|Catching up with Seyidbanu at Umbaki leprosarium, Azerbaijan|
In October I made my first visit to Azerbaijan in a decade. During my stay, I took the opportunity to go back to Umbaki leprosarium. As I set out on the 80-kilometer drive from the capital, Baku, I wondered how the residents I had met 10 years ago were faring.
The leprosarium is situated in the semi-desert area of Gobustan. As I studied the passing landscape, devoid of any greenery, impressions from my previous visit came back. Many leprosaria were built away from population centers, meaning that their inhabitants were cut off from society. Umbaki was no exception. Opened in 1926, it was the only leprosarium in the Southern Caucasus, then part of the Soviet Union. It moved several times, before finally settling at its current location in 1957. At the time, there were around 300 inhabitants.
As we approached Umbaki, a solitary metal gate appeared in the distance, marking the entrance. Alighting from the car, I saw a familiar figure approach; it was Dr. Vidadi Aliyev, the head of the leprosarium. I showed him photos from my previous visit and asked if the people in them were still there. He studied them carefully. “Many have since died,” he told me.
Of 30 residents in 2007, only 10 women and five men remain today. Almost all are in their eighties. First I called on Sayara. “When I heard we would be receiving a visitor from Japan, I thought it would be you. It is wonderful to see you after so long,” she said. She reminded me that she had been admitted to the sanatorium in 1969 and had continued to live there after being cured, doing nursing work.
Next I spoke with Seyidbanu who was relaxing in the garden. She was born near Iran and entered the sanatorium at 14; she has lived there ever since. Although she has kept in touch with her family, she has never returned to them. I could imagine why, but could not ask.
An elderly man wept at the sight of his late wife, when I gave him a photo from 10 years ago. A woman told me with a big smile, “My daughter brought my grandchild here to meet me.”
After meeting with the residents, I toured the compound with Dr. Vidadi. He pointed to the lush foliage. “Around us is desert, but in here residents have prepared the soil and planted fruit trees. It’s an oasis,” he said.
In one sense, yes; but considering the lives they have led, cut off from society and having to lean on each other for support, somehow the word did not seem right.
Catching up with Seyidbanu at Umbaki leprosarium, Azerbaijan