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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Turkmenistan: A Trip Home, After 15 Years

Published 6 September 2013

RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Yovshan Annagurban drove to Ashgabat International Airport one morning in October 1997. He was planning a quick trip to Prague, to participate in a journalism training seminar. But he suddenly found himself arrested at the airport, allegedly for carrying classified documents, and was imprisoned for nearly two weeks. He was released after an international outcry, and soon after, he decided to flee the country and travel to Moscow. Eventually, his wife and three children were able to join him, and the family emigrated to Norway. In May 2013, Annagurban traveled back to his home country for the first time in 15 years. What he found was a Turkmenistan that in some ways had changed dramatically -- and in other ways hadn't changed at all.


Old and new: A prestigious housing complex rises up behind a shepherd tending his sheep near the Turkmen capital Ashgabat. Many people still depend on livestock to survive, much as they did during Soviet times.


Ashgabat has seen rapid development, with the construction of new residential buildings and exclusive neighborhoods. The provinces have not been so lucky. At right, a newly built playground in the Turkmen capital stands in striking contrast to a volleyball field in Annagurban's home village, Dostluk, 40 years ago.


Rows of gleaming new apartments blocks line Ashgabat streets, but few people in Turkmenistan can afford them. Most contemporary flats cost between $170,000 and $200,000 -- an exorbitant amount in a country where the average monthly salary is just $300. The neighborhoods in such renovate districts are eerily quiet -- even in nice weather, very few people can be seen out on the streets.


Despite the Ashgabat construction boom, many people still live in old, cramped apartment buildings. But their cars are a different story. It's almost impossible to see Soviet cars on the streets anymore. They've all been replaced by Toyotas and other Western models.


The local markets have always been a highlight of life in Turkmenistan. Now they're bigger and more colorful than ever -- and more expensive as well.


Annagurban once had an apartment in this building, but it was confiscated by the authorities after he fled.


There are dozens of gardeners constantly tending the flowers that line Ashgabat's main roads -- a challenge in Turkmenistan's notoriously hot, dry climate.


A likeness of the Turkmen classical poet Mollanepes, whose name graces the country's oldest theater. In 1995, the theater was the site of an antigovernment demonstration. Protesters gathered in front of the theater, only to be quickly surrounded by heavily armed riot police.


A monument to the victims of World War II in Ashgabat. One of Annagurban's uncles, Annamyrat, was killed in the war as a 23-year-old soldier. The family found his grave only 40 years later, in Belarus.


The road from Ashgabat to Dostluk. The asphalt is now riddled with potholes due to lack of maintenance; the road was in far better shape when Annagurban drove on it 15 years ago. His older sister died in a car accident on this road.


Family reunion: Annagurban lies in the foreground, next to his 6-year-old niece, Gultach, who had talked about wanting to meet her uncle ever since she was a little girl. Annagurban said the most touching part of his return home was reconnecting with relatives and friends.


A platter of "pishme," or fried yeasted dough, a traditional Turkmen snack that is served with green tea during celebrations and family meals.


For Annagurban, the sight of a flock of sheep is an instant reminder of his grandfather, an illiterate shepherd. In 1937, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison by government authorities as a possible threat to the forced collectivization that was under way. He returned after five years.


Yovshan Annagurban's father, Bashim (second from right), with fellow villagers from Dostluk. Bashim worked as a teacher for 46 years.


Turkmen bread baking on the wall of a "tamdyr," a special clay oven. As a teenager, Annagurban helped his mother bake bread every other day by preparing the firewood and stoking the oven fire. When the first rounds of bread were finished, his mother, according to tradition, would offer him a piece of the hot bread dipped in water.


Young boys like Annagurban's nephew Begench (right) still while away the hours in Dostluk by playing cards, something Annagurban himself loved as a child.


The road leading into Dostluk


The interior of an old, Soviet-era Volga. Twenty-five years ago, owning a Volga was a matter of immense pride. Now they're considered shabby and second-rate, with most Turkmen preferring foreign-made cars.


A collapsed bridge in Dostluk


Children, with no easy form of transportation, often sprint the distance between villages. Annagurban said his son, seeing this boy, said, "Dad, Turkmenistan has a long way to go!"


Some 40 years ago, Annagurban used to go to work like these people -- on a tractor.


Turkmenistan has many man-made canals built to save groundwater supplies from the country's vast cotton fields. Now the government has plans to divert all the canals to feed the massive man-made Golden Age lake being constructed in the Karakum Desert. Critics say the water is likely to evaporate in the arid conditions, leaving behind a toxic residue of cotton-era fertilizers and pesticides.


The stunning Kopet Dagh mountain range on the Turkmen-Iran border. Annagurban traveled this road hundreds of times on the trip between Ashgabat to Dostluk. But he says he never noticed the beauty of the mountains until he returned home after 15 years away.