The Baby Cemetery – Sumgait, Azerbaijan

The Baby Cemetery

Sumgait, Azerbaijan

This headstone welcomed me to the baby cemetery.
This headstone welcomed me to the baby cemetery.
In Sumgait, Azerbaijan there is a cemetery with a special section where only children are buried. Infants, toddlers, and adolescents �” they had the misfortune to be born in the most “ecologically devastated place in the world,” or so the scientists say. In 1992, the Azeri State Committee of Ecology officially declared the area an “ecological disaster zone,” and rumors abound that Sumgait once held the notorious title of highest infant mortality rate in the world. Most people spend their free time where it’s warm and the drinks have umbrellas. I was in Central Asia trying to learn about oil.

During the Soviet-era, Sumgait was the paradigm for communist industrialization. Over 45,000 workers toiled in the factories and chemical plants that sprawled across the vast, desert landscape of the Apsheron Peninsula. Their labor churned out immeasurable amounts of aluminum, fertilizers, synthetic rubbers, industrial detergents, ammonia, heavy metals, chlorine, acids, all of which were voraciously consumed by the insatiable Soviet economy. In their haste to modernize, production quotas trumped environmental safeguards. Efficiency was prized over all else; human lives were tacitly relegated to a subservient level. The inevitable industrial waste produced was shipped to the city dump, or just piled high in a vacant lot and forgotten about.

The Soviet’s myopic policies have left a chilling legacy in Sumgait: unprecedented ecological ruin. The corollary of their negligence is that over 70% of the city’s residents are afflicted by some ailment associated with environmental pollution or factory working conditions.

But it is the children who have suffered the most. The CIA estimates an infant mortality rate of 81.74 per thousand live births. The Azeri government modifies the rubric by giving the statistic per population. Thus, they come up with a significantly lower and less alarming statistic: 25 infant deaths per thousand. Statistical manipulation aside, the cumulative effects of the environment on the Apsheron Peninsula’s residents are astounding. Over half of the city’s children suffer from asthma, and the rate of defects on development hovers at around 60 per thousand. Though Azerbaijan’s position as a transit point for oil and natural gas collected from the Caspian Sea has historically proven to be both a blessing and a curse; renewed interest in Caspian resources has many Azeri’s hopeful that foreign aid will find its way to Sumgait.

While Moscow’s shackles no longer fetter Azerbaijan, scores of children �” their faces contorted by disease and defect – serve as a constant reminder that the specter of communism still haunts the land.

Tragedy has a gravity all its own, and Sumgait had it in spades. Both horrified and intrigued, I felt summoned to this place, and I boarded a minibus in Baku, the capital, bound for the city some 30 km to the north, not entirely sure what I hoped to accomplish by visiting, only sure in knowing that for reasons I wasn’t comfortable with, I had to go.

After a short drive, a veritable forest of rusting high-tension columns, decrepit nagging donkey heads, and sprawling factory compounds without roofs signaled our arrival to the city limits. As the minibus driver navigated the main thoroughfare with Formula One agility, the incongruity of Sumgait struck me. Billboards hawked vibrantly colored advertisements for Tommy Hilfiger jeans. The manicured models slouched lazily in unbuttoned shirts, while below, in the real world, rusted-out, primer-coated Volgas and Uzos sat on blocks, cannibalized for parts.

Immediately behind the poster advertising Western-Style decadence, another billboard stood, proudly featuring Heyder Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s first “democratically” elected president. Smiling, standing before the state flag and an airbrushed sky, a Nationalist slogan promised a future of prosperity and hope. With the United States committed to building a $7.6 billion dollar pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey, hope is popular currency.

The ride ended a few blocks from the beach, and I strolled past an empty children’s playground on my way to the shores of the Caspian Sea.

This wasn’t Cape Cod.

Hulking carcasses of concrete and rebar structures rot just off shore, victims of the Caspian Sea’s dramatic yet unpredictable ebb and flow. They lie abandoned a short distance from the Sea’s new edge, about where you might imagine children playing in the surf. But mothers don’t let their children play in the Caspian Sea these days. Locals claim during certain hours of the day, when the sun is aligned at a certain angle, the waves that gently lap at Sumgait’s shores radiate an eerie fluorescent yellow glow, a byproduct of the extreme levels of ammonia pollution. While I never saw the Day-Glo surf, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I did, given the damning scientific claims that a 25km dead zone extends around the peninsula. Who would have thought that a marine environment composed of a witches’ brew of industrial toxins and raw sewage wouldn’t be conducive to sustaining aquatic life?

I snapped some pictures of a young couple in the distance, holding hands, playfully pushing each other, and lovingly leaning on one another as they walked along the trash strewn sand. An offshore oil derrick belched a column of white smoke behind them along the horizon. I turned my back to the Sea and headed towards Sumgait proper.

I found a busy restaurant, sat down for a doner, and contemplated my next move: Find the baby cemetery. I had hoped to chance upon it during my walking tour of the city. That would have been convenient, and would have prevented the scenario that I dreaded. My knowledge of Azeri stopped at “Salam Aleykum”, and my Russian linguistic talents were just as inept. I had spent the last few weeks getting by on gestures and charades to communicate. I put my head in my hands, closed my eyes, and thought, “how the hell do you pantomime ‘baby cemetery’?” I shuddered at the gestures my mind suggested.

With the bill paid, I set off for an internet café �” a last ditch effort to find an English speaking Azeri who might offer some direction without moral condemnation. The last thing in the world I wanted now was to stop a random passerby on a busy street and perform this macabre and gruesome recital. Sumgait is a city of 350,000 people… There must be an internet café somewhere. Half and hour later, I saw a sign up ahead in English advertising “Internet.” My pace quickened to a jog.

No one spoke English at the internet café. Of course. Not even “hello.” I knew what I had to do. Behind a desk in the center of the room sat an ogre of a man. Andre the Giant apparently has Azeri cousins. I was about to perform the “Baby Cemetery” charade to a man double my size. To say that I was nervous would be akin to saying infinity is just a big number. I coughed to get his attention, and when he looked towards me, I took a deep breath, and pretended like I was cradling an infant. He nodded, then smiled. He understood. I steeled my nerves for the second segment.

I began to choke myself. He did not understand, and his face grew very stern.

The Giant appeared to grow angry.

I waved it off, and indicated that I was starting anew. I returned to the acts beginning, and folded my arms across my chest like I was rocking a newborn baby. Then I started choking myself, this time with morbid sound effects thrown into the performance, and finally, before he could look away, I came at him with the denouement �” the simulated act of digging a grave with a shovel.

His eyes rolled to the side and I knew the presentation had worked. I was repulsed by the depths to which I had allowed myself to sink, though relieved at the prospect of retiring that horrible charade after just one performance. He spoke to me in Azeri, attempting to confirm the message, but I just held my hands out, ignorant to whatever he might say to me.

The Giant jotted a note down on a slip of paper, and accompanied me to the street, where he graciously explained my destination to a taxi driver �” sparing me from the indignity of an encore performance. I took the note, waved good-bye to the gigantic Samaritan, and hopped into the cab.

The cab driver appeared to be one shot of Vodka away from a coma. First gear repeatedly baffled him, and no amount of curses could help him get to second. So he stopped trying, and settled comfortably into first, and kept the engine whining around 5,000 rpm. At least we were making forward progress.

He drove me immediately to a gas station. We stopped at the pumps, but he didn’t get out. A minute passed, and I looked quizzically over at him. The look was returned with a Cheshire smile — his mouth had more gold in it than Ali Baba’s cave �” and he tapped the gas gauge.

“Yeah, petrol, I get it.”

“No, no, no, you!” And he pointed at me.

Wait, did he expect me to pump the gas for him? Maybe this was an Azeri custom that I was unaware of.

My failure to understand only infuriated him, and he violently pointed at the pump, at his gas gauge, and then made that internationally recognized gesture with his thumb and forefinger: “Cash, you rich American bastard.” The guy wanted me to pay for gas. Not a chance. I fired off a crass insult, tossed the equivalent of a dollar on the seat, and stormed off. Pissed as I was, there was still part of me that was impressed at how adroitly these former communists were learning the ways of capitalism.

Fortunately, I was able to hail down another taxi without much effort, and I handed him the note. He nodded his head and invited me into his Volga. The Volga is by far the most ubiquitous automobile in any former Soviet satellite state. The moment you sit down in one, an indescribable urge to commit espionage overcomes you. Just being in one is exciting. At least it was for me, and as we sped towards the skeletons of Soviet industry, I imagined myself an operative on a mission of utmost importance, being covertly shuttled to a strategic target. Little did I know I would shortly be partaking in some subterfuge of my own.

We arrived at the cemetery’s entrance. A squat cement shed served as the main office. Behind the shed, a stonewall demarcated the perimeter of the cemetery’s grounds, and beyond that, an acre-sized pond of trash.

Standing against the doorjamb to the main office rested a police officer. He was shooting the breeze with some laborers, his hands tucked deep within the bowels of his jacket. I stepped out of the car, and held the door open. Had there been sagebrush around, I’m sure tumbleweed would have blown across the dusty divide that separated us.

Twelve years later, and still...fresh flowers
Twelve years later, and still…fresh flowers
A tense standoff ensued, and I spent the time questioning the purpose of my visit. My driver shot a head nod over to me, and we began to walk towards the group. The police officer breached the silence with a curt introduction. My taxi driver responded, and the officer then turned towards me and asked if I spoke Azeri or Russian. I answered no to both charges. He seemed suspicious. He knew why I was there. Though at the time, I really didn’t know why I was there, but I started to feel, ethically speaking, this wasn’t a place for me.

A flurry of unintelligible conversation began. When it stopped, my driver asked me, “Why, you here?”

Why are any of us here? What’s the point? I’d been reading Camus �” I was ripe for a debate on the existential dilemma, though I quickly saw the futility in it.

“New York Times. Journalist.” I pretended to write on my palm.

The lie just spilled out. It felt better believing that I was here “On Assignment” rather than just morbid curiosity. A cemetery for children is hardly a tourist attraction. I rationalized my deception by arguing that no one in Central Asia knows what the hell a wildland firefighter is anyways.

“New York!” The police officer bellowed.

“New York!” I said, in a voice two octaves lower than normal.


“Yes, journalist!”

“NEW YORK JOURNALIST!!” They laughed, and I laughed for no other reason than it seemed like the pragmatic thing to do. We now shared a collective vocabulary of three words. Of course celebrations were in order! “New York” was repeated ad nauseam, and the once awkward meeting digressed into something that felt like a contrived United Way commercial. My new friend the police officer patted me on the back as he pointed the way, and with the blessing of the state’s authorities, I set out on my way to see the graves of thousands of dead babies.

My driver brought the car around while I made my way to the site. I squeezed myself through a wrought iron gate and looked about. There were a lot of graves. Off in the distance, a flock of sheep grazed amidst the rows of headstones. Overhead, a serpentine patchwork of high-tension wires hummed an eerie dirge.

The vast majority of the graves were simple: a shallow grave, a visible bump in the soil, a few wilted flowers and a small marble headstone. Many weren’t cut, they appeared broken, with a jagged edge on one side, as if a gigantic meteor of marble had crashed and sent its splintered innards flying haphazardly about. The bumps in the dirt weren’t very long, nor were they very wide. It was quite apparent what lay beneath.

Behind me, my tax driver rested against the hood, smoking a cigarette while he waited, a look of great seriousness on his face. A group of laborers a few plots over took a break to watch me. Blank expressions. I felt like I was trespassing.

The day was chilly, bleak, and grey. There was a faint whiff of oil in the air. I let the camera fall to my side and I explored some more. Off to the northwest, the monstrous skeletons of the once industrious factories sat. I wondered how many mothers have stared at them through teary eyes while their children were buried, their anguish trivialized as acceptable collateral damage by ruthless Kremlin politics that favored production goals over lives.

Many of the headstones were remarkably ornate. The likeness of the deceased was laser-etched into the marble with a tremendous attention to detail. Many of the faces bore the obvious signs of birth defects or retardation, their mouths agape, their eyes slightly cocked. One child sat in a high chair. Some were smiling, though most had stoic expressions that seem alien to children their age.

A surprising number of graves had fresh flowers on them. A two-year-old that died in 1994 rested below a fresh bouquet. Twelve years later, someone still visits him with flowers. A stream-of-consciousness inner monologue developed, and I started sentences with, “This speaks volumes about the resilience of man,” or “Hope still flourishes despite…”, and “The strength of the Azeri people belies the sorrow of this place…” till I finally stopped myself mid-sentence. Everything I said felt perfunctory, and utterly shallow. These children would still be dead when I returned to my house that has three bathrooms and two electronic garage doors. I felt as if my mere presence was mocking their misfortune.

Joseph Stalin famously declared, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.” In Sumgait, the people learned that he was a man whose actions mirrored his words. Children died by the thousands, and they rest there, outside of the city, amidst the trash, the sheep, the factories, and everything else that the residents of Sumgait wish would disappear. I had had enough.

On the drive back, my driver asked in a roundabout way if I found what I was looking for. I took a moment, absently shrugged, and watched the baby cemetery disappear through the side view mirror. Without taking his eyes off the road he offered me a Kent cigarette. Gracious, I returned the favor and offered him a Marlboro Red. He smiled and passed the lighter over.

“Thank you.” I said in Russian.

“You’re welcome.” He chuckled, and made me repeat “you’re welcome” till I got it right.

“You, write on Sumgait? In America?” His eyes betrayed his excitement at the prospect.

“Maybe.” I answered through the smoke.

“It is not bad. Umm, no luck, yes?”

I snorted and tucked my camera back into its case.

“Luck has got nothing to do with it.”

I sensed a polemic on geopolitics, and economic inequities brewing, but knew most of it would be lost in translation. The thought drifted, and I searched for a seat belt that didn’t exist. I flipped through the pages of my notebook and came across a name I had written down. The writing was Cyrillic, and I hadn’t the foggiest notion what her name was. I just knew the letters that represented her.

Her cherub face — squished between the flaps of a winter hat, had welcomed me to the baby cemetery. I recalled her haunting eyes, peering out from her headstone. They seemed on the verge of tears, as if silently pleading.

I doubt she made it to her first birthday.

I tucked the notebook away.

Maybe I do have a story to write after all.