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Fighting For Scraps: Poverty-Stricken Turkmen Eating From Garbage Cans

While digging through garbage is something that has always existed in Ashgabat -- as it does in every big city -- it's usually practiced by the homeless. (file photo)

Some residents of Turkmenistan's capital, Ashgabat, say they have resorted to digging through refuse to look for food and other items as a devastating economic crisis tightens its grip on the hermetic Central Asian country.

The situation has become so severe that "people even fight over the contents of garbage containers," RFE/RL's correspondents in Ashgabat report, citing residents in the stiff, white-marbled city.

It's not uncommon in some neighborhoods to see self-proclaimed "guards" who won't allow anyone to scavenge in the large metal dumpsters where residents of nearby apartment blocks throw their household trash.

The "guards" go through the contents of the containers themselves, mainly picking out discarded food and clothes, residents told RFE/RL.

"There is now a new 'guard' at the refuse site near Building 21 in the Mir 2/1 neighborhood," an RFE/RL correspondent reported on January 27, citing Ashgabat denizens. "He drives away people who want to search the containers for bread, bottles, cardboards boxes, clothes, and other items."

The residents say the self-appointed guard claims he is the only one who "has the right to dig through the garbage there."

Others who depend on the trash to find a meal have to wait until late evening when the "guard" goes home to sleep. Residents say people will sometimes fight over a piece of bread or something like a glass bottle.

While digging through garbage is something that has always existed in Ashgabat -- as it does in every big city in the world -- it's usually practiced by the homeless.

But the lack of jobs, food price hikes and shortages, and increasingly low wages for those fortunate to be employed have left some people with no choice but to turn to scavenging, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondents report.

According to one RFE/Rl correspondent, it's now "commonplace" to see children "searching through trash bins with their bare hands."
According to one RFE/Rl correspondent, it's now "commonplace" to see children "searching through trash bins with their bare hands."

Those who spoke to RFE/RL refused to give their names as everyone in the authoritarian state knows that officials don't tolerate criticism of the government or discussion of societal problems.

Ashgabat city officials didn't respond to RFE/RL's phone calls and messages asking for comment on the situation around the new class of people picking through garbage to make ends meet as the economic crisis bites harder.

Turkmenistan -- since late 2006 under the tight control of mercurial leader Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov -- is into its fifth year of increasingly harsh economic conditions that have led to shortages of several food staples and household goods as rampant inflation and massive unemployment have put many people in a desperate financial situation.

Turkmen officials and state media refuse to acknowledge the country's crisis, instead putting praise on disappointing harvests, the opening of new buildings that remain empty, and colorful parades and mass celebrations where participation is often mandatory.

Berdymukhammedov even projected late last year that "in terms of gross domestic product per capita, labor productivity, and people's real incomes, Turkmenistan will be on a par with the leading world powers in the period of 2021-2030," state media reported.

But reality paints a much different picture.

According to several Ashgabat residents, people sometimes even come from nearby rural areas to the capital to look for food and other discarded items in the trash containers.

The situation is no different in some provincial capitals, RFE/RL's correspondent in the southeastern city of Mary reported.

"It has now become commonplace to see families, including children, searching through trash bins with their bare hands," our correspondent said on January 17.

"They open each plastic bag and check its contents. If they find anything edible they put it in a separate bag and also put glass and plastic bottles in separate piles," the correspondent said.

It's difficult to get a completely clear picture about life in Turkmenistan as authorities don't allow independent media into the country and have blocked access to all major social media sites amid tight control over Internet access.

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondents in Ashgabat and Mary
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

    RFE/RL's Turkmen Service is the only international Turkmen-language media reporting independently on political, economic, cultural, and security issues from inside one of the the world’s most reclusive countries.