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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Kazakhstan unrest: BBC witnesses apocalyptic scenes in main city


Kazakhstan’s biggest city Almaty looks like something from an apocalypse film.

The smell of burnt vehicles lingered in the air as I drove around early on Friday morning. Few people were present, many of whom were too afraid to venture out into the streets.

The army and police are barricading key sites in the city, which has been the focal point of nationwide anti-government protests.

When we approached soldiers in the main square, they yelled at us and fired warning shots into the air, telling us not to get too close.

I’ve been visiting Almaty for many years. It’s a bustling city with plenty of greenery and places to eat and drink.

Shops and banks, on the other hand, have been looted or destroyed. They will need some time to recover.

Much of the damage is concentrated around the large main square, where protesters first congregated when the demonstrations began.

Nearby media buildings were attacked, and the mayor’s office was set ablaze. After being engulfed by black smoke, it is now pitch black.

On Friday, we saw no signs of protests, only a small group of people gathered near the destroyed buildings to take photos with their phones. However, we could still hear gunfire and explosions, which could have been stun grenades. When I first arrived, I thought there was fog, but it turned out to be smoke from the grenades and fireworks.

Several residents I spoke with were stunned and outraged. These protests are unprecedented in Kazakhstan, and many people are surprised at how quickly they spread and turned violent.

Some of those I spoke with are relieved to see forces from Russia and other neighbouring countries arrive, hopeful that they will restore order.

According to one woman, the government should have been firmer from the start.

“If they had used force from the start, this unrest would not have happened,” she said. “Perhaps they were afraid of being condemned for using weapons, but you can see now what this approach resulted in.”

But, amid the outrage over the violence, there was also sympathy for the protesters. Many of the protesters are from rural areas where wages are low and life is difficult.

“I understand the protesters’ demands,” said one man, a 22-year-old cook. “We can see that our wages are not increasing, and the majority of the population is struggling. But now there is looting and hooliganism, and ordinary people are suffering. It must be halted.”

Almaty residents are now facing food shortages due to the closure of the major supermarkets. Open shops only accept cash, and it is difficult to find a place to withdraw money. There is no internet, and taking a taxi appears to be too risky.

One of the looted shops in Almaty

With the internet down and phones not working properly, it’s difficult to find out what’s going on outside of the city. There are numerous rumours floating around that are impossible to verify.

Protests of this magnitude have never occurred in Kazakhstan. There has previously been unrest, but it has been largely localised. None of them resulted in an attack on the main airport.

These protests were sparked by plans to raise fuel prices, but there is also widespread dissatisfaction with the government.

Following the resignation of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who served from independence until 2019, people hoped that the country’s new leader, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, would usher in change.

These expectations were not met. The renaming of Astana’s capital to Nur-Sultan in honour of the former leader, in particular, demonstrated to many that the old is still in charge.

For the time being, things appear to be calming down and the authorities appear to be in command.

Even if the protests have ended for the time being, the discontent will remain. Perhaps another spark will be ignited, igniting new ones.

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