Soldiers' Mothers Converge on Abadan, Demanding Answers
by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Mothers of soldiers killed in the explosion in Abadan last week are descending on the ruined town of Abadan now, demanding to see their children, dead or alive, a source who requested anonymity told EurasiaNet today.
Authorities have refused to give out information on the status of the soldiers in the immediate vicinity of the blast, or allow residents to receive the bodies of their loved ones killed in the blast, fueling concerns that the official death toll of 13 civilians and 2 soldiers, grudgingly admitted by officials three days after the accident, could be underestimated.
"This will be the most serious test for the authorities -- the mothers of many soldiers have travelled to Abadan. And they are demanding that they be shown their children," the source said.
Even as people are making their way back to smoldering homes and searching for their belongings, fears remain that still unexploded ordnance and the danger of explosion of another arms depot nearby could add to the tragedy.
In a video published at TurkmenDissidentTV taken about 10 kilometers from the site of the explosions, you can hear the sound of shells landing nearby -- the explosion of the ammunitions depot sent ordnance that far away. The citizen-journalist who shot this video endangered not only his life, but risked arrest as police are reportedly confiscating photos and videos.
The Turkmen leadership at first claimed that the blast was caused only by fireworks exploding, and later produced a convoluted justification for the extent of the damage by saying that first fireworks ignited, then rockets fell on an old Soviet-era ammunition depot, slated for recycling.
Reports collated by the independent web site chrono-tm.org, which is managed by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, say that the death toll could be as high as 200 or more. This is based on eyewitness accounts of dead bodies, and the fact that while 270 soldiers were stationed in the area at Abadan, after the explosion, only 150 could be accounted for. While several more appeared in the following days, at least 100 soldiers seemed to be missing. The appearance of solders' mothers who have been unable to get any information on their sons indicates that the authorities may still still be hiding the true number of casualties.
A correspondent for chrono-tm.org who is reporting from the affected area says he first learned of the explosion from Russian news channels -- many Turkmen citizens still have satellite television which receives Russian and Turkish TV. People in the western part of the capital of Ashgabat reported soon after the blast that they had lost electricity, water and gas, and some said their relatives from Abadan began coming to them for shelter.
The correspondent said on July 8, he went to Abadan and found the roads in all directions open, except one highway to Ashgabat where unarmed soldiers had put up checkpoints and appeared to be calm. The road to the Bezmein Electrical Power Station serving Abadan was blocked by a plant manager. The reporter could observe a fuel and lubricants storage area on fire at a military base about 50 meters from the highway -- a burning shell had landed on it.
The authorities' story that fireworks had ignited may have indeed been true, said the correspondent, judging from local sources who said that officials had recently begun acquiring them from Russia in anticipation of Turkmenistan's 20th anniversary of independence in October.
But they were unsafely stored right near the main entrance to the ammunition depot, in the open air. Not even a tarp was thrown over the piles of fireworks, which violated safety regulations. An estimated 5,000-50,000 tons of ammunition were reportedly stockpiled in the depot, and they included rounds of firearms ammunition, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, and Grad and Smerch rockets.
"You can imagine the power of the explosions and the trajectory of the shells and unexploded ordnance," said the correspondent. According to local accounts, the explosions ceased only on the morning of July 8, a day after the initial blast.
Residents of Abadan and a nearby former collective farm have suffered, and unexploded ammunition was found as far away as the village of Geok-che. Soldiers and emergency workers are still searching for and disabling the rockets scattered throughout the area.
Several months ago, the prosecutor general in fact inspected this ammunition depot and found a number of violations. This was reported to a department of the Cabinet of Ministers, but nothing was done to correct the situation.