Azerbaijan’s capital is squeaky clean. Even the fine wood trashcans gleam, as if to say, “We don’t sweep our dirt under the carpet here.” On the road with DW reporter Suzanne Cords.
It’s a beautiful day. The layer of fog over the city now dissipated, the sun shining in the bright blue sky. A good time to stroll along the newly-constructed boulevard on the bank of the Caspian Sea to the Crystal Hall and the press center beyond. Opposite the gargantuan governmental palace, the new "Park of Freedom" leads to the sea. After days of walking on concrete, the green, freshly sprinkled lawn makes me want to hop barefoot through the grass, but an illuminated mahogany sign depicts two crossed-out bare feet. So much for that idea.
The shining blue sea is a picture postcard sight. Two or three huge yachts linger at a dock, three military ships cruise in the distance. Two hundred meters further on, the path is blocked by a huge wooden wall brightly painted with Eurovision motifs and depicting happy people on the promenade. But for my colleague and me there will be no more strolling happily along. We’re turned back by 20 men in black.
Rubble, honking horns and security
The obstacle forces us to take a detour in the direction of an eight-lane highway filled with luxury vehicles engaged in a honking contest and competing for the right-of-way. Along the right of a lavish new building we hope to take a left turn back to the boulevard after another half a kilometer.
Lots of construction work going on: piles of rubble and holes in the sidewalk. Makes me feel like I’m right at home in Cologne. At the next crossroads we turn into a narrow alleyway and meet a large number of police. A couple of fences are all that stand between us and the security forces marching in line.
A grim officer asks us rudely where we want to go. He belongs to the species of black-clad creatures worldwide whose job it is to ward off unwelcome rabble. "Well, to the press center," I answer confidently. After all, I’m welcome in Azerbaijan. Not here. He tries to shoo us off.
Running the gauntlet
A pretty young policewoman intervenes, "You’ve got to go back to the painted house wall, there’s a passage there." But we just came from there and were sent over here. The good-hearted women accompanies us back the half kilometer stretch. "Haven’t we done a great job organizing this here in Azerbaijan?” she asks. "Isn’t it beautiful in Baku?" A car drives past; its young male passengers wave to us and call out: “Welcome!”
Back at the first roadblock, the men wave us away. “No,” says the policewoman, “they’re press.” But press can’t pass this point until after 8:00 p.m., six hours to go. Farewell, beautiful boulevard, it’s only 2:00. Our advocate walks up to a man with greying hair who commands respect. Apparently the person of authority here, he gestures to his men: they may pass.
The ill-mannered security guard shoves the wired gate aside and grumbles, “Welcome to Azerbaijan.” Forty pairs of suspicious eyes are trained on us. Zigzagging through the barrier fences, I wonder, what are the people in this country so afraid of? Who’s being protected from whom? Has security paranoia taken hold? At yesterday’s press conference, a young woman from England asked about human rights and was immediately drowned out by Azerbaijanis there for insulting their country. One worthy woman who is certainly no longer welcome.
Not a single pedestrian in sight; we’re alone on a magnificent boulevard that cries out for pedestrians. OK, not completely alone, every hundred meters or so stands a policeman who checks our press passes. It’s sweltering hot, and we’ve underestimated the stretch to the Crystal Hall. In other countries, there are shops, cafes - and life - in places like this. Not here. We’re greeted instead by a row of Eurovision hearts. Turning back isn’t an option. That might look suspicious.
A small electrically powered vehicle pulls up. The man behind the wheel smiles warmly and informs us in Turkish that it’s another six kilometers to the Crystal Hall, much too far. He’ll give us a lift. Germany is a beautiful country, he smiles, but Azerbaijan is also beautiful. Has he already wished us a warm welcome?
Final stop, half a kilometer short of our goal. Turn around! says the security man after having inspected our bags. Impasse! - until we appeal to his supervisor, calmly seated on a bench and sipping tea. At his behest, the guard reluctantly lets us through. After a seeming fifty additional security checks including bags x-rayed and bodies scanned, we finally make it to the press center.
We don’t want to miss the general rehearsal in the Crystal Hall. But just as Roman Lob walks onstage, the lights go out, and I stumble in the dark. That wasn’t a step! With a dubious cracking sound, I land on my knee. Not a soft landing. Getting up is out of the question. A camera man takes a big step over me, bawling out: ”Do you have to lie in the way?” Actually, no, it’s not all that comfortable here. On all fours, I crawl up the stairs to the exit, bolstered by my colleague. The mob of press ignores us.
Outside, I lean on a security fence and ask a security man for help. An ambulance stands 50 meters away as the bird flies, but I have to go around the outside, he says. There’s a doctor backstage, but I’m not allowed back there. Security zone. Meanwhile, 20 volunteers stare at me. Nobody wishes me a warm welcome. The distance to the ambulance looks like the better part of a kilometer, and I can’t walk.
Rescue comes in the form of Russian colleagues from DW, who make it clear to their compatriot that he should go get the doctor. A Russian woman hurries up with a little bottle of iodine and two band aids in a little kidney-shaped jar. With the help of my interpreters I try to tell her that torn ligaments from an old injury are the issue here, my knee just needs to be pulled back into place. A swift jerk to the leg; my husband does it three times a year. The physician won’t hear of it. "Hospital," she says, adding scary words like "injection" and "operation." Don’t panic, I say to myself and resolutely refuse.
I want a photo of myself and the surrounding crowd. As a journalist, I consider the news value, but the security man forbids it. A colleague stealthily takes a photo. Finally, a wheelchair materializes, and I’m wheeled into the press center, where I and the medical personnel undergo a security check. Then, I’m left to my fate. Now it’s up to my colleague to pull my leg back into shape. After receiving short directions, he jerks it several times, and I’m as good as new.
Possibly the world’s oldest ESC fan
Nothing stands between us and night life any more. Around the Fountain Square, it’s a lively scene. Whole families on a nighttime stroll, restaurants filled to capacity - and the Turkish beer tastes excellent. A man wheels up a little old lady up past the tables. She’s wearing a Eurovision scarf, and the back of the wheelchair is adorned with the flag of Azerbaijan.
“Wait, boy,“ she suddenly cries out in German, “these people are also ESC fans.” She spryly gets up out of her chair and hugs the English visitors at the next table. The cheerful Bavarian is 102 years old. Suddenly everybody wants their picture taken with her: waiter, families, foreign visitors. The grandson patiently snaps away. "I love the Eurovision," explains the aged fan with a wide grin, "and I have no intention of going away anytime soon. I can go to a few more ESC’s before the Lord calls me upstairs.”
Author: Suzanne Cords / rf
Editor: Sean Sinico