'It was a waking nightmare': Residents still reeling from bloody riots in Kazakhstan

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Dozens of people died and hundreds were wounded in Kazakhstan when peaceful protests over the rising cost of petrol turned violent from January 2-9. Videos of the aftermath show looted shops and buildings burned to the ground. During the clashes, most residents of the former capital Almaty stayed barricaded in their homes, without internet access. We were finally able to contact one woman who told us about her experience during the week of chaos and terror in a city gripped by violence.

After a week of protests, riots and a brutal crackdown, citizens of Almaty emerged from behind locked doors to find their city turned upside down. Amateur images show scenes of devastation in the streets – cars burned, shops looted.

Security forces at first seemed overwhelmed by the protesters who attacked City Hall on January 4. But that evening they began a violent crackdown.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on Russia and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation to help restore order. On January 7, the president gave the police authorisation to "fire without warning" and "shoot to kill" at the protesters. Nearly 8,000 people were arrested.

'Groups of unknown people started to provoke the crowd and loot all across the city'

After several days of internet blackouts, Almaty residents were finally able to get a stable connection. When she finally managed to connect, Lyazzat, who lives in Almaty, responded to a message from the FRANCE 24 Observers team. She told us what it felt like in the city, now that a degree of calm had returned.

We are still in shock. How could something like this happen in our city?

It’s painful to see my favorite shops in ruins. And to see the pride of our city, the buildings in Soviet architectural style, completely destroyed. It’s also horrible to see the losses incurred by small business. That was their livelihood and the rioters destroyed everything.

When the protests against the hike in petrol prices began peacefully in the capital on January 4, few people imagined it would end in this violence.

The president agreed to reduce the price of liquified petroleum gas (LPG) on the evening of January 4 and Lyazzat thought that would be the end of the protests.

But the movement took a different, deadly, turn.

In an instant, everything turned to complete chaos, which shocked everyone. Groups of unknown people started to provoke the crowd and loot all across the city.

They attacked police officers and destroyed city buildings and shops. These weren’t just average civilians. Most normal people had, by that point, cleared out.

>> Read more on The Observers: Protesters storm public buildings in Kazakhstan: ‘A lot of people have nothing to lose’

The security forces used stun grenades and tear gas to disperse protesters. Several amateur videos showed protesters armed with clubs and shields. Another video, posted on January 5, shows protesters taking rifles out of the trunk of a car.

According to Amnesty International, the police also used firearms.

Like many other people, Lyzzat didn’t leave her house once between January 5 and 9. Text messages and announcements broadcast over loudspeakers told locals to stay in their homes during the “anti-terrorist” operation. Several independent news sites were blocked. Lyazzat tried to remain informed, despite the internet blackout:

The only way that we get information is by telephone, from friends and family, or if we watch TV. […] A shoe store near us was robbed and we heard the sound [from our home]. We live in the center of town and we heard gunfire all night for several days in a row. That made us very frightened. We were afraid that it would never stop.

'Some people helped to clean up, others made food and gathered warm clothes for the soldiers'

On January 9, the minister of Information published a death toll, stating that 164 people had died. Later that day, however, he pulled the statement, citing a “technical error” without publishing new numbers.

A national day of mourning was held on January 10 to commemorate the victims, both civilians and those from the security forces.

Life is getting back to some semblance of normalcy in Almaty, Lyazzat says:

Calm is slowly returning to Almaty. The internet has been working well for the past two days. Public transportation is working again and people are heading to work. Markets and shops have opened back up. At first, there were shortages in bread and vegetables, but now things are getting back to normal and the shop shelves are filling back up again.

Volunteers are coming together to help struggling businesses, as well as the soldiers who have been keeping watch over the city. Some people are trying to help clean things up. Others are making food and collecting warm clothes and socks for the soldiers.

In an addition to a halt to increasing gas prices, protesters had also called for the departure of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led the country for 28 years. Though he ceded his presidency to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2019, Nazarbayev remains the leader of the country’s Security Council.

President Tokayev removed Nazarbayev from this position on January 5. The former head of intelligence was arrested on suspicion of treason. During a video conference on January 10, the Kazakh president accused foreign combatants of participating in the riots, which he called “terrorist attacks” and an “attempted coup".

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