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Turkmenistan: Silent Anniversary of Deadly Blasts in Abadan

Question: How did the Turkmen mark July 7, the first anniversary of the explosions at an arms depot in the town of Abadan? Answer: They marked the anniversary in silence. There were no reports in local or international media. Turkmen netizens also remained silent.

What happened in Abadan?

On July 7, 2011, state-run media in Turkmenistan reported [ru] that a summer heat wave caused a fire and a series of explosions at a fireworks warehouse in Abadan, not far from the country's capital, Ashgabat. The government quickly restricted information surrounding the incident. Landline and cell phone connection to the town was cut. Internet connection went down as well. Many people taking pictures or filming the blasts had their cameras taken away by police. Besides, chrono-tm.org, an independent emigre news site that covered the incident, had reportedly been hacked to prevent information from spreading. Many residents fled Abadan before security agencies shut down and isolated the town.

One of the blasts in Abadan caught on tape. Screenshot from video uploaded on September 26, 2011, by Youtube user maxrimas.

Despite the Turkmen government's attempts to cover up the incident, it was clear right from the beginning that explosions occurred at an arms depot located near the town. While the government claims that 15 people died as a result of the blasts, unofficial sources believe there might had been up to 300 deaths.

It was not until July 10, 2011, that the authorities admitted [ru] that there had been explosions at the arms depot:

[В]озгорание, произошедшее в результате особо жаркой погоды, установившейся в последние дни, привело к детонации пиротехнических средств и их разлету на значительную территорию, в радиусе которого оказался армейский склад, где хранились подлежащие утилизации взрывчатые средства от боеприпасов времен Советского Союза.

The fire that occurred as a result of particularly hot weather, which [the country] has experienced over the last several days, led to detonation of fireworks and their spreading to a larger territory, including an army warehouse with Soviet-era explosives stockpiled for utilization.

Hushing up the blasts

Afterwards, the authorities dropped all mentions of fireworks and arms depots. In this official report [ru], for example, the incident was vaguely attributed to ”explosions at warehouses”:

Напомним, что в соответствии с постановлением президента Туркменистана город Абадан, пострадавший от взрывов, произошедших на складах в окрестностях города, было решено отстроить на новом месте…

We would like to remind you that based on a decree of the President of Turkmenistan, the town of Abadan which was damaged as a result of explosions at warehouses located in the town's outskirts will be reconstructed at a new location…

Overall, the authorities have lately preferred not to mention the blasts at all, in an apparent hope that people will forget about the deadly incident. Twelve months after the blasts, there is no official day of morning for the people who died in Abadan in July 2011.

Nevertheless, YouTube retains a permanent memory of the blast. In the above video, recorded through a window in a house located in the vicinity of the burned down arms depot, several loud explosions can be heard as the camera captures a smoke-filled sky. After some time, a police car heads in the direction of the blasts, while a man in an official attire ushers onlookers away. The video ends with an almighty blast and the sound of cracked glass.

Another video shows Abadan residents fleeing the town:

After watching the first video on Youtube, Onur Aksaray commented recently:

guess what..no one heard of it… neither does anybody know the exact number of dead omg

The residents of Abadan have also managed to disseminate pictures depicting the destruction caused by the blasts. Some of the pictures can be viewed here.

No mourning for the victims

The Turkmen government's reluctance to commemorate the victims of the Abadan incident has left many people disappointed.

As Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, a human rights advocate and blogger wrote for Gundogar about a month after the explosion:

An official day of mourning was never declared, to the chagrin of those who have suffered. Some residents are hoping that when the town is reconstructed, as President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov promised, some kind of memorial service will be organized, perhaps in nearby Kipchak, site of Turkmenistan's largest mosque, and that a traditional sadaka or feast will be held. Yet the government has been more preoccupied with plans for celebrating the 20th anniversary of independence this fall

Even on forums accessible to the nationals of Turkmenistan, where dissent is rare, netizens were unafraid to vent their frustrations. OWEN, a member of a popular Turkmen forum, Teswirler commented on July 8, 2011 [tk]:

Erbet gynandym.Allajanym asmanymyz asuda yurdumyz parahat bolsun! Allahym Yurdumyzda beyle betbagtcylyk iñ soñky gezek bolsunda herna.

I was very sad. Let God bring peace to our nation. Let this terrible event be the last one in our country.

While Terrorzini said [tk]:

Bolýa, ýapalyň! Ýörüň, barymyz gidip Türkmen owazyndaky görkezilýän klipleri göreliň! Nämä gerek olaryň ýagdaýyna gynanyp, asla ol gürrüňleri agzamak nämä gerek. Abadanda şu wagt öýleriň aýnalary kül-uşak. 4-5 tanşym bilen jaňlaşdym. Ilat giden panikada. Türkmen owazynda bolsa aýdym gidýär. Başga döwletlerde şeýle ýagdaýda ähli razwlekatelnyý programmlar yatyrlyar. 1-2 günlük matam yglan edilýär.

Alright, knock it off. Let's just watch Turkmen Owazy [state entertainment channel]. Why do we need to whine about our grief? Why do we even need to mention it? All windows were broken in Abadan. I called some of my friends. While residents are in panic, Turkmen Owazy starts playing music. Other states stop entertainment programs if something similar happens, and announce days of mourning.

Where did the voices go?

One of the most impressive aspects of the post-Abadan reaction was that despite the country's isolation and an authoritarian regime, the Turkmen have managed to make photos and videos from Abadan globally accessible. As Freedom House has reported:

Significantly, in July, 2011, the explosion of a weapons depot outside the capital city, which resulted in many casualties, highlighted the ability of a small band of citizen journalists using smartphones and the Internet to derail attempts by the authorities to suppress domestic and international coverage of the event

Writing on NewEurasia.net, blogger Annasoltan also highlighted the ability of Internet users in Turkmenistan to supply global audiences with firsthand information from the country. Those left out of the e-loop were forced to feed on gossip:

What was really striking about this experience was that those who were not on teswirler [Turkmen forum] during the Internet blackout had no idea about the scope of the explosion and its resulting damage, due to the typical news blackout that follows any unexpected event or crisis in Turkmenistan; all they knew through rumors was that something terrible had happened — and boy, you can imagine the terrible imaginations let loose in such a situation

British newspaper The Telegraph reported that some bloggers who had posted videos of the Abadan incident were detained and interrogated by Turkmenistan's security agencies. One blogger has ended up in jail, ostensibly for covering the incident.

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