“He said his lungs were burning.” Turkish diplomat’s widow talks about her husband’s death from COVID-19 in Turkmenistan

It emerged on December 20 that the widow of a Turkish diplomat who died from COVID-19 has filed a lawsuit with the Turkish prosecutor’s office against officials and diplomats for failing to arrange her husband’s prompt evacuation from Turkmenistan to Turkey. Kemal Uckun, an adviser on religious issues at the Turkish embassy, died on July 7, 2020 in Ashgabat. His widow Guzide Uckun shows that her husband could not have been treated for COVID-19 in Turkmenistan where the authorities claim the virus is not present. Guzide Uckun has spoken in detail about her husband’s illness to turkmen.news, who on July 8 were first to report the diplomat’s death.

The last days of Kemal Uckun in a Turkmen hospital. Photo credit: sozcu.com.tr

— Mrs Uckun, allow us to express our sincere condolences on the untimely death of your husband. May Allah give you the strength to bear this irreplaceable loss! Can you tell us when and how your husband fell ill? Do you have any idea where he might have caught this disease?

— Thank you for your condolences. My family and I would like to express our heartfelt thanks to you for your reports on my husband’s death. My husband started to feel ill on June 25. It felt like flu. He had recently been at a banquet, which most of the Turkish diplomats had also attended. No talk about COVID-19 was allowed at that time in Turkmenistan and wearing masks was forbidden. We diplomats’ wives tried to use scarves to cover our noses and mouths. Kemal thought he might have caught it from another Turkish diplomat, so he rang him and asked how he had managed to get over it. The diplomat replied that he had just bought medication from the drugstore. My husband also tried to deal with it himself, but he couldn’t. The Turkish embassy in Turkmenistan sent us some masks, but there weren’t enough. On the night of the 26th his cough got much worse and he decided to go to hospital. His symptoms were a high temperature, fever and shivers, exhaustion, shortness of breath, constant sweats, and a bad cough. The Turkish ambassador told us that he and the Turkmen minister of health were monitoring the situation closely.

— Were there any problems taking him to hospital?

— First we went to the ambulance station near our house. They took him to Ashgabat’s Semashko Hospital, where they did a COVID test and took lung x-rays. There were at least 30 patients with COVID symptoms, but the doctors ignored quarantine procedures. They complacently sent these patients to different departments, e.g. ears, nose and throat. My husband didn’t like this. The conditions in the hospital were very poor too, so he asked to be transferred. At first he was told that he should stay in the hospital, as this was where COVID tests were done. Then Kemal called the Turkish ambassador and he helped organize a transfer. They took my husband to Ashgabat Cardiology Hospital on the night of June 27. On June 28 they took another COVID test and more lung X-rays. Nobody told us anything, and on the 29th they said the test was negative and gave him a diagnosis of “pneumonia”.

— What treatment did they give him?

— They gave Kemal oxygen, injections, and pills… I have a full list of all the medications, including antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-ulcer, and anti-inflammatory medications. It was a whole bunch of things.

Guzide Uckun with her husband in Turkmenistan. Photo credit: sozcu.com.tr

— And did this help?

— No, it didn’t. My husband deteriorated and his cough got worse too. He couldn’t talk on the phone because of his problems breathing. He said that his lungs were burning. Towards the end he could no longer get out of bed. The death certificate gives pulmonary edema as the cause of death (fluid on the lungs – turkmen.news).

— How did you find out this was COVID-19?

— We couldn’t get enough information out of the doctors and Kemal’s condition was deteriorating, so on July 3 I sent his x-ray results and list of medications to three different hospitals, including a COVID-19 hospital, in Turkey. In all the hospitals the doctors said without hesitation that it was a typical case of coronavirus and that the patient should be transferred to Turkey immediately. The Turkish doctors thought their Turkmen counterparts were not giving patients the right medication. After his death Kemal’s body was embalmed, so the autopsy in Turkey could not find COVID-19. But the forensic experts recognized it without any doubt from the X-rays. They also said that Kemal might have survived if he had made it to Turkey and received the right treatment.

— How did the Turkmen doctors respond to your doubts about their diagnosis?

— I think his room had been bugged. Whenever we talked on the phone, the doctors would come in and persuade Kemal that he had pneumonia, not coronavirus. They said they had saved patients in a worse condition and persuaded him he would get over it in 12 days. But in 12 days my husband died.

— What happened after that?

— I went to the hospital with several Turkish diplomats. We were told that Kemal had had a heart attack. They had tried to save him, but couldn’t. But there is no mention of a heart attack in the papers. There was a Turkmen citizen in the hospital who helped us. I heard the doctor say to that Turkmen that I shouldn’t publicize this in Turkey and make trouble for the doctor. Later I asked our acquaintance what the doctor meant by this, but he didn’t reply.

President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has declared the Epoch of Might and Happiness in Turkmenistan, so nothing bad can happen in the country. There’s supposedly no coronavirus either, so the Turkmen authorities hide it, killing hundreds of people in the process, as long as they don’t appear in the COVID reports in the international media.

Guzide Uckun not only widely publicized her husband’s death from coronavirus, but has also brought a claim against the general director of the Turkish Health Ministry’s emergency medical service, Semih Korkut, Turkey’s ambassador in Ashgabat, Togan Oral, and two officials from the Directorate for Religious Affairs – vice president for religious affairs Selim Argun, and general director for foreign affairs Erdal Atalay. Guzide Uckun thinks they should all be held responsible for misconduct in office and causing death by negligence. Mrs Uckun also intends to file a lawsuit against the Turkmenistan authorities in the near future.

There are already 45 names of people, confirmed to have died from coronavirus infection, in the commemorative list which turkmen.news is keeping. At the end of the year, the names of Imam Akyyev, a tennis trainer who received an honorary title for his work, and Atabally Gurbanov, an anesthetist from Turkmenbashi, were added to the list. Unfortunately, many deaths cannot be confirmed, so we urge the citizens of Turkmenistan to share this information with us. Those who died from COVID-19 should not languish in obscurity.