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Turkmen Capital's Renewal Unsettling For Residents

Many Ashgabat residents of homes to be demolished end up selling their belongings in the street, when they are evicted with little or no notice.
Many Ashgabat residents of homes to be demolished end up selling their belongings in the street, when they are evicted with little or no notice.
If someone is going to lose their home in Turkmenistan's capital, it's always the occupant who is the last to know.

"Rumors -- this is how people in Ashgabat first hear about impending evictions from their houses," says Murat, a 40-something Ashgabat resident.

Murat, who declines to give his full name, is speaking after hearing that dozens of private homes on the city's outskirts are slated for demolition.

It's all part of an urban-renewal plan that has been going on in Ashgabat and the surrounding Akhal Province for more than a decade. Yet, according to Murat, residents "don't have a clear idea what areas will be demolished, or when exactly they will be demolished."

The authorities' stated goal is to improve social conditions for citizens, but the 20-year plan is often having the opposite effect.

Murat explains that since January, several private homes have been bulldozed by the authorities in Murat's native Pervomaisk neighborhood, located outside the Turkmen capital. "People were given only a two-week notice to vacate their houses, and authorities offer little or no financial compensation," he says.

Turkmenistan's 1993 law on property ownership stipulates that for the state to make a claim on any private property, it must do so through the courts. If a ruling is made to transfer ownership to the state, the government is then required to provide alternative housing for homeowners slated to lose their property.

But the law does not specify how much notice the government should give homeowners before evicting them, and many complain that the housing they receive in exchange is inadequate.

State media reports say evicted residents are given brand-new apartments, but those who spoke to RFE/RL indicated that the trade for a unit in a concrete apartment block is unfair for homes that in many cases have been in a family for decades.

Showing Up With Bulldozers

Jahan, a housewife who spoke on condition that her last name not be used, is among those who have been provided with alternative accommodations.

Turkmen traditionally have large families, and it is not uncommon for three generations to share the same home. Jahan says her family house on Ashgabat's outskirts had "many rooms, several outbuildings." Jahan, her husband, their three sons with their wives and children, as well as her elderly in-laws all lived together and "had some degree of privacy."

Now she and her extended family of 27 are living in two four-room apartments in Ashgabat's newly built Parahat area. "It's very tough. Each apartment has only one toilet and one bathroom," Jahan says. "Most of the time, we line up to use the bathroom."

Ashgabat residents say they get little notice before the bulldozers arrive.
Ashgabat residents say they get little notice before the bulldozers arrive.

The change came suddenly when, in late 2012, officials arrived to inform local residents that their homes would be bulldozed within days to make way for new, modern homes and roads.

"Officials demanded that people sign documents agreeing that their homes would be demolished," Jahan says. "They threatened people with court, with punishment. The moment you sign the document, you lose all rights to your property."

She says that the authorities "bring bulldozers and start demolishing houses. People have little time to gather their belongings or to sell stuff that they can't take with them. They don't know what to do."

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The situation is commonplace enough that one booming bazaar has earned the moniker "Tears of Akhal," so named because it is filled with furniture and possessions hastily sold off by evictees.

Jahan says most of her former neighbors in Chandibil are still living in rented places and waiting to receive the accommodations promised by city officials. Some were given apartments in buildings that are still under reconstruction.

New And Modern, At What Price?

But not all are unhappy with the Turkmen renewal plan.

Gozal, a 32-year-old doctor who gives only her first name, says the project has completely changed the face of Ashgabat. "It has become a modern, clean city, and I think nothing is wrong with destroying old, shabby houses."

Even Murat, who is expecting eviction any day now, admits the plan works out well for younger professionals who have smaller families.

"But in Turkmenistan," he adds, "many people have many children, they get small wages," and the costs of moving and the inconvenience of being uprooted can affect livelihoods.

He is preparing for the worst. He is selling his old washing machine and furniture, showcasing them outside his one-story brick house. He is even negotiating with a man from neighboring Mary Province who is interested in purchasing his home's windows, doors, and other building materials before it is demolished.

Written by Farangis Najibullah, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service