Turkmen Abandon “Motherland of Prosperity” in Search of Work
The town of Gokdepe is just 45 kilometers from Ashgabat, but a world away from the glitz of the Turkmen capital. Here people make ends meet by petty trading and grabbing what work they can in the big city. Local people say that in the past three years one-quarter of the district’s population have left their homes to work in Turkey. Prospects are so bleak that the people of Gokdepe, once the last redoubt of the Teke Turkmen against tsarist forces, are even heading to Russia. Azat Hatamov reports on the life of ordinary people in this key district of Turkmenistan.
Ahal region may be the cradle of Turkmenistan’s post-Soviet politicians, but the town of Gokdepe feels like an early 90s’ backwater, with ramshackle houses, potholed roads and poverty everywhere. Only the satellite dishes on the roofs and the occasional imported cars among the Ladas bring me back to modernity. All the Russian rust buckets from the capital seem to have been dumped in and around Gokdepe, leaving Ashgabat’s roads to the Mercedes and Toyotas. Korean Hyundais ply the route from the city to the local bus station, but it’s battered old Pavlovsky buses, their radiators leaking, and the stuffing picked out of the seats by generations of schoolchildren, that take passengers onwards from Gokdepe to the outlying districts.
The bus station bears a slogan in large print reminding passengers that the state is there to serve the people, but there’s little sign of it as I look about the town. The government calls it the Epoch of Might and Happiness, so I would ask them why the houses are still surrounded by cane fencing or makeshift walls of old corrugated asbestos. At this time of unimaginable luxury, why do the people of Gokdepe still use outside toilets with missing doors and crawling with flies, just as their parents did 50 years ago? Why just 45 km from here are houses faced in Italian marble and illuminated in different colors, while out in the sticks plaster is crumbling from private homes and government buildings? Why do Ashgabat schoolchildren run off after class to various clubs and activities, while in Gokdepe they hurry to the market to take over from their mothers and sisters on the stalls?
Gokdepe’s squares are huge and lifeless, the long pavements empty. The loan traders of boiled corn-on-the-cob perk up as soon as they spot someone in the distance. As long as they don’t turn off, as long as they actually buy some. If you do see anyone at all – at the bus station, near the mosque, out on the street – they are usually women and children. Where have all the men got to?
“There are no men left,” taxi driver Aymuhammet says, not taking his eyes off a game of backgammon that his friends are playing. “The men have all gone away to work: some to Turkey, others to Russia – there are no jobs left in this country.”
Aymuhammet reckons that over the past three to four years around one-quarter of the population have left Gokdepe to go abroad – some with their families for good. They sell their houses, plots of land, vehicles, cows, camels, and horses and leave to build a new life, opening shops and cafes in Turkey. In recent years Russia has become popular too – the emigrants think it’s bigger and property is cheaper there.
“You know,” Aymuhammet says, “you do what you have to. It’s no good looking back. Is it any better for our wives and daughters to go and clean the houses of Turks or look after their children or parents? The Turkmen are the forebears of the modern-day Turks. The Russians and the Turks aren’t the problem, the problem’s over there,” he waves in the direction of Ashgabat.
Petty trading and private taxi driving are the main sources of income in Gokdepe. Though of course there are still farmers here and workers in local enterprises, built during the independence years, and also people who go to work in Ashgabat. A groundbreaking ceremony was held recently at the site of a new town, planned as the administrative center of Ahal region. Workers are needed for the construction site, but that hasn’t stemmed the flow of people abroad.
Taxi driver Aymuhammet and many of his comrades do not understand why a new town has to be built for 70,000 people, if the existing towns are slowly dying out. Who can afford to live in the new villas, who will attend the planned 10 kindergartens and study in the 19 schools? When there are more pressing problems for ordinary people, Aymuhammet is sure that the new phantom town is needed only to enrich whoever had the idea of building it. Maybe that is the real meaning of the slogan at the bus station – “The state is for the people!”
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