“Everybody says that only the police were shooting”
A group of guests from Europe visited Kazakhstan from 26 October to 4 November. Journalist and human rights defender from Helsinki Oksana Chelysheva, Finnish photographer Kukka Ranta and Latvian photographer Maris Morkans went to the Central Asian republic to find about the situation there ioday, almost a year after the tragic events in Zhanaozen. Now, having talked to local residents and gathered a lot of documentary material, they are determined to lobby in Europe for political prisoners in Kazakhstan. A visible result of their journey is a photography exhibition “Kazakhstan with European eyes”, which is currently being prepared.
Oksana Chelysheva talks about her impressions from the visit. Her story is illustrated with photographs by Maris Morkans.
Fergana: Oksana, when did you go to Aktau?
We managed to get to Aktau after the decision on the Kozlov case was taken and his 7.5 year term was confirmed.
We managed to meet a large number of witnesses and participants of the Zhanaozen events. For example, in Aktau we met women volunteer supporters of striking oil workers. Many of these women had no relation to the oil workers, but were supporting them; for example, they carried out campaigns like “women in white” – they went to the Aktau administration, dressed in white, and stood in silence reading a prayer for an hour.
She was walking down the street in Aktau, dragging a trolley with newspapers along. She was returning from work. Her pension is small. She has to survive somehow. Especially because her son is disabled. “Call me auntie Zhenya…” one of the oil workers’ supporters introduced herself. It turned out that this woman is a former teacher of Kazakh literature, she started helping the strikers, because “she could no longer stand seeing how these men were falling further and further into anguish and despair. They needed moral support. We tried to help them at least like this. When I found out that there was shooting in Zhanaozen, the women went to the administration building and just stood in silence, begging not to kill the people.”
We were also in Zhanaozen itself and went up to the Shetpe village, where we happened to be the first journalists with whom the residents ventured to talk about what happened on 17 December last year.
Why do you have such trust? They were previously afraid of talking about this.
Yes, they were afraid. We knew that the level of fear is very high – not only among the Shetpe residents, but also amongst those of Zhanaozen. When I ended up in this town – and we were there for two days – I told my Kazakh colleagues that the psychological impression left by Zhanaozen now, a year after the events, is Chechnya in 2005. It’s the same level of tension in the faces, the same jumpiness at a knock or ring at the door, a huge number of reinforced patrols on the town’s streets. The patrols are also afraid of the residents: they walk around the town in groups of 5 or 6, armed with serious weapons. And if the patrol stops, they stand with their backs to each other, to get a one hundred percent view.”
Zhanaozen residential homes. They were built in 1967 as temporary accommodation for rotation workers who were developing the oil deposits
Do they carry combat weapons?
Yes. A year later, you can say that the level of tension is very high.
As for the residents of Shetpe village, when we met them, they all wanted to speak and they all spoke a lot. There was a feeling that people are tired of being afraid. They know what to be afraid of: even our car journey from Shanaozen to Shetpe, which is about 200 km, was accompanied by difficulties. We were constantly stopped by police patrols. We can’t say they harassed us, but they really slowed us down.
As a result, we were late to a meeting by about four hours, and arrived in Shetpe late at night, but the residents waited for us. And during our meeting, more and more new people came to us, everybody wanted to talk.
We managed to get a lot of testimonies about what happened in the village.
From the European Parliament resolution on Kazakhstan:
“The general elections held on 15 January 2012 were deemed by the OSCE not to be in line with its standards, given widespread voting irregularities and the use of state resources and slogans to bolster the popularity of the ruling party, which did not provide the necessary conditions for the conduct of genuinely pluralistic elections;
the International Monitoring Mission of Civic Solidarity concludes in its preliminary report that the Zhanaozen trials cannot be considered as compliant with fair trial standards, and that the investigation into the events of December 2011 was neither full nor independent; whereas the accused and some witnesses were victims of violations of their rights during the pre-trial stage, including the alleged use of torture, denial of access to an attorney, intimidation, and fabrication of evidence; whereas the defendants’ testimony offered at their trials concerning ill-treatment and torture during their pre-trial detention was not fully, impartially and thoroughly investigated in a manner capable of holding the perpetrators responsible;
after the tragic events of December 2011 in Zhanaozen, opposition parties, independent media, trade unions, activists and human rights defenders have become targets of repression, including detentions without proven violation of law which could be considered as politically motivated;
the Kazakh authorities have recently undertaken important efforts in terms of cooperation with NGOs in West Kazakhstan, in order to improve the situation for the inhabitants of the region, and in particular for workers on strike.”
Can you briefly talk about what happened there?
As I already said, Shetpe village is 200 km away from Zhanaozen. A part of the village’s population is formed of rotation workers, who spend 15 days on oil pumps in Zhanaozen. On 16 December, news of the so-called disturbances and shooting went through every channel in Kazakhstan, including the government channels. At the same time, already by the evening of 16 December, Zhanaozen was closed off from all media communications – you couldn’t reach the town by phone, the internet wasn’t working there.
Road to Zhanaozen. Camels, factories, railways with oil transport wagons
And now, imagine the situation. The citizens of Shetpe cannot understand, what has happened to their relatives who have gone to Zhanaozen. And those who live near the station see that passenger trains are going to Zhanaozen, not simply containing passengers, but armed police. And on 17 December, when people in the village were seriously worried about the safety of their relatives and colleagues, one of these trains stopped at the station, and armed police got out. It is important that the train stopped by itself – nobody blocked it. Everybody who we spoke to in Shetpe said this.
The train stopping could not have gone unnoticed, and at around 11 am people began to gather by the station. We were told that the oil workers, who were not working shifts at the time, and relatives of people with whom communication was lost came out first. Many said that they went to the station, sort of out of curiosity. It was a spontaneous movement, caused by the total irrationality of the authorities’ actions, because people were provoked by the information blockade around Zhanaozen: nobody could reach their relatives.
People were not armed, they did not provoke the police at all – nevertheless, the police opened fire.
Why all of a sudden? Maybe stones were flying out of the crowd?
There were no stones thrown. Four people from the village were sentenced for the so-called disturbance in the village – the thing is, that even during the official investigation, and at court, the accusation of doing damage to the wagon were dismissed – not a single piece of evidence was presented. The train carriages did not suffer damage, windows were not broken, and the train continued its journey.
The authorities say that people blocked the railroads, stopped the train with its passengers and thereby caused a high level of danger for these passengers. But witnesses say that in the village area, near the station, not a single railroad was blocked, there were no barricades. What some people are talking about - those who have nothing to do with the Shetpe residents - did happen 120 km from the village. There, something was allegedly done to passenger trains.
20 to 25 people spoke to us and all assured us that they had nothing to do with what happened 120 km from Shetpe. Yet, this fell in the same basket of accusations of mass disturbances.
Witnesses of Shetpe events. Father of Torebek Tolegenov, killed on 17 December, holds a photograph of his son. “He was only 30. He was getting ready to marry. When I was called and I found out that my son’s body had already been taken to the hospital, I hurried there. My car was also shot at when I was entering the village.”
We talked to village residents who got badly wounded on 17 December. One of them is 30 years old, he was wounded in the leg, the bullet damaged a nerve, and as a result one of his legs is shorter than the other one. He is now disabled in the second group. He got this wound at 11 at night, when he was coming back from a friend’s with his wife; this was about 700 metres from the station. When he was in hospital, people from the prosecutor’s office came to see him and demanded that he sign a statement saying he was right by the station when he was wounded.
This man sustained the pressure and did not take back his words – but he told us straight that if he had been less stoic and had signed some sort of confession statement, he may have been convicted.
We also talked to the father of a killed fireman, Torebek Tulegenov, the only one killed during the Shetpe disturbances. The father said that the son came for lunch (they lived on the edge of the village). The phone rang and the son sped off to the station after being told about some sort of disturbances by the train station. Later, witnesses said that this young man, in a fireman’s uniform (he was born in 1982) came out to the police and asked them not to shoot at the unarmed people, and he addressed the people, asking them to calm down. As a result, he was shot in the head and died on the same day.
When the father found out about his son’s death at 4 pm, he drove to the hospital where the body had already been taken. At the entrance to the village his car was shot at. He showed us photographs with open end holes from the bullets on his old GAZ. It was a miracle he escaped death that day.
Shetpe village. Newspaper cuttings lying on the table at an improvised HQ in a flat rented by 17 December victims with their own funds. All those publications which print criticism of Kazakhstan’s reality are presented. Russian “Novaya” is among them. “Not everyone can subscribe. But they can come here and read.”
So, is it clear who was shooting?
Everybody says that only the police were shooting. The residents gave me a video – it’s a K+ TV programme, which includes an interview with the head of the police unit involved in these events. This man says directly that it was him who gave the order to open fire.
And did people speak in Zhanaozen, or were they afraid?
They were afraid. They said that they are afraid of the consequences of our meetings.
We went to Zhanaozen straight after Alexander Bozhenko, a witness of oil workers being tortured, was killed. We met his brother Victor first. This situation is very indicative for understanding the mood in Zhanaozen. The thing is that both Victor and Alexander Bozhenko came out of the Zhanaozen orphanage. But Victor then moved to Aktau, Alexander stayed in the town…
Is Viktor Alexander’s older brother?
He is his older brother, he is now 23. They were close. It turned out that on the same day that Alexander did not manage to make the accusation in court – he burst into tears during testimony and left – he went to his older brother and the former residents of the orphanage and told them about everything that happened to him. The guys supported him and helped him to gather his strength. They went to the court with him two days later, where he testified under his real name, saying what methods the police used to make him lie and what he saw. And this meeting with the guys from the orphanage was very important to understand what happened in the town.
The former residents of an orphanage in Zhanaozen. 14 people are registered in the flat where they live. In reality, many more often live there, because they give shelter to those who have ended up on the street when they turned 18, an age when the pupils must leave the orphanage
Now this orphanage does not exist – it was dissolved this summer. Its former residents told us that the reason for this was that “the orphans of Zhanaozen are a destabilising factor for order in the town.” These orphans are the most deprived of rights group not only in Zhanaozen, but maybe in all of Kazakhstan. And we understood why the police chose Alexander Bozhenko, a fragile 20 year old boy, who was detained on 18 December, two days after the disturbances, on his way to work. There was nobody to stand up for him, he was an orphan, and the police treat orphans like street dogs. The police decided that Alexander Bozhenko was the easiest target available for them to organise the necessary testimony.
Alexander Bozhenko’s grave
Marble grave stone for Alexander Bozhenko. Money to make it was collected around the world and prepared in the workshop at the orthodox church in Aktau. It will be installed by Alexander’s colleagues
Are people discussing Vladimir Kozlov’s sentence, or is this a separate political story, linked to Ablyazov, which has nothing to do with their lives?
It is being discussed. After meetings with people I have no doubt that Vladimir Kozlov is hugely trusted and has support from the deepest levels of Kazakhstan’s society. People are outraged by this sentence and Shetpe citizens told me that they do not understand how Vladimir Kozlov was concluded as being some sort of third force. They all said that this was a self-organised form of protest, a trade dispute, and Vladimir Kozlov, as far as they remember, began appearing in the town for short periods and only in August 2011, while the strike began in May. Also, he did not start coming by himself, but came because he was asked by the strike committee – the situation was dragging and they needed legal help.
I would even call the Alga party an unregistered human rights defence party, which differentiates it. Free legal consultations on all sorts of questions for residents were opened in all the regions were Alga had a branch.
How do the residents feel about the sentencing of the police? Do people feel that the guilty have been punished? And did they talk to you about the Ryskali brothers?
Yes they did. The Ryskali brothers remain a big question in this story, as well as who actually helped them escape Kazakhstan. The number of police who ended up before the courts and the sentences given to them cause bitter and forceful sarcasm amongst the people. This cannot be doubted.
For example, you can compare Kozlov’s sentence and the confiscation of all his property, including his flat where his family lives, and the lightening of policemen’s sentences at appeal stage, when confiscations of property were excluded. This says a lot.
People who were direct witnesses of looting told us that police were involved in robbing shops and ATMs. When some of the police flew out through Aktau airport, people saw they were taking electronics with them. When airport staff asked them where they got so many electronics, they said that they bought them. But we all know what happened in Zhanaozen.
People also told us their questions to the administration of KazMunayGaz, whose office was on fire – not from the outside, but from inside. Smoke first came out of the basement and it later turned out that all the hard disks of the accounting department’s computers containing all the information disappeared somehow. We are not talking about 12, but around 200 computers…
Is this information going around Zhanaozen, are people discussing it?
But this was not mentioned at a single court on the Zhanaozen disturbances. How do people have this information?
This was not discussed, but all these people were witnesses to what happened in December last year. One of these people suggested we think about how much time is needed to destroy an ATM. You can’t do it with a metal rod, nor with a picklock – you need special equipment, which requires time and safety. Only those who were in charge of the curfew could do this: ordinary residents could not go out from 16 December.
I saw your Facebook status, where you said that hearings on Kazakhstan in the European Parliament “became a lecture on Syr Darya province.” When did these hearings take place?
On 19 November. In reality, there were no hearings, even though they were announced. A report by European MPs who went to Kazakhstan was supposed to be discussed. This was not a hearing, but an unsightly show. Firstly, the time for the hearings was set for half past five on Monday, but part of the MPs had not yet arrived in the European Parliament. Secondly, the hearings agenda was suddenly changed, and the first point of discussion ended up being Tajikistan. A representative from Dushanbe spent a long time telling us that there are two great rivers in Central Asia: Amudarya and Syr Darya, and that the ecological risks from constructing the Rogunsk HEP are not that significant…
The lecture lasted for the entire one and a half hours designated for the hearings. When it finally ended, the chairman, head of the parliamentary delegation on cooperation with Central Asia, Italian MP Paolo Bartolozzi, announced that there was no more time left and closed the meeting.
The following morning, we were surprised to find out that hearings on Kazakhstan actually took place, they were even approved and there was time to discuss a draft resolution…In reality none of this happened. The word “Kazakhstan” sounded only once – when the meeting was called to an end.
From the European Parliament resolution on Kazakhstan:
“There is an ongoing open and constructive dialogue between MEPs, official representatives of Kazakhstan, representatives of civil society and NGOs on issues of mutual interest;
Kazakhstan plays an important role in securing regional stabilisation, and can become a bridge between the EU and the whole Central Asian region;
Kazakhstan has achieved significant results in the areas of poverty reduction, public health and education;
ЕС в значительной мере зависит от импорта рудных фосфатов, необходимых для сельского хозяйства и производства технической продукции в Евросоюзе».
the EU is heavily dependent on imports of mined phosphate rock in order to sustain its agriculture and technical production.”
Children of Zhanaozen. “Do you like your town?” “Yes of course” “Have you been anywhere else?” “No, we are still little.”
You mean the resolution on Kazakhstan, which has appeared on the internet?
Members of the delegation were supposed to present their report on their trip. And the resolution which was debated and approved in Strasbourg last week became a sort of fruit of labour for people who are organising these hearings, with those who occupy a position of responsibility. Very many harsh corrections were included in the draft of this resolution.
After reading the resolution I have a feeling that despite the harsh words on Zhanaozen, the elections and the courts, Kazakhstan has been praised in general. Is this the wrong impression?
You are not the only one to have that impression. On the morning of the debates, news came from Kazakhstan that the prosecutor’s office is closing down opposition media. There was a very strong attempt to cancel the debates and the vote on the resolution. But Kazakh civil society representatives had to agree with the MPs’ conclusions, there are no grounds to distrust them. If the debates and voting on the resolution had been postponed for an indefinate period, then the MPs and the external service of the European Parliament would have no levers to react to new challenges, which constantly arise from Kazakhstan. This would include not being able to send written requests to the Kazakh authorities.
A very hard battle was going on several days before the election, in very difficult conditions. But as a result, the resolution was accepted with the majority of the tough amendments.
Oksana, with all due respect for the work of the European parliament, I do not understand how this can help in reality. So, they send a request. The MP arrives, meets some people. But still, people are in jail and can nothing be done?
If there was not the minimum of activity which we are seeing now, then I assure you that the situation would be even more hopeless. I would only applaud the MEPs, who would go to political processes in Russia just as willingly, as they go in Kazakhstan, and have previously tried to go to Belarus. I see that the authorities react – they are very wary of the control which already exists.
We talked to very many ordinary people in Kazakhstan, and believe me: the name of Irish MEP Paul Murphy is on everybody’s lips. He has become a legend in Kazakhstan. It turns out that there are such brave people in Europe, who are not only capable of coming, but also give testimony in court in defence of a political prisoner! These actions of MEPs add to the trust bank of European Union structures.
Venera Popova, one of the last long-standing residents of Zhanaozen. She built this town. She spent her life and brought up here children there. Local officials are obviously a little afraid of Venera. It was her who started helping the orphans first, when she met several young men not dressed appropriately for the season, who told her “We want to fight for our rights. We want to be the same kind of citizens of Kazakhstan as everyone else.” She was the first to clothe them. It was Venera, whom the oil workers who began a strike asked for advice
Maria Yanovskaya interviewed. Photos by Maris Morkans
P.S. While this material was being prepared for printing, news that MEP from Paul Murphy’s left fraction, who has been denied a Kazakh visa several times before, will visit Kazakhstan on 29 – 30 November. Patrick Mulholland, president of Northern Ireland’s Public Service union, has visited Zhezkazgan before, to meet Kazakhmys workers.
Shadows in Zhanaozen cemetery. City of the dead
Fergana international information agency. Translated by Sophia Matveeva