Authorities in the capital of Turkmenistan launched an ambitious policy of urban renewal in the southern part of the city in the 1990s. The effort has ushered in skyscrapers, exclusive apartments, and public parks in Ashgabat. But it has come at heavy cost to the thousands of people forced from their homes to make way for development.
Shirin-daiza, or Auntie Shirin, is nearly 70. She lives with her three orphaned grandchildren in a rented space in Sumbar, one of Ashgabat's poorest neighborhoods.
Shirin-daiza has no home of her own, she cannot read or write, and she receives no state pension. She survives from the kindness of others -- begging in the streets to feed herself and the children. She says her rent is paid "in the name of God" by a pious man who she says has taken pity on her.
Shirin-daiza gave interviews to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service in which she talks about her plight. She subsequently told us that since her story was broadcast in early April, she has grown weary of visits by police and wants nothing so much as to leave the city that has brought her so much grief.
'A Jackal Wouldn't Set Foot There'
Like many other mud homes in southern Ashgabat, Shirin-daiza's old house on "March 8" street was demolished two years ago.
Government leaders decided in the mid-1990s to rebuild and renovate southern Ashgabat by replacing many traditional-style mud homes with luxury apartment blocks, office buildings of glass and marble, and green parks.
Today, the renovated areas are indeed immaculate. And as far away for Shirin-daiza as her three dead sons.
She says city authorities paid her no financial compensation when her house was demolished. Instead, she and her neighbors were allotted parcels of land in a wasteland outside Ashgabat, called Choganly.
"I was given a plot of land far away -- 18 kilometers north of Choganly cemetery," Shirin-daiza says. "[The authorities] said a nomad village would be built there. [But] a jackal wouldn't even set foot there, let alone a human being."
Shirin-daiza says the Ashgabat mayor's office told her she could build a new home for herself and her family if she liked. But there was no offer of money or building materials.
"I didn't get anything," Shirin-daiza says. "But they offered me a tent. They said I should go and live in that tent. How can I live in the desert with my three grandchildren?"
RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondents tried unsuccessfully to confirm the number of residents who lost their homes to the city's renewal project. They estimate the number at several thousand.
Turkmen authorities do not comment publicly on the issue.
Like Shirin-daiza, many of those who lived in the traditional houses for generations had no documents proving property ownership. That has made it easier for officials to reject their complaints.
Shirin-daiza says she and her neighbors have appealed many times to city authorities for some kind of compensation. But each time, they have been sent away empty-handed.
Shirin-daiza says that on one occasion she was "insulted and threatened" by officials who told her to "go away because [her] presence would embarrass them in front of foreign visitors."
"Finally, they told me to come back the following day," Shirin-daiza says. "I went back the next day, hoping they would give me a place to live. But instead, three or four policemen told me to get into a car. They said, 'You have lost your mind, [so] we are taking you to a mental hospital in the Dashogus area.' My grandchildren were there, too, and they started crying. In that sense, [my grandchildren] saved me from being sent to a mental hospital."
Ashgabat residents complain that their city is divided by railroad tracks into two different worlds. The north is home to the poor, who live in aging apartments or mud houses. Meanwhile, the city's development plan has focused on the southern districts, making the north-south gap increasingly obvious.
Even the most modest of flats in northern Ashgabat are out of reach for people like Shirin-daiza.
She's not comfortable living on her benefactor's handouts; and she fears a move to a tent in a barren region outside the capital, with no schools, and no running water or electricity.
For two decades, until his death in December, the late President Saparmurat Niyazov dominated virtually all aspects of Turkmen life. His populist pronouncements belied the extreme hardship that his administration imposed on the public. He insisted villagers needed no libraries or hospitals because they "can't read and they can always visit clinics in the city if they need a doctor."
Desperate For Help
Some of those evicted from their homes are placing hope in the country's new leadership.
The new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, has outlined a rural development plan that could eventually reach areas like Shirin-daiza's parcel outside Ashgabat (Choganly).
Officials have vowed to begin its phased implementation in 2008. If that happens, it could signal genuine change in one of the most depressed and isolated of the former Soviet republics. But even then, it is a long time for evictees like Shirin-daiza and her grandchildren to have to wait.
RFE/RL Turkmen Service director Oguljamal Yazliyeva contributed to this report.