Maral Yklymova studied abroad, had a good job and saw her impoverished home country as a land of opportunity where her education and connections put her among a privileged elite.
That was before her father and uncles were implicated in an alleged assassination attempt on Turkmenistan’s president for life, Saparmurat Niyazov.
Since Nov. 25 -- when authorities say attackers led by former government insiders shot at the president’s car -- Yklymova has been fired from her job and evicted from her apartment. Most of her belongings were confiscated along with her passport, and she says she was held under house arrest for nearly a month.
Yklymova initially took refuge with 11 of her relatives in two small apartments, sharing winter clothes and sparse money. But officials evicted them in late January, scattering them to find shelter with friends and other relatives across the capital.
Things could get worse: Authorities have threatened to move relatives of those accused in the Nov. 25 attack to a desolate region in northern Turkmenistan.
“It’s like a nightmare. Every morning I wake up and tell myself it’s not true,” Yklymova, 24, said in fluent English before her latest eviction.
Shadows from a fire warming soldiers who stood guard nearby flickered on the apartment walls as she talked.
“I don’t know what is going to happen to us,” she said.
Niyazov, who has led the country since 1985, when it was part of the Soviet Union, has drawn international ridicule for some of the eccentric steps he has taken to build his personality cult. January is now called Turkmenbashi -- his adopted last name meaning “Father of all Turkmen” -- and a gilded statue of the president in the center of Ashgabat rotates so that it always faces the sun.
But since Nov. 25, arrests, repression and closed trials have swept away talk of a “Disneyland dictator,” evoking instead comparisons to Soviet leader Stalin’s harsh regime. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, one of the main watchdogs for human rights in the former Soviet bloc, is investigating the crackdown.
Niyazov has said up to 61 people were arrested after the attack on him. But Western officials in Ashgabat say the number probably is more than 200 -- including family members who were detained temporarily for no other offense than their last names.
The affair has raised worries of growing instability in this gas- and oil-rich country bordered by Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
“Turkmenbashi’s continued rule is not merely a somewhat comical despotism but a serious threat to stability in the whole region,” International Crisis Group, a Europe-based think tank, wrote in a January report.
Western diplomats are split over whether the assassination attempt actually occurred. Exiled opposition leaders contend that it was fabricated as a pretense for obliterating Niyazov’s critics.
The official version is that gunmen opened fire as the president was driving to work but that his car escaped. Four police officers were reported injured in an ensuing shootout.
The opposition denied any role in the attack, only to see one of its leaders -- former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, who had been living in exile in Moscow -- pop up on Turkmen television under arrest, taking responsibility in a confession that his relatives say was probably drug-induced.
Even people on the street have doubts. They question whether the alleged plot could really have included former top officials, who would have known that the assault rifles purportedly used would have no effect on Niyazov’s armored black Mercedes -- which he likes to drive himself.
High-ranking Turkmen officials rarely talk to Western journalists, but lower-ranking officials don’t wait for questions before denying that the attack was bogus. They insist that the plot was orchestrated from abroad by countries that covet Turkmenistan’s natural resources.
“Wise people know,” one said.
Western diplomats acknowledge the government’s right to prosecute attacks on its president. But that hasn’t stemmed their criticism, and the United States and nine other Western governments initiated the investigation into allegations of human rights abuses.
Turkmenistan has sought to portray its response to the Nov. 25 attack as part of the U.S.-led war on terrorism, which it backs, and has refused to cooperate with the investigation.
A small contingent of American soldiers works here, supporting refueling stops by U.S. military transport aircraft en route to Afghanistan.
That cooperation didn’t stop Turkmenistan from leveling a blistering response to State Department criticism of the post-Nov. 25 crackdown: An open letter signed by editors of the country’s state-controlled newspapers targeted U.S. Ambassador Laura Kennedy personally for speaking by phone to Shikhmuradov after the alleged attack -- a tacit admission of the degree of surveillance here.
For now, Yklymov’s relatives and other families wait, and wonder what will happen to them.
On the day of the alleged assassination attempt, Yklymova recalled, she was awakened by commotion outside her apartment near the site of the alleged attack and saw soldiers outside.
She said she went to her job as a sales executive at the Sheraton Grand Turkmen Hotel not knowing what had happened. That afternoon, her boss called her to his office, where two police officers were waiting to take her to her apartment, which they searched for hours. That night, other officers took her in handcuffs to a police station.
“They said I was the daughter of a terrorist, and I was a terrorist myself and that I had blood on my hands,” she said.
Yklymova’s father, Saparmurat Yklymov, is a former deputy agriculture minister who has been accused of being linked to the attack. He left Turkmenistan in 1994 and lives in exile in Sweden, which granted him citizenship last year.
Yklymova said she was questioned for a couple of days, then kept under house arrest while officers waited in her apartment to ambush her uncle, businessman Yklym Yklymov. She was freed when he was arrested elsewhere Dec. 21, and Yklymov was sentenced in January to life in prison after a closed three-day trial.
At least seven relatives remain in custody, and family members charge that they have been tortured.
Since her release, Yklymova has tried unsuccessfully to retrieve her ID papers and get government agencies to confirm to her former employer that she was held under house arrest. The official reason for her firing was her absence from work.
“As soon as I say my name, the attitude changes,” she said. “They all advise me just to be silent for my own sake and wait. Wait for what, I don’t know.”