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In Turkmen Disaster Zone, Officials Are Quick To Scrub Phones But Slow To Rebuild


A residential building damaged from the storms in Turkmenistan's Lebap Province.

TURKMENABAT, Turkmenistan -- Two hours of electricity a day. Phone and Internet mostly cut off, though users can catch an occasional signal. And homes still lying in ruins.

It's the grim state of life in Turkmenistan's northeastern Lebap Province since devastating windstorms slammed it and neighboring Mary Province in late April.

They downed power and phone lines in many areas, and the government has provided little or no support to some remote settlements as residents struggle to rebuild their homes, livestock shelters, and livelihoods.

It marks a continuing crisis for them that the rest of the nation has seemingly ignored, despite dozens of deaths reported by eyewitnesses including RFE/RL correspondents.

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov made no mention of the catastrophes when they sliced through this section of northeastern Turkmenistan, near the borders with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, on April 27.

The state-dominated media, closely controlled to quell dissent and prop up a cult of personality around Berdymukhammedov, the country's second post-Soviet leader, also failed to cover the tragedy.

And the silence mostly continues, bolstered by tight security precautions around Lebap.

Officials in Lebap would not comment on recovery efforts or residents' complaints of a lack of support from the government.

Checking Phones

In villages where rebuilding work hasn’t yet begun, residents tell RFE/RL, police and intelligence officers monitor people’s movements and question visitors.

The officials check mobile phones as people enter such areas and again when they leave, in an effort to ensure that no photos or videos of the lingering destruction go with them.

Some residents suspect that authorities are deliberately blocking Internet service in many places to prevent information from getting out.

With media tightly controlled in Turkmenistan, illicit photos and videos of the damage, mostly taken on mobile phones, was how the outside world learned of the devastating windstorms.
With media tightly controlled in Turkmenistan, illicit photos and videos of the damage, mostly taken on mobile phones, was how the outside world learned of the devastating windstorms.

“We think that until the recovery work is completed, the WiFi will remain blocked in Lebap,” one resident told RFE/RL.

Residents are even turning up at government offices in the provincial capital, Turkmenabat, and in the Charjew and Farap districts to complain, something they were previously reluctant to do out of fear of retribution.

The government’s handling of the situation led to a rare protest rally in Turkmenabat on May 14.

Several hundred people gathered in front of a government building to demand that authorities restore water and electricity and help residents repair their homes and clear away debris.

Locals openly criticized the authorities during recent conversations with an RFE/RL correspondent, a rare occurrence in a country that U.S.-based democracy promotion NGO Freedom House describes as "a repressive authoritarian state where political rights and civil liberties are almost completely denied in practice."

Scale Of Damage Still Unclear

Some sources put the number of dead from the windstorms and severe rains that first struck on April 27 at at least 37 people, but that number could not be verified.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) visited the Lebap Province in June in a trip extensively covered by state media.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (right) visited the Lebap Province in June in a trip extensively covered by state media.

Homes still lie in rubble in the villages of Vatan and Osty in the Dyanev district, with similar scenes in many neighborhoods in the Charjew district, where life is far from returning to normal.

In the absence of a developed and transparent home-insurance system, many homeowners long accustomed to the vestiges of Soviet life rely heavily on the government in such circumstances.

For many of Turkmenistan's 6 million people, the fierce storms added to the woes of years of financial crisis, widespread unemployment, and mounting price hikes for food.

It was through social media and smartphone images and clips that the outside world learned of the windstorms and their devastating aftermath in Turkmenistan.

Having remained silent for months, Berdymukhammedov visited Mary and Lebap provinces in early June as part of his traditional tour of each region of the country.

During the trip, which was extensively covered by state media, the president avoided visiting areas hit by the spring storms or meeting with any of the residents who lost family members, homes, or livelihoods.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by an RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent in Lebap
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