Turkmenistan: Mass Graves for Abadan Explosion Victims
People who fled the town of Abadan after the explosion of an arms depot last Thursday are now slowly trickling back, trying to find lost relatives and retrieve belongings from ruins, chrono-tm.org, an independent emigre news site reports.
Residents have been helping each other cope, offering food and clothing and preparing makeshift camps on the street, but everywhere there are still missiles scattered around from the accident. Unexploded shells and rolls of ammunition are in trees and bushes, on the street, poking from the roofs and walls of homes, and constituting a grave danger for people trying to return. While military people are patrolling the streets and have cordoned off the area of the explosion, they do not seem to be removing the unexploded ordnance. Everywhere there is the stench of burning buildings, still smouldering -- and now dead bodies, not all of which have been removed for fear of further explosives.
Serdar Aytakov, a reporter for the independent radio station Ekho Mosvky, is in Asghabat covering the story of the explosion. He says that the most grave blow for the townspeople is that authorities have decided to bury victims in mass graves, and are not returning bodies to relatives. They say it is impossible to identify the victims, and that there are only fragments of some bodies. It may be that the government fears revealing the real total of deaths and injuries from the disaster, especially after they claimed there were no casualties. They also likely want to avoid the spectacle of numerous funerals and mourners.
It is impossible to get an accurate total of victims at this time, as not everyone has returned from evacuation; initially estimates were as high as 200-300 based on eyewitness reports of people killed, but no one is able to make a record on site, and cell phone connection to the town remains cut. Water and gas are still turned off, and electricity is only sporadic, not even working in hospitals and police stations.
An army officer told Ekho Moskvy that about 270 military personnel were in the area at the time of the explosion, mainly draftees. After the blast, only 150 could be mustered, which lent credence to the report that at least 100 soldiers had been killed. The surviving soldiers have been sent to hospitals or other units. Only officers remain guarding the area, with sappers still trying to remove explosives and not all the dead retrieved. Some people used to pasture their animals in the affected area, and it is not known if they survived.
In the central areas of the town, people are sweeping up debris, but are avoiding the most destroyed areas for fear that scattered missiles may still ignite.
Instead of worrying about removal of the explosives, a special brigade of agents from the Ministry of National Security is scouring the area and detaining anyone trying to photograph the ruins. A local resident told Ekho Moskvy that several people, mainly school-aged boys had been detained. Agents have gone to their homes and confiscated their computers, and told parents that they are comparing photos they find with those already published on the Internet, and if they find a match, the photographers "will go to jail for a long time."
Meanwhile, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's behavior seems surreal. In a lengthy speech at a Cabinet of Ministers meeting yesterday, he didn't mention the Abadan accident at all, but instead demonstratively fired poorly-performing agricultural ministers, announced salary and stipend raises and free laptops for students entering college this fall -- and sent government employees on a two-week vacation. The state media has continued to minimize the tragedy, claiming their were no casualties or significant destruction, and denounced the Russia media for "false reports," although the head of parliament visited the area and promised residents who had suffered damage to their homes would obtain compensation.
Both Farid Tuhbatullin, editor of chrono-tm.org as well as an unidentified officer who spoke to Ekho Moskvy, have reported that a second ammunition depot in the area is in danger of explosion and people have been evacuated from that area, as well. Readers on chrono-tm.org have continued to express dismay that the government will not make a formal announcement of the victims of the tragedy, declare a day of mourning, or confirm that compensation will be provided.