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Turkmenet shines during Abadan explosion

Composite image from Russian media and the Chronicles of Turkmenistan.

Composite image from Russian media and the Chronicles of Turkmenistan.

Editor’s note: The still-mysterious explosion in Abadan was met with logic and courage by everyday Turkmens who were able to get online. neweurasia’s Annasoltan recounts both the struggles and discoveries of the Turkmenet during the crisis, including an important eyewitness account and the many netizens who were willing to challenge the official version of events as well as comfort and calm each other during a moment of terror.

We should note that at the moment we do not yet have the ability to investigate fully the individuals involved or confirm their statements made on Teswirler. However, readers are invited to review one of the areas where discussions took place: http://teswirler.com/index.php?q=microblog&page=6 (as of 08.07.2011 13:47 GMT).

Lately it seems the whole world is talking about the power of social media to get out news, not to mention its power to make normal people actually make the news themselves. neweurasia‘s Chris and I attach special importance to the use of social media to cast light upon on-the-ground realities in extremely closed societies like my nation, Turkmenistan, as well as a way to engage the citizens of these societies with new ideas. Yesterday’s explosion in Abadan is a perfect example.

So, the official story at the moment is that hot weather had detonated fireworks at a storage facility in the town and that there were no casualties. The opposition news organization Chronicles of Turkmenistan reported chaos in the streets of Abadan and a small-scale military intervention to keep the peace. They claim that this photograph is of smoke arising from the blast:


As Catherine Fitzpatrick remarks in a comment on Chris’ original post, the armory may have been a ticking time bomb:

[The armory appears to be] right next to apartment buildings and roads, not far from the center of Ashgabat. So you have to wonder if either a) the Turkmen authorities are so careless and inconsiderate that they’d put an arms depot right next to residential ares (always possible) or b) it isn’t an arms depot, exactly, but just a bunch of warehouses where maybe arms, but maybe fireworks were stored. The buildings look like dilapidated warehouses with lots of space around them for trucks to pull in, and piles of what look like logs

Last night, some chat friends and I were in teswirler, trying to figure out what may have really happened. Internet connections with Ashgabat were down for several hours, yet Turkmenetizens were sharing whatever they could of fragmented information coming from the Internet, television, and word of mouth. Then suddenly around 1 a.m. Turkmenistan time, the connections were restored. Almost immediately, a survivor of the explosion appeared online and volunteered to tell the amazing story about how the event unfolded:

“Bombs, rockets, guns, automatic weapons — all of them went off. My home burned down completely. The area where I have been has been completely burned down. I saw a child bleeding with ripped off hands and feet in the arms of his mother; no car would stop to take them. I slipped and fell down, got up again and saved my life by throwing myself in front of a car to stop it. I should have been dead today. The houses have been levelled. Blood, I just saw blood, like a in a film. Believe me, it’s a miracle that I’m alive.”

When asked how many people had died, he replied succinctly:

“Many people. There are many dead. When I was running away I saw three or four people lying along the road.”

There were many other questions asked of him, and all throughout it, somehow he sounded emotionally charged — another feature of the new citizen-journalism, by the way, not just the dry, factual and scientific reporting of traditional journalism, but pathos, too.

More people gradually appeared online, some witnesses to the events, others who had been able to make phone contact with those in Abadan. One person said that rockets from the Second World War were among the munitions that exploded, bitterly adding that these should have been destroyed decades ago.

Twitter-like short messages soon began. Examples:

“Up to a 100 soldiers are lying without consciousness in the traumatology unit [i.e., of the hospital].”

“All the ways leading to Abadan are blocked.”

“The water supply has been cut off.”

“The people have been evacuated to university dormitories in Ashgabat.”

Video and photos were requested; it’s only a matter of time before these begin to emerge and circulate on the Internet.

One Turkmenetizen wrote symbollically:

“The truth was revealed here, on this site and tonight. Otherwise we would not have known about it.”

An oasis of logic in a media blackout

What was really striking about this experience was that those who were not on teswirler during the Internet blackout had no idea about the scope of the explosion and its resulting damage, due to the typical news blackout that follows any unexpected event or crisis in Turkmenistan; all they knew through rumors was that something terrible had happened — and boy, you can imagine the terrible imaginations let loose in such a situation.

Those of us online may not have been a whole lot better informed, but the simple act of crowdsourcing and discussing helped us maintain a grip on reality. This is an example of another side of social media, one that doesn’t happen often: how crowdsourcing information can sometimes actually act as a way to calm, concentrate and even organize scared people.

Some of us dedicated themselves to collecting whatever verifiable information or trustworthy news sources could be found for us to read. There were also reassuring expressions of logic. One fellow Turkmenetizen simply reasoned:

“Look, our official media says that there were no casualties and no one harmed, and yet they have also reported that people are being mass evacuated from the site and that aid is being rushed in. So, how can this be?”

Many wondered whether heat could really have caused the explosion. There were concerns that perhaps there was some darker drama behind it. Some recalled similar events from the past, such as the explosion in the Nebitdag (Balkanabat) armory more than a decade ago. Another remembered that there had been a call made in a blog for the creation of a ministry for emergency situations only a few months ago and uploaded the content for us to read. One Turkmenetizen, like Fitzpatrick above, questioned the wisdom of the authorities to build an armory so close to a residential area, especially considering that there’s a vast desert available.

Humor is an important way to leaven terror. One of the funniest remarks I read was in response to the official story about fireworks:

“I think they’ve still got in their minds the recent national celebrations, because they are talking about the fireworks.”

I was touched by several requests to pray for victims and extend hopes and well wishes to the survivors. My nation is so overrun with fear that rarely can you witness such an outpouring of genuine human worry for other people.

After the Internet in the country was restored, the eyewitness who had first spoken to us was declared a hero by the others. Indeed, his was an historic yet simple act of citizen journalism.

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