Through the heat haze reflecting off the carriage roofs, through the belching smoke from the nearby asphalt factory, through the dustclouds whipped up by the unrelenting winds, you can catch a fleeting sight of them. Like phantoms, blurred, pallid, vague silhouettes, now here, now there, wafting in and out from behind the ancient railway wagons. Nimble, agile, fleet of foot. One moment in sight, a wisp of smoke, a puff of soot, then gone. Unreachable. Untouchable.
But when the air clears, there they are again. Or are they ? Is it my imagination? Are they an illusion, a mirage ? Could the dwindling light, the shadows, the dustclouds be playing games with the wind, perhaps ?
But here they are, approaching me, seemingly hordes of them, though, in reality, probably far fewer. Closer now they come, grubby, barefooted figures of young children, bare, fleshless arms outstretched towards me. Clothes ragged, hair matted, limbs encrusted by soot. But it’s their eyes that catch my attention. Not the normal eyes of children. These eyes are unresponsive, dulled by hunger, by lack of motivation, by boredom. They are lustreless, unflickering eyes of children, old beyond their years, some born, some growing up, all living on the railway lines of Saatli.
Home to these children are abandoned railway wagons, no more than corroded metal junk heaps, destined decades ago for the scrap merchant’s yard. Windowless, airless, dank. No ventilation, no light, not even the winds penetrate these dark hovels. Life inside these improvised dwellings is lived in perpetual darkness. Stifling in summer when the brutal rays of the sun blister everything in their grip. Freezing in winter when the ill-fitting sliding doors offer no protection against the bitter, howling gales and the persistent snowstorms.
The only shade now – not trees, for there are none here – but the back-breaking space beneath the wagons. Here the weak ones sit, day after day, singly and in groups, hunched up, cramped, listless, pitiful. The lack of animation evident in their dispirited expressions, their vacantstares and their inability to brush away the invading army of flies which voraciously seek out their eyes, their mouths and any available open sore on their bent and feeble bodies.
Under a white shroud, like a mummified corpse, lies a woman the impoverished medical system in this country has either forgotten, neglected or, deliberately, ignored. Mind confused, right side paralysed by a minor stroke, she lies, day after day, mumbling words only she can understand. A despairing old man, her husband, puts his ear to the faintly moving lips beneath the veil covering her face, vainly trying to interpret their meaning. He shakes his head, desolate, for he can do nothing for her but watch over her and caress her shrivelled, veined hand. A small disabled boy lies next to her, dribbling, moaning, wretched, his unfocussed eyes infested by the myriad flies.
I watch this scene, moved and saddened, yet somehow transfixed. Reluctant to intrude but, nevertheless, wanting to be a part of it. I move closer. At the same time, voyeur and participant, observer and player, detached yet intimately involved.
And, as I squat down beside them a cast of characters crawl in and out from under this wagon. A heavily pregnant mother, panting furiously, brow sweating, her swelling draped in purple nylon, heaves her weighty body under the train and settles herself gratefully in the shade. An old woman, doubled up by age and defeated by years of arthritis, drags her distorted limbs painfully under the carriage, sinking, with a sigh, onto the temporary coolness of the metal track. A young man, a soldier from the war with Armenia, his left leg blown off by a recent encounter with a landmine, discards his ancient crutches, stumbles forward, then flops inelegantly down onto the ground beside her. Turkeys, geese, hens, ducks, cats and dogs, ever willing to fill their empty, worm-infested
bellies, scratch for crumbs of food among the feet of this motley cast.
The children have joined me now. In swarms they come, hurtling up the track, pursuing me with chants of “Arnu Swarznegger, Bruze Lee, Junclode Vundam!” Simulating karate chops, high kicks and beefcake muscles, they have suddenly come alive. For one brief moment, no different from children anywhere. For foreigners are few here and so arouse immediate curiosity. Those that do come rarely stay. Few have time to sit for a while, to chatter, to play and, above all, to listen. They come with nothing and they leave with nothing, for the railway wagons are inhospitable, uninviting and offer little in the way of comfort to the visitor.
The children, their dead eyes sparkling now, jostle around me, pushing, shoving, touching, eager to get a closer look. One or two grasp my hands, help me to my feet, lead me on. Others, naturally shy, hold back, quietly observing me from a distance.
I spend some time here, with my new friends. But can I really call them my “friends” when I know, in no time at all, I shall be leaving them ? I shall go home and, in all probability, I will forget them. And yet, I know there is this feeling, they will continue to haunt me, these railway children of Saatli, these images of despair, so young, so vulnerable, so needy.
It is evening now. Dusk’s shadows, distorted and kicked in all directions by the unpredictable winds, throw dancing patterns over the broiling, dusty ground, flickering images, like a monochromatic kaleidoscope. The sun, falling in the west, vast, shimmering and aflame, paints the sky cinnamon. Plumes of cinder smoke, gusting from the factory chimney stack, release a delicate network of fluffy ashen threads across its sinking path.
I watch in silence, holding a child’s hand, as the gently fading rays turn to a soft, golden apricot before finally being swallowed up by the welcoming earth. I squeeze that little hand in mine. I must go home now. Night comes swiftly here in Saatli. But no matter how dark it becomes, no matter where I am, wherever I go I will still see those children’s eyes, not normal children’s eyes. Eyes of children, old beyond their years.
Caroline Kennedy is the In-Country Co-ordinator of Leonard Cheshire International in Azerbaijan, working with refugees with disabilities.