Elena Kostyuchenko, ‘Novaya’’s special correspondent is reporting from the revolting Kazakh steppe.
Zhanaozen, or simply – Uzen – is a city of 100 000 inhabitants in Western Kazakhstan, Mangistau Province. This province is considered the most expensive and dangerous in Kazakhstan, and Zhanaozen – the most expensive and dangerous city in the Province.
Locals have a derisive saying – “Sinners of Zhanaozen do not go to hell after they die, but instead, they return back Zhanaozen.” Rainfall occurs here once a year, and snowfall – every several years. Dry earth prevents grass growth; there are hardly any trees in the city, and those that there are, need to be watered every day. A terrible wind from the steppe blows dust in to people’s eyes. In the summer the temperatures are unbearably high, while in the winter, even at 3 degrees Celsius – it is terribly cold and the wind is piercing. Asphalt is only laid on major thoughfares, generally speaking the city has no roads. Low houses are built fromyellow limestone.
My guide in the “dead city” was a Kazakh woman; Marzhan*, a , a mother of four who was 3-months’ pregnant at the time of my visit. Her husband worked in “OzenMunaiGas” for 10 years as an assistant driller, before he resigned from his position due health problems: his lumbar of his spine was damaged: “they had to lift a sledge hammer all the time, it was back-breaking work” she informed me. They now have a family business – they import toys and children’s clothes from Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Astana and China. It is the third consecutive night that they are going to spend in the shop – to protect it from looters. Logically, they should be on the side of the authorities in this conflict, which every now and then declares by way of TV broadcasts that Special Forces are protecting their city from marauders.
“Last night I heard tapping at the window. “Ma’am, please give us water, give us bread.” I looked out of the window and saw that these were the boys who had been fighting with the police. I said, come in, have a hearty meal. But they answered: “No, there is no time to spare, just pass us anything through the window”. My husband and I hastily stuffed their bags with food. They splashed water over their faces – their eyes were irritated due to gas. Then the shooting at the windows started. The police shot rubber bullets. We hope the boys successfully fleed’.
Marzhan is walking with me around the city, from street to street, from apartment to apartment. She has brought her children with her. The eldest daughter, 13-year-old, easily amused, Bakha, is carrying my bag – a child is always the last person to be searched. I am wearing a local-style jacket and boots; they forbade me to smoke or to look in the riot policemen’s eyes. “It is so that they do not notice that you are of a different nationality” – Marzhan explains. – “There are almost no Russians here, Russian have a place to go.”
“When I saw Dubai, I cried so hard that my husband got scared” –Marzhan says. – “After all, they have been extracting oil for just 20 years. We have been extracting oil for 40 years. “They rebuilt Astana with our money. And I have no place to take my kids, no entertainment centre, we constantly sit at home.”
“My father had worked in “OzenMunaiGas” as a driller for 40 years”, – Marzhan says. – “He died of cancer, just recently – many people die of cancer here, there is uranium ore under Mangistau, the soil ‘shines’. Before he died, he gave me 100 thousand tenge **- he said: Give it to the strikers, so that the have money for food, for a cell phone. Maybe, he said, they will break this bastard system, should we not have enough courage to do it.
The Mangistau Province is the richest oil region in Kazakhstan but one cannot say the same about its people. Salaries in the town-forming “OzenMunaiGas” which amount to 140-250 thousand KZT are indeed very high compared to the average Kazakh salary. But as a rule, only one person in a family works in “OzenMunaiGas”, usually the husband. His wife, if she is fortunate enough to find a job, typically works in the public sector, where salaries rarely exceed 45 thousand tenge. They typically have large families.
Zhanaozen is far away from any industrial centres, and household appliances, clothing and food prices are the highest in the country. A kilogram of meat costs 1600 KZT (360 rubles), a kilogram of the cheapest fish – 1,300 tenge (290 rubles), a liter of milk – 220 tenge (50 rubles), ten eggs – 210 tenge (47 rubles), a kilogram of apples – 400 tenge (90 rubles .)
Corruption is rife. To admit a child to kindergarten, one has to pay 80 000 KZT and then 6000 tenge monthly. To send a child to a respectable school costs 100 thousand tenge. To have documents signed by officials – the price ranges from 10 to 200 thousand tenge, depending on how lucky the person is.
Poverty is of such an extent that for construction they buy cuttoffs of pipes used in wells. These pipes are radioactive – Askhat hired a dosimetrist, and it was determined that the results exceeded the norm by 15 times. But they buy the pipes and they place them over the floor instead of studs, they put wooden boards and in this way they contruct a so called -“black ceiling”, which is a very common practice here.
The mood in Zhanaozen is stirred by informal acts of ethnic chauvinism. The Kazakhs are not a monolithic nation, as it seems to us. The Kazakhs are divided into three zhuzhes, and each zhuzh consists of one hundred clans. Adai people, which is the youngest clan of the youngest zhuzh, make up the majority of inhabitans of the Mangistau Province and of Zhanaozen. They were the last ones of all the Kazakh provinces to become a part of the Soviet Union – in 1937, and they are very proud of it, despite the fact that in Soviet times, due to this very fact, these politically unreliable Adai people would have great difficulty when trying to enter universities and they were not promoted to top state positions. There are practically no Adai people in the management of the “OzenMunaiGas”, “KazMunayGas”or in the local authorities.
“But in Astana, where the office of ‘Razvedka Dobycha “KazMunayGaz” is, we have ‘our people’, too. They made copies of our payroll slips which are transfered there from Uzen as a part of financial reporting” – says Dauren, subterrainean borehole equipment engineer with 20 years’ experience. – and it transpired that I do not get paid 200 thousand tenge, but 450 thousand. Because the 1,8 multiplier for harmful work conditions and 1.9 industry multiplier are used. To be more precise, they are use on paper but in reality, they are not”
On 16th May, oil workers composed a written statement which was sent to the city akim and the prosecutor with a request to bring salaries in to line with the legislation. On 26th May, 4 000 oil workers of “OzenMunaiGaz” went on hunger strike. “We are not really striking. – specifies Dauren. – But according to safety rules, starving men cannot work in hazardous industry. “First, we did not starve in the city, but just near the Boreholes Maintenance and Management-5 (UOS-5) and the carpool. On 8th June, the riot police came to the carpool and started beating people. “And then we doused ourselves with gasoline and took out the lighters” – says Dauren. – “And we said: don’t even dare to beat us “.
They took the oil workers from the carpool. The Medicare company, to which the workers have been making insurance payments all these years, refused to treat battered starving people. Children of the workers who were on the list of those who did not report for work were ordered off the buses, which were going to summer camps. Then the protesters moved to the central square of the city. “They spread blankets and sat down. And they have been sitting there for 7 months. They took shifts – some would stay there during the night, others – during the day, and so they were sitting. “
(It is very difficult for me to believe it: it seems impossible to spend more than 20 minutes at a time on the street of Zhanaozen, but I asked the townspeople, and each of them confirmed – yes, they did sit, before November they even sat with their whole families, we would bring them water and hot bawyrsaks.)
Two months after the start of the protest, 1800 strikers remained. “Others were intimidated – they all have families, they all have to pay their loans. ‘OzenMunayGaz’ employees visited their families; they threatened their wives and parents. The Secretary of the Uzen People’s Court told me that only in the summer she effectuated 40 divorces – wives did not want to live with their husbands, as their husbands couldn’t provide for them anymore. These two thousand workers returned to work, and we do not condemn them. They have not turned up to work for two months, but they were gladly welcomed back because it was a victory for managers. I was fired retrospectively for a three-hour absence from work which occurred a long time ago. “
Dauren and other strikers say that many times throghout the seven months young Zhanaozen guys would come to them. Especially after ‘OzenMunayGaz’ together with the Akimat decided to allow grocery stalls to set upin the precisely the same place that the strikers were sitting. They said: ‘it really drives us mad what they are doing to you, let us show them how strong we are”.
What happened on the 16th, the locals call “a riot.”
“Everyone knew a month before, what would happen on the square.”
All the people were especially outraged because of the yourts, in which treats was placed. The Zhanaozen dwellers say that the yourts are usually placed on the other side of the square – on the vacant lot behind the stage, but this time the akim of the city decided to set them right where the strikers were standing.
On the 15th at 5 p.m. they began to bring the yurts, which were rented by the akimat from the owners who live in the surrounding villages. Witnesses report that many yurt owners, when they saw that the strikers were still sitting on the square, refused to set up the yurts and tried to leave, but they were stopped by the traffic policemen. The akim came to the square and declared that he was going to rise the rental payment 70 000 tenge 100 000 and he personally guaranteed the security of their property. Oil workers’ wives came up to the akim. “We told him that we could not control young people”, – he says. – “We said that young people are going to go mad when they see this. He just waved us aside. “
On the 16th, at 11 a.m. there were more than three thousand people on the square- oil workers, their wives and children, young people, onlookers. At 11 a.m. a column of senior high school students and college students with flags and plackards featuring celebratory slogans; their group tutors and teachers obliged them to come to the meeting. The crowd shouted, “You have a holiday, and we are in distress, go away!” The children tried to run away, but they were made to stay by the police. A car loaded with food, to be placed in the yourts, drove to the square, but it was turned over. On the stage, by the akim’s order, loud music was turned on to drown out the shouting and the clatter. Then young people climbed onto the stage and began to throw the loudspeakers from the stage. The police left the square.
No one saw how the building of the ‘OzenMunayGaz” was set on fire. But a crowd of onlookers gathered around, when smoke poured from it. When the police came from around the corner bradishing weapons, no one even thought it was necessary to run.
A 15-year-old Ayslu, a student of the1st grade of Oil and Gas Technical School, said:
” The day before, the tutor of our group, Asiya Urazova told us to come to the technical school at 9 a.m. and dress in warm clothes, but what was awaiting us was supposed to be a surprise. In the morning she said – here are the flags, we are going to the central square. We said: “What about the strikers?” and she answered: “There are no strikers there”. and so we went there – and the strikers were present. I knew that my mum was there, and I wanted to go to her. But the police would not let me through, they surrounded our column. I phoned my father and said: “I am surrounded, I cannot leave the square”, and I was crying. He came from work and he freed me, the police let us all go home. He took me out from the crowd and he said to me “Go home, I’ll be right back”. I walked away a bit and then he was shot in the leg. “
The taxi driver who drove me to Zhanaozen admiringly described how people went straight towards the bullets, not fearing for their safety. I later found out that it was not courage at all – just none of those who were on the square believed that the police would shoot live ammunition. “They thought these were non-lethal bullets. It was only after the guy next to me was shot in the head and the bullet penetrated deeply and stayed there that I realised that they were killing us,”- said the striking woman, Sholpan. – Before my eyes they shot a woman when as she leant over her daughter who had fallen down. People in the back rows said that they mistook a burst for firecrackers”.
The shooting at the crowd lasted about 10 minutes.The police drove people away from the ‘OzenMunayGaz” office and entered the akimat, took the akim and went back to the Municipal Department of the Interior.
Pogroms started. Young people have completely burned the building of akimat, they set fire to a hotel, the house of the head of the ‘OzenMunayGaz” and they began to smash shop windows. They started with two furniture stores which belong to the akim’s wife and then went on to other shops. It is strange, but there was logic in the running of the pogrom. Shop owners say that when they went out to the crowd, the crowd would leave. Only those shops which belong to people somehow connected with the authorities or the ‘OzenMunayGaz’ were completely burned down. Looting began.
At 4 o’clock riot police came, they dispersed from the square into different areas of the town and began shooting.
“I almost became a looter” – says Akku. – “My family is very poor, and my husband and I have been unemployed for a long time, so now we paint houses, we sometimes sew, we only eat meat when we are invited to a party. And then they started to plunder ‘Sulpak’. And I knew that there is an iron there and a sewing machine, and I even knew where it was. So I thought I could make some money if I had a sewing machine! And so I went and took it. And then the riot policemen ran in, I dropped everything, I barely escaped. But I saw who took things. These were poor people who looted the shop, just poor people.”
Two banks and several ATMs were also robbed. Taxi drivers, who saw the incident, say that when the ATMs were forced opened, young people threw the money into the air.
The injured and the dead
The Prosecutor’s Office confirmed “the death of 11 persons as a result of riots” and “more than 70 injured”. Now the hospital and the morgue in Zhanaozen are more secure than the Municipal Department of the Interior.
Approximately 20 riot policemen with equipped with riot gear and shields stand in a fighting stance near the front entrance – one leg in front, the shield covering their chests. The crowd comprises some three dozen women and a few men. The perimeter of the hospital complex is surrounded. There is no passage to the morgue or the hospital facilities. It is also forbiden to visit the injured persons. But sending food is permitted.
People are divided into two groups: those who came to visit the living, and those who came to take the dead. The police forbade the visit of the living, and they refused to release the bodies of the dead. There is a third group, too – the most unfortunate one: those who still do not know where their sons, brothers, and fathers are. They keep running back and forth from the hospital to the Department of the Interior, they yell over the fence to the morgue attendants and run away when the riot police appear.
The lists of the living and the dead are in the hands of the most senior riot policeman, he never parts with them. As I try to look over his shoulder and attempt to roughly count the number of names, he puts the lists in his pocket with dificulty; there are a lot of sheets of paper.
”My older son was looking for the younger one, and he was shot in the chest” – starts whispering a short woman – “Who brought my child here? Who brought the children? You can’t shoot at people. you can’t shoot. you just can’t!
”Shut up, you moron, she is not a local”– the nearest policeman speaks fast in Kazakh. – “You have two children, and you talk so much!”
The woman is frightened, she walkes away. Others remain silent.
”Shame on you!” – an old lady addressed a riot policeman. – “Who are your parents? Are you a Muslim? I bet you are from Chimkent! What a disgrace!”
The policeman turns away; it is forbidden to speak rudely to elderly people. The crowd begins to roar. The policeman says something over the portable PA system and soon another group of policemen with shields are running from the hospital area.
Korkel is one of the few who managed to get inside the hospital on that day. Korkel lives in one of the villages near Uzen, but recently she came to visit her sister. Her sister’s husband is an oil worker, and her sister went to the square to join the strikers. And in the morning Korkel walked her niece, who is a third-grade school pupil, to a strange gathering, for which she was supposed “to dress warmly.” Along with the column of children she came to the square.
“I heard the first shots. I said: “We are not going”. But my niece said: “But my mum is there!” So we started to go forward. When they began to fire shots, the killed and wounded people were dragged back. They put 5 people at my feet. Four were dead, one was still alive. Then people stopped a passing car, UAZ and loaded the dead bodies as well as the living on to the truck, I got in with them and we went to the hospital.
There was no cold water in the morgue to wash the blood off the bodies. I started to count the bodies. There was a girl born in 95, she was a member of the children’s column. And there was also a 10-year-old boy. Their bodies have not been shown to us, we were not allowed to approach them, they were lying in the far corner. And in the ‘Sulpak’ shop three guys were burned to death in a fire, the bodies are unidentifiable. The bodies are piled up, one on top of another. 21 bodies were brought to the morgue, but at 9 p.m. Tamil, who works in a morgue, locked the door and went home and people continued to bring the bodies. So then they opened the adjacent room and began to put the bodies there on the floor, corpse upon corpse. And upto 9 a.m on the 17th, when I left for home, they brought a further 43 bodies. I asked for ice to put beside the bodies, but I was told that a cadaver does not decay during the first three days.
Now about the injured. There were 340 injured people in the hospital at lunchtime. All with bullet wounds, but bullets differed – most of them were automatic, but there were also pistol and machine gun bullets. There were too few physicians – and we helped to wash the blood off, those who knew how to do it, administered injections. I didn’t know how to do it. I saw one guy who was having an X-ray – he had two machine gun bullets in him, they shot him from the APC. The doctors told him to contact the polyclinic. I remember there was also a girl there, born in 1995 wounded in the head but still alive. Upto the morning the number of injured people was 400, but 17 of them had already been taken to Aktau. They were transporting 3-4 people per ambulance; they would make them sit inside.
Early in the morning they started to bring people from the Municipal Department of the Interior – they were young guys, severely beaten, two of them were taken straight to intensive care. Hospital attendants who brought them, said that there were also dead there, but they were not allowed to take the bodies. And as the bodies were not brought later, should we assume that they were buried?
My sister was walking in the forefront. She says that it is possible to dodge bullets. Bullets from AK do not fly straight up, but they zigzag, so one can duck. Her daughter, with whom I was walking, cannot sleep now. And I cannot leave the house, “Doctors and nurses were forbidden to talk to journalists under the threat of dismissal. But I managed to speak with a surgeon-resuscitator. “In our hospital there are three operating rooms. So we placed additional simple wooden tables there, and in each room 4 operations were carried out simultaneously. Dead people were immediately transported to the morgue, and I do not even know how many wounded there were in the hospital – I did not walk away from the table. But on the first day I personally failed to save the life of 22 people. We operated on them, we extracted the bullets, but they died anyway. Now the number of lives I couldn’t save is 23. Soon it will be 24 – one person is in the intensive care unit and his state is very serious, he is not going to survive.”
Many witnesses say that some of the wounded and dead were immediately taken home by their relatives, so the actual number of fatalities is difficult to establish.
In the yards now and then we see yurts which are also set up for a funeral, too. Bodies are still not released to the families – they say they are carrying out examinations, and three-day period within which an Adai should be buried, has already passed.
Zharas Shupashev has stood on the square for 7 months. His brother says that in recent days they had to keep him at home by use of force, they were scared, “And so at midday that day he left quietly, because he knew I would scold him.”
Baibek Kubaydullaev, a 22-year-old man. He was a driver, and he was walking across the square to take his car. His father was a striker but he did not know that his son would also be on the square on that day. “I just want justice. Not revenge, but an investigation “, – says the father.
* Some names have been changed.
** 4.5 tenge = 1 ruble
Original publication: Novaya Gazeta