A Home Away from Home


by Caroline Kennedy

You could almost be forgiven for thinking, on your first visit to the simple, single-storeyed wooden structure that is Echo House, that you were slap in the middle of a typical rural setting anywhere in the world – green fields stretching out to the horizon, grazing cows switching their tails to ward off flying insects, geese scratching in the yard, ducks weaving in and out of the bullrushes in a nearby pond, the odd turtle sunning itself on the banks of a fast-flowing river. This could be the place to recharge your batteries after a heavy week of work in the city, somewhere to breathe in clean air, feel the breeze caress your cheek, stroll barefoot in the grass, switch off from the world outside, relax and unwind.

There is little here to break the silence except the evening chorus of bullfrogs searching for a twilight romance, the distant whistle of a train passing beyond the meadows, the occasional bark of a startled dog woken from its slumber by an approaching shepherd and his unruly flock.

Look closer and you will find clues as to which country you are in – men, in groups, sitting idly under the shade of an overhanging tree, sipping tea and playing dominoes. Their women, gaily coloured, in the fields, backs bent double, picking cotton. The sun-scorched domes of a local mosque shimmering silver and ready to topple down in the midday heat.

Look behind the scene and this image of idyllic pastoral life is cruelly shattered. Even Echo House itself, at the centre, is deceptive. It is not someone’s rural hunting lodge but a rundown guest house offering but the barest accommodation and an alarming lack of sanitary and hygienic facilities.

Refugee kids, Echo House 3To its left is what remains of a Soviet oil exploration site. Delapidated buildings, crumbling masonry, a huge, tangled web of corroding pipes, metal ropes and disintegrating pulleys. Antiquated, rusting machinery lying idle. Gaping, cavernous pits filled with rotting refuse, discarded tins, broken glass and stagnant, festering water – a breeding ground for the local malarial mosquito. This is the children’s playground of Echo camp in Saatli, Azerbaijan. This is my place. This is where I lived, on and off, during the last decade. This is where I lived for the best part of three years. This was my home away from home.

But “home” holds many uncomfortable secrets, has tragic stories to tell, has painful memories to share. Stop by the main gate as you enter, talk to Abil, the young man who, day after day, stands sentry there. Watch him valiantly walk towards you, agonising step by agonising step, his legs forming a figure of eight. Courage, resilience and a determination not to be beaten by his own unavoidable fate compels him to carry on – to heroically resist a walking frame, a pair of crutches or, even, a stick to support his frail body. But that, he knows – and I know – is how he will end up. Like his sister, Gamila, and brother, Azef, before him he will eventually succumb to the genetic disorder that has savagely claimed first their limbs and then their minds.

Gamila Aliyev & new wheelchairAnd what of his family ? What of his mother and father who could only watch helplessly as, at the age of 13, first their daughter and then their two sons began, stumbling, falling, losing control of their legs  These are internally-displaced people driven out of their homes by the invading Armenian army. No time to collect their belongings, no time to think where they are heading. No time for anything but sheer panic. The father, alone in his car at the time, unable to find his wife and his three totally dependent, paralysed children. Scouring the countryside, searching everywhere, looking for a familiar face in the straggling line of refugees fleeing down the road. Driven mad by fear of never seeing them again. Of losing them forever in the desperate scramble to get out of the way of the approaching enemy.

This is the Aliyev family. These are my friends. Reunited now, after that dreadful night ten years ago. Living in one room, one flight up in a disused and abandoned factory building. Lumps of masonry falling down as we talk. The daughter, Gamila, sits on a chair by the door, day after monotonous day. In the same place, never moving, never seeing the outside world. Just sitting in the same spot for a decade now. The mother, her back aching from carrying her sons up and down the stairs, prepares tea and jam for me.

With Aliyev Family, Echo HouseBut I feel ashamed. I feel helpless. I feel guilty. There is nothing I can do for these children. The father says I have done enough. That my friend and I are the only people to have cared about them, to have listened to their story, to have shown compassion, to have lent a shoulder to cry on. But in his heart, he tells me, he always knew there would be no magical cure, no miracle treatment, no new surgical intervention that could ever help improve his children’s condition. He knows they are condemned to their fate and, having lost them briefly once, he and his wife would never contemplate placing them in an institution. So I tell him that all I can do is give them wheelchairs to make their lives easier.

And so, at last, the day before I left Echo House, we delivered three shiny new wheelchairs to their door. Asef wasted no time trying his out, Suddenly, for the first time, experiencing the thrill of independence. Mobile, carefree, proud. He is immediately surrounded by curious, jostling children all eagerly wanting their turn to push him around in his new machine. The mother and I stand off a little from the crowd. Watching silently this excited, chattering, laughing group, our arms around each other, shedding tears. This is an emotional moment for both of us.

Young Abil, aloof and brave, still stands defiantly, sentry at the gate, refusing to acknowledge the wheelchair that waits for him but knowing, one day soon, he will have no choice. And what of Gamila ? She still sits by the door of her first floor room, now in her wheelchair, and I wonder if she will ever see the outside world, ever touch the grass, ever watch the birds fly, ever see the men playing dominoes under the overhanging tree, ever hear the women singing in the cottonfields or ever see the sunrise over Echo House.

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