15 residents.

Located at an altitude of 2370 meters above sea level, Yergi Kek is one of the highest and most picturesque settlements of Azerbaijan, about 240 km from the capital city Baku. The village is part of Gusar district, located at the foot of Mount Shahdagh and predominantly populated by Lezgi, an ethnic group. While a nearby village, Laza, has become a popular tourist destination, without roads and other amenities, Yergi Kek remains isolated, with little hope of attracting visitors.

The dirt road that connects Yergi Kek to Laza. It is built by the villagers.

Villagers claim that their requests for a paved road have fallen on deaf ears since the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by the gradual collapse of its road infrastructure. The road that used to connect Yergi Kek to neighboring villages has simply disintegrated into potholes and stones due to neglect. Eventually, a group of around 15 villagers decided to take matters into their own hands and build a road from nearby Laza village. 29-year-old Elshad Shahverdiyev is one of these initiators. After collecting around four thousand manats (around $2352), they built nine kilometers of road in seven days.

It was the second time the villagers had taken matters into their own hands.

“Before, we collected money and constructed a narrow road from the village of Kuzun. It worked for a while. Then it got destroyed because the place was not chosen well. It is still usable, but not convenient. Then, we again put money together and built a road from the village of Laza. As there was an asphalt road built by the government to Laza, it was close to our village, so we built the road in that direction. We are currently using this road.”

Elshad Shahverdiyev

Elshad’s father, Zeydulla Shahverdiyev, 71

Villager Elshad Shahverdiyev is a farmer and works as a local guide for tourists visiting Gusar district. According to Shahverdiyev, five houses consisting of 15 people left in the village. Until 15 years ago, there were 12 houses, with a total of 75-80.

“The road problem, the absence of a school, medical center, and a market made it difficult for the village community, so they gradually moved away. Roads and school are the most important. Once there is no road, accommodation is almost nil. When someone is sick, it is difficult to take them somewhere. The population is forced to move,” Shahverdiyev explains the reasons for the gradual abandonment of the village starting from 2005-2006.

Elshad’s wife Liza Shahverdiyeva, 27, is busy all day caring for her children, parents-in-law and the farm. She moved to Yergi Kek in 2017, when she got married. 

Liza carries milk home by hand after milking the cows. “It is difficult to travel by these roads, especially in the winter,” she says.

Another villager, Zohrab Ramazanov, 37, moved to Guba district some time ago. Now he visits Yergi Kek only to look after his farm. He remembers that, in order to support the development of mountainous villages, the Soviet government provided social benefits to those who lived there. It was considered as compensation for the difficult natural and climate conditions. According to Zohrab, it is still not too late to revive life in Yergi Kek.

“If the government implements a project, something like ‘return to the villages,’ if the villagers are supported, I personally will return and continue to live here. Here you can earn a good living by working on your own farm. What can be done by moving to the city? In cities, you are just hambal (ed: in Azerbaijani, it is an offensive name for unskilled workers). These places are the most fertile lands. If one person keeps 10-15 cows, you know that you have 15,000 manats at the end of the year. But the road issue is difficult. The road is the most important in the places inhabited by humans,” says Zohrab.

Local farmers’ potato fields dot the landscape outside the village, on the road.

For many years, roads in Azerbaijan have been one of the country's biggest problems. Public funds are often and generously allocated for the construction of new roads and the repair of old roads. Although the World Economic Forum ranked Azerbaijan the 27th for the quality of road infrastructure among 141 countries, the condition of roads is unsatisfactory in reality. In investment projects, roads with an expected life of 25-30 years fail after 3 years. Local media outlets often cover non-transparency and corruption cases concerning road construction.

State programs for the socio-economic development of regions in Azerbaijan have been implemented since 2004, with significant attention given to road infrastructure. A recent program covering 2019-2023 also considers the renewal of roads throughout the country, however, Yergi Kek village’s name was not included in the section about Gusar villages.

In 2019, commenting on the article by "BBC Azerbaijan" about Yergi Kek, Anar Najafli, the head of the press service of the State Agency of Automobile Roads, said that it is impossible to build an asphalt road in every village.

31-year-old resident Bahruz Novruzbayov prepares his UAZ car for a drive.

Bahruz Novruzbayov’s children. He is planning to move to Gusar district soon to be closer to the school.

One of the significant problems arising from the lack of road infrastructure is the schooling of village kids. Parents cannot afford to send their children to the neighboring villages on a daily basis for education; some of them accommodate children at the houses of their relatives living in the villages with schools. Some, who can afford to move out of their villages, do this for the sake of their children’s future. For instance, Elshad Shahverdiyev managed to study only for four years at primary school.

“I stayed with my aunt, who lives in Gusar district and I studied there until the 4th grade. Then I could not finish my education. Since I was grown up already, they sent me back to the head of the farm, and I started working on the farm. Some of my peers' parents moved away to educate them. There is a similar situation in the neighboring villages, they leave because there is no road.”

Elshad’s mother, Parisultan Shahverdiyeva, 68, with her grandchildren, Said, 3, and Gular, 5.

A homemade crib. Parisultan Shahverdiyeva tries to put 5-month-old Aysun, her youngest granddaughter, to sleep.

Constructing a school and employing teachers in a village with 5-10 houses might not sound efficient for the state budget, Shahverdiyev agrees. Therefore he suggests that after restoring the roads, the best solution is to launch school transportation. Such an initiative has already been implemented through crowdfunding. In 2017, through individual donations, the social enterprise Camping Azerbaijan started providing school buses to help children travel from remote villages to their schools. As this public initiative gained a certain popularity, some holding and private businesses approached the organizers and suggested financial help, as a part of their corporate social responsibility role. As a result, in 2020, school buses were already operating on five routes. Elvin Mammadsoy, an ecotourism specialist and director at Camping Azerbaijan, says due to the pandemic, this project stopped.

“We could not continue after the pandemic because private companies did not want to own the solution to this issue. We are not talking about three to four villages. There are dozens of such villages. Our goal from the beginning was to publicize this issue as much as possible, and at the same time to show that a school bus concept could work. In 2021, we were invited by the Ministry of Education. In 2022, we presented our first study to the ministry,” says Elvin Mammadsoy.

Since its foundation in 2014, Camping Azerbaijan explored numerous remote villages and arranged eco-tours with the aim of supporting village communities under their sub-project called Kəndabad (kənd is rural, abad is prosperous). Based on their research the team has assessed road problems in different zones. According to Elvin Mammadsoy, the last 20-22 kilometers of the traditional road of Yergi Kek (about 80 km from Gusar, the village road of Susay municipality) is impossible to use in the winter. “Because the road is icy, it is a rocky road. Even the most powerful truck cannot go there. For many years, the inhabitants of Yergi Kek had no connection to civilization - by car. From the end of November to the middle of March, it was impossible to go up there by car,” adds Elvin Mammadsoy.

Natig Sadirov, 48, initiated the crowdfunding project to build the dirt road. He is driving a UAZ car on the icy road. In some places, the ice is under the snow. Elsewhere, water on the road has pooled and frozen into surface ponds of ice.

A UAZ car, with chains attached to its wheels to travel on the roads in the winter.

Natig Sadirov is riding a horse, the main form of transportation in the past.

The new road from Laza which was constructed by the means of villagers in 2019 is again on the verge of wear and tear. The road is anyway dangerous, according to the villagers. Being partly muddy and stony, the road becomes worse after a flood or after the snow melts. Highlighting the state’s attention to the neighboring Laza village, the resident Elshad Shahverdiyev says the villagers benefit from such close care. “Because there is a road, it is easier for tourists to come to Laza. This means real income for the villagers: villagers can rent their houses out, sell the village products, and do their farming,” he mentioned.

The father of three children, he is now at the crossroads of his future life: either to leave the native village behind or leave his kids without education. It will depend on the government’s attitude towards Yergi Kek, he says.

“Some years ago, I started working as a tourist guide in Gusar district. I tried to develop our village too, so that the people don't leave here. If the state builds roads and creates opportunities for tourism, of course, the village will live, and 50 percent of those who moved will return. It is not normal for all villages to be emptied and the population to be concentrated in the cities,” he added.

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