where is Turkmenistan?

Turkmenistan stands as one of the most isolated and tightly controlled nations in the world. In the 2022 Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the country secured a rank of 167 out of 178 countries, finding itself in the company of nations like North Korea, Syria, and South Sudan. According to the World Bank’s 2019 data, Turkmenistan’s GDP was recorded at $45.23 billion, with a GDP per capita of $7,344.65. This economic landscape is juxtaposed against a backdrop of limited civil liberties and a Unitary presidential republic operating under a totalitarian hereditary dictatorship. Encompassing 491,210 sq km, it’s primarily Islamic (93%) and Christian (6.4%), portraying a diverse culture. This closed country, coupled with political rigidity, reinforces Turkmenistan as a reclusive and authoritarian nation.

Soltan Achilova

As an independent photojournalist in Turkmenistan – one of the world’s most secretive and repressive nations Soltan unveils rare glimpses of injustices and human rights abuses in this limited photo collection. 

Read her full bio here.


Born in 1948 in Turkmenistan, Soltan was trained as an accountant and economist and worked 32 years in that field. She is a mother of four. For most of her life, Soltan was married, had a family, owned a house, and enjoyed a relatively tranquil life in her country. One of her children lives with a physical disability that demands a significant portion of her attention. 

HER Experience

In March 2006, her life took a sharp turn when government officials arrived to demolish her home in Ashgabat for city expansion. Soltan was not home at the time and her daughter’s resistance proved futile. Police forcefully evicted the family and razed their house to the ground. To their dismay, no compensation was provided for their loss. 

The destruction of the house became the starting point for Soltan in her fight against the authoritarian regime in Turkmenistan. 

“That night in Balkanabat, as I awaited the bus to return to Ashgabat, sleep eluded me. My throat felt parched; even water couldn’t alleviate it. I beseeched God to spare us from this calamity. No matter how much you agonize over it, there was no one to come to your aid.”

– Soltan.


At first, she tried to find justice in state structures – the prosecutor’s office and at the court room. However, the government offered no response or retribution; and seeing how many families suffered the same way as she did, Soltan decided to begin documenting injustices occurring in everyday life around her. With a simple camera, she became a human rights journalist. 


The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) jointly investigated the demolition of buildings in Ashgabat, with Soltan as a prominent in-country observer. Soltan’s lens reveals today’s Ashgabat, marked by neglected and displaced neighborhoods that were once thriving communities. Houses and apartment blocks were demolished by the government, as occurred to Soltan’s family, in order to standardize the city’s appearance.  


Soltan’s photo captures the ongoing “slave market” on Ashgabat’s outskirts. Unemployed men gather here daily, seeking casual jobs like loading, construction, and chores. Workers earn 200-300 manats ($10-15) for a day’s work, but jobs are sporadic, leaving men waiting for employers for extended periods. 

child labour

Soltan is vocal about child labour in Turkmenistan, depicting its various forms as in this photo. Beyond documented cotton picking and market sales, children partake in risky tasks like car washing, carrying loads, and tending cattle, which expose them to hazardous risks. 


The country relies heavily on irrigation for agriculture. Formerly functional during Soviet times, the irrigation system deteriorated after independence due to budgets being allocated towards lavish buildings instead. In this photo, Soltan evidences the failure of the irrigation infrastructure, which is compounded by a lack of skilled specialists who could repair the network. 

The government allocates very little budget to agriculture. Rural associations cannot afford to repair roads, provide transport for their workers, or build housing for them. This has been going on for many years. People are trying to leave the country, mainly to Turkey.

state control

Ashgabat’s entry and exit points are limited to a mere handful (4-5) of arteries, a measure implemented during the tenure of Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, also known as Turkmenbashi, the country’s first president (1990-2006, primarily for his security. Soltan captures the stringent police controls over incoming and outgoing vehicles which were reinforced during the pandemic when the city effectively barred entry of non-resident vehicles. Notwithstanding the emergency measures, Turkmenistan has continued to deny any cases of COVID-19 within its borders. Exploiting the situation, the police selectively permit vehicle passage in exchange for bribes.

bread crisis

Since 2016, shortages of subsidized food have accelerated. Soltan’s work has also exposed the shortage of basic products such as flour and bread in Ashgabat and other regions. The crisis, exacerbated by unemployment and low income, has led to an increase in begging in Ashgabat. 

Luxuries and repression

Soltan’s lens captures Ashgabat’s opulent architecture, highlighting some of the city’s new white marble-clad buildings. In 2013, Ashgabat made its mark in the Guinness Book of World Records, boasting 543 such buildings spanning 4.5 million square meters. This architectural grandeur, though striking, conceals a troubling human rights situation and deep repression. Beneath the gleam of marble facades, Turkmenistan’s citizens face limited freedoms and poor conditions in public health, sanitation, nutrition and housing.  

Despite the inherent risks, Soltan persists in her work within Turkmenistan, capturing the daily injustices faced by its people through her camera lens. Her dedication shines a light on hidden truths, revealing the experiences of those struggling under repressive conditions. As a supporter of human rights and justice, you can engage by sharing her work, raising awareness, and advocating for change. Soltan’s courage and commitment serve as a call to action for a more just and compassionate world.  

Thank you!