Baku on fire: Reliving the tragedy

The May 19 blaze in Baku left the city reeling in shock and raised important questions about the “beautification” campaign taking place ahead of the inaugural European Games.


Scenes of horror

Plumes of white and black smoke were rising from the fire, as helicopters were hovering overhead dumping water on the burning building amid desperate cries of panic and chaos.

In a leap of despair, one man jumped out of the 8th floor and crashed on the pavement, while his family remained trapped in the building.

Those were the scenes from Baku on May 19 when 16 people, including 5 children, burned alive trapped inside an aging building covered with a cheap, inflammable but “look-good” material.


“I died in fire caused by ‘beautification’ facade”

One of the victims was two-year-old Fereh Meherremova, whose image circulated through social media in the aftermath of the fire. A Facebook post written in her memory and addressing the European Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee became viral. The post capturing the showcase nature of Ilham Aliyev’s Baku “beautification” campaign read the following:



Dear IOC – International Olympic Committee, European Olympic Committees and national Olympic Committees of all European countries! My name is Fereh. I was two years old. Yes, I was, not “I am” any more. Today I died in fire caused by “beautification” façade around my house because in few weeks you will travel to my country and see how “happy” we are. And my mother lost my unborn sibling after my death news. Hope you will be “happy” to see how “happy” we are. I apologise for the inconvenience. Have a nice day. Love, Fereh Meherremova, May 19, 2015

.”


Source: Social media – Fereh Meherremova, only 2 years old, was one of the victims of the May 19 blaze in Baku

The Head Supervisor for the 2015 European Games in Baku, Rasim Adjalov, linked to the above post on Facebook and announced his resignation a day after the fire. “I’m sorry values is [sic] more important than my huge salary.., That’s enough.. One day we also will have family…” he stated in the now-deleted Facebook post. When contacted by Meydan TV, Adjalov declined to comment on his decision.

Adjalov’s resignation was triggered by the controversy surrounding the usage of cheap plastic material to decorate the Azerbaijani capital and create the facade of the modern-looking and stylish construction exterior.


Baku’s beautification strategy under fire

The shocking blaze laid bare the shortcomings of Azerbaijan’s showcase strategy taking place ahead of the inaugural European Games set for June 12-28. In particular, it raised questions about the usage of inflammable plastic cladding in construction and renovation projects aimed at decorating the capital. Plastic cladding provides aging buildings with a newer look but could catch fire in “less than ten minutes,” as one local resident said. National Council of Democratic Forces (NCDF) Chairman Jamil



Hasanli



  says that plastic-coated buildings could get set ablaze even from high temperatures, let alone a burning match.

Prosecutor General Zakir Garalov stated that “the cause of the fire was the poor quality of cladding material, according to preliminary information” and vowed that an investigation would be launched.

Authorities reacted by arresting nine individuals to date in connection with both May 19 and April 10 fires. One of them is Miryusif Makhmudov, director of Global Construction, which carried out the cladding. Makhmudov was identified as the Director of a series of companies comprising the Global Group of Companies, blessed by President Ilham Aliyev himself. Aliyev reportedly attended the opening ceremonies of Makhmudov’s enterprises and even awarded Makhmudov the Honorable Engineer title in 2014.

Makhmudov’s arrest prompted ‘scapegoat’ concerns. The usage of highly inflammable polyurethane was authorized by the Standardization, Metrology and Patent Office of the Republic of Azerbaijan. In their fitful attempts to burnish the capital before international events, the Azerbaijani authorities reportedly turned a blind eye to the potential dangers of this material.

After a similar incident took place in Baku’s Khatai district on April 10, an unnamed citizen complained to the Azerbaijani authorities about the fire hazard of the material used to cover buildings but only received assurances that the cover was made of fire-proof material.

Over 800 buildings are covered with the same dangerous material in Baku only, including kindergartens, schools and even government facilities.

In an exclusive interview with Meydan TV, Hasanli said the inflammable material was used primarily on buildings located in “central streets and main avenues” to create a veneer of prosperity. “Flammable material was used to decorate the capital really fast due to the European Games. This means that the government’s approach to this issue was to decorate everything without actually improving,” he said.

Hasanli added: “High-level officials stand behind this deal. As far as I know, this issue was raised at the government level, but some high-ranking official silenced those discussions.” With regard to Makhmudov, he noted that the Global Construction chief was “only an executor” but key masterminds that hand out permits and building authorizations remain at large.


Denial of tragedy: “flowers thrown into garbage”

In a bout of denial, the government did not declare the day of mourning for fallen victims. State TV channels continued broadcasting entertainment shows unabated while the tragedy was unfolding. A day after the fire, cameras captured policemen preventing residents from laying flowers to honor the victims. Employees of housing and utility services, policemen and cleaning ladies dumped carnations laid at the memorial site into the garbage container.

As Azerbaijani citizens are grappling with the aftermath of the May 19 tragedy struggling to comprehend how the city’s appearance may be more important than their own lives, a different facade of a trouble-free state appears to be slowly unraveling. Jailed journalists, silenced critics and burning buildings confound the outward images of openness and modernity documented in the latest report by the Human Rights House Network (HRHN) and Freedom Now, “Breaking point in Azerbaijan: Promotion and glamour abroad, Repression and imprisonment at home.”

In an



interview



with Meydan TV, HRHN Head of Advocacy Florian Irminger stated the following: “Azerbaijan distinguishes itself by crackdown and imprisonment at home, but promotion and glamour abroad. At the time when it counts over 100 political prisoners and civil society was merely shut down, it is also massively present in Europe with its promotion for the European Games of June 2015. The difference in the methods is there; selling wonder abroad and thereby attracting much positive attention. This of course includes the fact that Azerbaijan’s resources allow the government to massively fund such promotion campaigns, including with Western politicians.”

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