ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan Dec 19 (Reuters) – In his hospital bed, Ruslan Kenzhebekov writhes in pain. Instead of celebrating Kazakhstan’s independence, the 26-year-old took a bullet in his midriff.
An unemployed resident of Zhanaozen, he is one of 20 young men lying in hospital in the remote and dusty oil town at the centre of Kazakhstan’s deadliest violence in decades. At least 15 people — and some suspect many more — have been killed.
The clashes shattered Kazakhstan’s image of stability on the same day Central Asia’s largest economy was celebrating the 20th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union.
“We are encountering such a situation for the first time. Never before has there been a state of emergency in any Kazakh town,” said Amanzhol Kabylov, the commandant appointed to restore order in Zhanaozen.
About 150 km (95 miles) inland from the Caspian Sea, across arid plains where wild horses roam, Zhanaozen has been picketed for seven months by striking oil workers demanding higher hardship pay for the dangerous work that they do.
Frustrations have been building since state-controlled KazMunaiGas Exploration Production, which says the strikes were illegal, sacked nearly a thousand workers.
On Dec. 16, the town exploded. Protesters, many wearing their overalls from the oilfields, stormed a stage set up for an Independence Day concert before looting and burning down buildings. They clashed with police, with deadly consequences.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has prioritised economic growth and stability over democratic freedoms in two decades in power, declared a state of emergency in Zhanaozen until Jan. 5. Movement in and out of the town is restricted.
Authorities have pinned the blame on “criminal elements” who infiltrated the town and are using the oil workers’ protests for their own interests. About 700 people have been brought in for questioning, mostly to establish their identity.
Armoured personnel carriers, army trucks and 20-strong squads of riot police patrol the town of 90,000 people. With such a heavy security presence, there were no signs of further violence. Reuters travelled with a police escort.
Armed guards kept around 150 relatives of those detained or killed from entering the police station grounds. Soldiers patrolled rooftops while the crowd of mostly middle-aged women stood silently, shielding their faces from the biting cold.
One woman, who had been allowed through the barricade, said her son had been arrested, beaten and robbed of 50,000 tenge (about $340) while in detention. She declined to give her name.
“Where’s the order they’re talking about, if they themselves are doing this?” she said.
A middle-aged man stood beside her on the steps outside the three-storey police building. He said a desperate search for his missing relative had ended in the town’s morgue. “That was my blood,” he said, also declining to identify himself.
Inside the police station, up a set of crumbling stairs, the commandant explained that tough policing was needed in such an unprecedented situation.
“There’s no other way to do this. For as long as the situation hasn’t normalised, everybody will be checked thoroughly,” said Kabylov, who is also the chief of police for Mangistau region.
Several young men were brought into the police station, hands clasped behind their heads. Of those brought in for questioning, 49 have so far been arrested. Some were allegedly in possession of stolen mobile phones and other property.
It has been a trying few days for Zhanyl Aitmukhanova, a senior medical assistant at the hospital. She fought back tears as she described what happened to her two sons.
Her elder son, aged 22, was detained because he was not carrying identification. “They took him right in front of me,” she said, speaking through a surgical mask.
Her 20-year-old son remains in intensive care, having just regained consciousness after a severe beating to the head. Aitmukhanova said her son was nowhere near the square on Dec. 16: “He simply went out on the streets the next day.”
All of the victims still in hospital are young men, mostly in their twenties. Deputy chief doctor Raushan Zhaparova said most of the people on her watch had gunshot wounds or head traumas. In all, 99 people were admitted on December 16 and 17.
“I was lucky, because my relatives found me and took me to hospital. Otherwise I’d be dead,” a 30-year-old man said from his bed. He shared his room with two other gunshot victims.
“There were 500 people lying on that square,” he said, too afraid to give his name. He could not say whether those he saw were dead or wounded. Like others on the ward, he was unable to identify those who fired the shots.
Some residents, including those who have taken their protests to the regional capital Aktau, question the official death toll. Estimates, unproven, range up to 60 or 70 dead — although this is strongly denied by the authorities.
The town morgue, a squat whitewashed building just off the main square, was locked. Groups of riot police picked their way through a rubbish heap and debris nearby. Officials say that 14 people died in Zhanaozen itself, and one in the town of Shetpe.
Sairan Khangereyev, a doctor at the hospital, remembers the only woman confirmed among the dead. “She was here. She had a wound to her neck.” His voice tailed off. When asked whether she died, he just nodded.
BACK TO NORMAL?
Approaching Zhanaozen from the west, cars that have just crossed the lowest point below sea level in the entire former Soviet Union are stopped and searched by masked special forces carrying automatic rifles.
There are 19 checkpoints around the perimeter of the town. The gas-processing plant, a tangle of pipes on the outskirts of town, is guarded round-the-clock and reinforcements have been sent to secure the oilfields.
Kabylov, the commandant, wears blue camouflage. He said he tours the town regularly to assess the security situation.
“Everybody has one question: when will we start living a normal life again?” he said. “Markets, shops, chemists, hairdressers, dentists — all of them will be working tomorrow or the day after.”
The clean-up operation has begun, but it will take longer than two days. Saken, a 50-year-old volunteer, gave only his first name while loading debris into a truck outside the burnt out shell of the local oil company headquarters.
“We’re collecting all the burnt documents,” he said, a cigarette dangling from his lips. “There’s nothing much else here. They looted most of it and then set the place on fire.”
Inside, broken glass crunched underfoot. The smell of charred wood lingered among the smashed-up desks and overturned chairs where employees of Uzenmunaigas, the local unit of KazMunaiGas Exploration Production, had sat a few days earlier.
A discarded box for a Hewlett Packard laser jet printer lay on the floor. Packets of pasta and parts of a destroyed computer keyboard littered the floor. New Year decorations had been ripped down and a tree toppled and burned.
The adjacent Aruana hotel and the akimat — the Kazakh word for local government headquarters — were also destroyed. The edges of the blue-and-yellow national flag still flying from the roof were singed, black and ragged.
Opposite, the stage for the ill-fated celebrations was still standing at one end of the enormous central square. The toppled New Year tree lay across its centre; another reminder.
“I live nearby. I’m just on my way home,” said an elderly woman crossing the square, gesturing at the four-storey Soviet-built apartment blocks behind the stage.
But like the other lonely figures crossing the empty space where thousands had stood a few days earlier, she said she wasn’t there on Dec. 16. Nobody appeared willing or able to say what happened.
Kenzhebekov, now lying in hospital, was there. He grimaces in pain as he recounts the day. But he also doesn’t know who fired the shot. “I was just walking past,” he said.