Work-Central Asia

June 11, 2004

AP Enterprise: Turkmen government denies drug problem, while addicts roam capital

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) _ Kristina tapped the veins on top of her right foot and plunged in a syringe filled with cloudy fluid, slowly pressing the stopper down to deliver her dose of heroin.

“I’m home,” the 29-year-old prostitute said, leaning back to let the high course through her emaciated body, satisfying the craving she’s nurtured as a drug addict for eight years. The cost: the equivalent of US$2.60.

This scene in a dingy backroom in the capital Ashgabat isn’t happening _ at least not according to the authoritarian government of this Central Asian nation. Since 2000, Turkmenistan has failed to report any drug seizures to international organizations and President Saparmurat Niyazov has claimed the country _ next door to Afghanistan, source of most of the world’s opium _ has no drug problem.

But like much in Turkmenistan, behind the new marble buildings of what Niyazov has proclaimed the country’s “Golden Century” lies a reality little touched by government riches, where drug dealers and addicts roam potholed streets lined with dilapidated houses.

Does the former Soviet republic have a drug problem?

“We have no problem _ you can go into any house and find heroin,” said Kristina, the name she gives clients who find her every night on a central Ashgabat street for US$10 an hour.

Some estimates say as many as half of all Turkmen men aged 15 to 40 use heroin or opium. The country’s borders with Afghanistan and Iran, another major drug transit country, are loosely controlled on both sides, if at all.

Turkmen authorities “believe there are no seizures because there is no trafficking,” Antonio Maria Costa, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said during a recent tour of Central Asia. “I would like to be reassured that’s the case.”

Any estimate of drug traffic or addiction is simply a guess as long as the government doesn’t publicize statistics _ partly because of officials’ fears of releasing any bad news that might displease Niyazov. President since 1985, Niyazov regularly fires ministers and bureaucrats in what analysts say is a means to prevent any possible opposition to his one-man rule.

However, there are some signs the government’s head-in-the-sand policy on drugs is changing. It has accepted a new U.N. project funded by the United States that aims to give US$1.1 million in equipment and training for border guards to help stop drug trafficking, and foreign diplomats have recently been allowed more open access to assess the frontier.

Turkmen border guards also recently were allowed to travel to the United States for training and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency conducted a seminar for them.

“It’s small steps, but it’s steps in the right direction,” a western ambassador in Ashgabat said on condition of anonymity.

“They are concerned but do not recognize the extent” of the drug problem, said Paraschiva Badescu, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s ambassador to Turkmenistan. “They’re not ready to discuss the causes of drug consumption.”

The level of government control over every aspect of life here has led some exiled opposition critics to accuse the regime _ up to the president himself _ of involvement in drug trafficking. No proof of such a connection has ever been documented.

Drug addicts say they are afraid to seek treatment from authorities for fear of being shipped to work camps where doctors and nurses meant to be treating their addiction actually fuel their habit to make money.

One 31-year-old former addict, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was introduced to opium while serving a five-year prison sentence for assault. He quit when he was released from prison, but then started again after coming to live in Ashgabat, which he said was awash in drugs. The addict quit cold four years ago, telling himself “either I’ll die or go to jail.”

Kristina said she was introduced to drugs by her husband, whose bank salary allowed him to indulge. He eventually lost his job, and sold their apartment and car to get money to support the habit.

When that money ran out four years ago, Kristina started working as a prostitute, seeing clients in one room while her husband waited for the money in the bathroom.

Kristina avoids a city AIDS center where she could get syringes for free, saying the employees would turn her in for being an addict. She buys them instead at a drug store, using each twice and insisting she doesn’t share needles.

At age 25, Kristina was sent to prison for two years on drug charges. She was jailed again in April for prostitution but said authorities released her after two weeks, when she started showing withdrawal symptoms and they feared she would die in custody.

Despite her ordeal, Kristina said she has no desire to give up drugs.

“I don’t want to stop, I live for heroin now. I have no other life,” she said.

May 23, 2005

AP Enterprise: Questions remain about how many, and who, died in May 13 violence

EDITOR’S NOTE _ Associated Press reporter Burt Herman visited 16 cemeteries and talked to relatives trying to get a clearer picture of how many people died when Uzbekistan’s army cracked down on an uprising in the eastern city of Andijan.

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

ANDIJAN, Uzbekistan (AP) _ Khamid Urinbayev didn’t recognize the bloated corpse of his youngest son after it lay for three days at the morgue. Finally, the 23-year-old was identified from his documents, one of the victims of a spasm of bloodshed that has put President Islam Karimov on the defensive.

It is still not clear how many people died in the May 13 upheaval that began with protests in this eastern city over the prosecution of businessmen charged with being sympathizers of Islamic extremists.

The government says 169 people were killed, most of them Islamic rebels and soldiers. Critics contend hundreds more died, and residents charge that many were unarmed civilians, including women and children.

Karimov, an authoritarian leader who has been a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, has stonewalled Western calls for an international investigation.

Aibek Urinbayev, who sold flour at the bazaar, had no history of political involvement and was on his way to check on his parents when he was shot in the abdomen, his family says.

“For three days he lay on the ground. These are people, not animals,” the 65-year-old father said angrily at his home in Andijan. “If they wouldn’t have found me, maybe they would just have buried him anywhere.”

Urinbayev was one of about a half dozen people who said in interviews with The Associated Press that relatives killed May 13 were innocent civilians. Many of those victims were young men, but no family admitted to any tie to the uprising.

Details of those interviews were lost when plainclothes officers confiscated the AP reporter’s notebook after physically threatening him.

Urinbayev’s son found his final resting place at the city’s Buzton cemetery. But it remains a mystery what happened to many of the other dead.

An Associated Press reporter over several days visited 16 cemeteries _ lying in overgrown fields on hillsides, behind makeshift brick walls and past iron gates _ but found just 61 graves that cemetery workers said belonged to victims of the violence.

There was no large concentration of May 13 dead at any cemetery in Andijan except for one, Bogi Shamol. The caretaker there said government workers came to bury 37 bodies in a nearby field without revealing their identities beyond saying they were young men.

At other cemeteries there were at most a handful of dead from the unrest buried beneath fresh mounds of dirt adorned with pebbles and flowers _ and teapots and cups to pay tribute to the dead with items used while they were alive.

The city burial office said Friday that 26 funerals had been recorded for those killed May 13, adding that others might have been interred in the surrounding region or that their bodies could still be at the morgue. Plainclothes security officers surround the morgue, refusing to allow reporters to speak with officials.

Death certificates obtained by AP were marked with numbers reaching as high as 328 issued May 14, 304 on May 15 and 279 on May 16. It wasn’t known if the numbers reflected a count that began each day, which would support opposition claims that hundreds died, or a count that began at the beginning of the year. Some Uzbek regional offices that record births and deaths total from the beginning of each year.

Uzbekistan’s top prosecutor has said 169 people were killed, including 32 government soldiers. He said nearly all the remaining dead were Islamic militants who seized weapons and freed prisoners from a jail before security forces moved in to put down the uprising. The few civilians who died were killed by militants, Uzbek officials say.

Groups opposed to Karimov’s rule say the death toll was far higher.

Nigara Khidoyatova, head of the Free Peasants party, said workers from her group recorded 745 killed.

However, despite repeated requests from journalists, Khidoyatova provided a list of only 43 names without addresses or any contact details, making it impossible to confirm the alleged deaths.

Her list included women and children _ a claim repeated by residents who told AP about troops firing at some 2,000 peaceful demonstrators gathered on the main square to support Islamic militants who had seized weapons from army and police posts before freeing the jail’s inmates and occupying government buildings.

Abdukadyr Sattarov, a rights activist in Andijan, said a day after the unrest that 15 bodies of children aged between 6 and 10 were still lying on the street about a half-mile from the square where the shooting started. In the same place, there were 30 to 50 dead women and about 100 bodies of men, five or six in uniforms, he said.

Another rights activist, Saidjahon Zaynabitdinov, has said the death toll in Andijan could be as many as 1,000 or more. Zaynabitdinov, who has strongly criticized the violence, was detained on Saturday and held on unknown charges, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

According to an AP reporter and other journalists at the scene, about 10 bodies could be seen on the main square on the day of the crackdown.

Given the lack of information, rumors about the dead are rampant. Many residents repeated claims that at least three trucks were seen hauling bodies away, but only at one cemetery did workers confirm a truck had deposited corpses.

Urinbayev said his son was returning from the bazaar when the violence erupted. Aibek stopped at home to check on his wife and then headed for his parents’ home but never arrived, the father said.

The family brought Aibek’s body home May 16 _ receiving death certificate No. 279 _ but the stench of decay was so bad after laying outside in the morgue’s courtyard for three days that they held the funeral after just a few hours.

As they mourned Sunday, Aibek’s mother, Minajad, clutched a photo from his obligatory military service, crying, “My dear son, my poor dear son.” His 21-year-old wife cradled their 9-month-old baby.

Urinbayev complained that troops didn’t warn those on the square before they opened fire. “Why didn’t they tell people to leave?” he asked.

Dec. 21, 2006

Turkmen leader put himself on display like few other authoritarian rulers

By BURT HERMAN, Associated Press Writer

No matter where you went in Turkmenistan, there was no getting away from President Saparmurat Niyazov.

He’s on every banknote and coin, his name heralded on billboards lining every main street. Golden statues of him are a landmark in every town. He was on TV and in newspapers, in schools and offices _ his portrait even graces the cabin in planes run by the state airline.

Across Central Asia after the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, signboards proclaiming the teachings of Vladimir Lenin were painted over with slogans preaching the newfound nationalism of the former local Communist leaders who held on to power.

But Niyazov, who died Thursday at age 66 of heart failure, had an exceptional flair for showmanship and put himself on display like few other authoritarian leaders. In a way, his regime was ironically transparent, allowing the public to see their leader in action on a regular basis.

Before the nightly news in Turkmenistan, a clock bearing the image of Niyazov glancing at his watch counted down the seconds for the latest bulletin.
The lead news item was always about the man called “Turkmenbashi,” or “Father of all Turkmen,” heading to villages for the harvest or meeting with visiting businessmen eager to get a cut of the country’s energy spoils.

News broadcasts often lasted more than an hour _ with the state-run channel’s editors apparently wary of trimming anything about their leader.
A typical newscast would be a virtual “day in the life” of the president, starting with Niyazov driving his black Mercedes to work, then perhaps hopping on a helicopter to a village to watch farmers in action.

Residents would sing and dance to the delight of the rotund Niyazov, who would regally wave his burly hands decked with golden rings and clap softly. There would be speeches by elders, and perhaps the president himself would take a scythe to a wheat stalk.

No matter what else was on TV, a golden profile of Niyazov beamed from the corner of the screen _ the logo of his self-proclaimed “Golden Century” for the country.

In case you missed it the night before, government newspapers would always report the president’s doings as their top story the next day.

In the capital of Ashgabat, the central landmark is a golden statue of Niyazov that rotates slowly during the day to face the sun. A grand cape flowing behind him had some residents joking privately that he looked like Batman. At night, lights make the statue visible even to planes landing at the city’s airport.

Across the city are the beloved water fountains he erected despite the country’s parched landscape.

All offices and schools are required to have rooms dedicated to studying a pseudo-philosophical tome authored by Niyazov called “Book of the Soul.”

The book purports to trace the history of Turkmen, and is also a memoir of the president’s life with touching moments _ such as the young Niyazov tracking down friends of his father who died in World War II. Niyazov became an orphan after the rest of his family was killed in a 1948 earthquake that struck Ashgabat.

The book has its own monuments, with a giant version of the pink-and-green covered volume gracing a central park that is home to yet more statues of Niyazov. Every evening, the book’s cover mechanically opens.

The incessant propaganda doesn’t mean the people of Turkmenistan are isolated from the world. Even though Niyazov sought to sever access to foreign media and travel, forests of satellite dishes sprout from apartment balconies where Turkmens turn to outside channels, often Russian, to get a relatively broader world view.

They are now watching to learn the fate of their country, where the omnipresent president gave few hints of a possible successor and the face that will be greeting Turkmens daily in the future.
___
EDITOR’S NOTE: Burt Herman, now The Associated Press bureau chief for Korea, has covered Central Asia since 2001, including several trips to Turkmenistan.

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