Kazakhstan: an eyewitness to the uprising in Almaty

□ This text was written by Aidar Ergali on Thursday 6 January in Almaty. It has been circulating on Russian-language social media (e.g. here and here) and was translated into English yesterday. Please copy and paste, please circulate

THIS WILL BE A LONG READ, BUT PLEASE READ IT

This is what happened yesterday [Wednesday 5 January] in Almaty’s main square. Please tell the whole world what has been happening in KAZAKHSTAN.

Brothers and sisters!

The traitor [president] Tokayev has brought armies into the country, and as of yesterday we are under the Russian occupation. Don’t believe the foul propaganda Tokayev spouts, his voice breaking with fear.

The provocateurs and marauders had been brought in by the government, in order to discredit the protest movement, and to drown it in blood. The people who had come out into the streets of our cities are not extremists and marauders, not terrorists, as the government claims. These are the people of Kazakhstan, robbed and driven to fury by a gang of cowardly traitors and scoundrels.

In the streets, I spoke with huge numbers of all sorts of people. These were young lads, who had answered their heart’s call and have come from all corners of our country. These are ordinary city folk, young people, the elderly, women, who can no longer suffer this constant shame, lies and humiliation.

Photos of Almaty from The Insider and social media

The fault for everything happening in our country now lies with the government. With Nazarbayev and his clique. While suppressing their own people, the authorities have lost the time to negotiate. The time for negotiations has now passed. Specifically, it passed yesterday, when the people took to the streets en masse for a PEACEFUL rally, in support of our brothers in western Kazakhstan. If the people had not come out as one across the country, they would long ago have drowned the Zhanaozen strikers in blood, just as it happened ten years ago. Because the same cannibals and butchers are still in power. Our lives are not worth a penny to them.  That time we permitted that slaughter to happen, through our inaction and cowardice.

On 4 January, instead of starting an open dialogue with the people, the government set up cordons, and its guard dogs, the karabets [armed security forces], were let loose on peaceful protesters.

These cowardly creatures, only fit for pushing around old ladies and children, came up against the most powerful resistance and were completely smashed. And it is not for nothing that this happened in the street that bears the name of the legendary Kazakh hero, Baurzhan Momshula. I did not take part in these clashes, I only heard about it the next day from someone who did, but you could judge the scale of the conflict from the large numbers of riot shields, helmets, batons and bulletproof vests worn the following day by the protesters, that had been discarded by our “valiant” guardians of law and order. Not hundreds of them, but thousands. And that equipment seized from them included weapons and light and noise grenades.

I can’t tell you everything that happened yesterday across the whole city with any chronological order, but I can tell you what I saw. Yesterday, 5 January, my friend and I drove down Sain Road towards Momshula street in order to see what was happening with our own eyes. It was impossible to get past Tole Bi Street.

The street was blocked by cars and demonstrators. Everywhere it was strewn with discarded riot shields, armour, scraps of police uniform and various rubbish. We found a secure spot in the district to park the car  and walked the rest of Tole Bi Street. Everyone was walking towards the city centre, the street was blocked at its west end by cars, some improvised barricades and, in many places, even by pulled-up rails.

Eventually, closer to the city centre, small dispersed groups of demonstrators became a huge, countless and endless flood that was constantly chanting “shal ket” (“old man, be gone”) and singing the national anthem.

Along the way we saw the smashed-up offices of the ruling party, Nur Otan. We saw burning police stations and police cars. We saw rioters smashing up the offices of the state prosecutor, the lapdogs of this rotten regime that have been helping for so many years to humiliate the Kazakh people, driving it deeper and deeper into slavery. All while calling all this lawlessness “upholding the law”. And what did you expect, Tokayev and Nazarbayev? That you could beat people into a pulp, and herd them in riot vans like sheep forever?

No, Kazakhs are a nation, which lives in its own land, bequeathed to them by their fathers, and which is capable of standing up for itself.

We saw ordinary folk, elderly grannies carried water and pastries in their string bags and distributed them among the passers-by with their bata [blessing]. I remember a beautiful scene when on the first floor balcony in Seifullin Street there stood a middle-aged woman, shouting and gesticulating to the people.  Her face literally glowed with joy and she was sobbing. She did not understand the Kazakh language, but when people started shouting to her in Russian, “Grandma, throw us down some water”, she hurried at once and lowered several five-litre bottles of water into the street, and the crowd broke into applause.

Policemen were being badly beaten, that’s true. But only by the most hot-headed protesters, the rest crowded around them and fought them off the policemen, who otherwise might have been beaten to death. I had to defend a couple of policemen myself. I really never would have thought that I would ever have to defend one, because I have genuinely hated them all my life. But you should have seen that horrific spectacle of the policemen stripped, beaten, covered in blood and snot.

There were arguments between protesters about them. Some shouted “Don’t be soft on them, they wouldn’t be soft on you”, which is absolutely true. But there were no fights between protesters. There were even calls to send all those captured to the front of the crowd and to use them as human shields. The policemen (and possibly some soldiers) foreseeing this outcome, were stripping off their epaulettes and coming over to the side of the protesters. There were many of them, camouflaged, they stuck together in groups. Some protesters were itching to attack them, but were stopped by others who told them “they are ours now, don’t touch them”.

What I never saw was any violence towards city residents. Many happily came out into the street and talked with the protesters. Some brought out water and handed it around. Nobody touched civilian buildings and street furnishings, if you don’t count the broken streetlights and benches, from which protesters tried to build barricades. Ah yes, and a lot of “Sergek” security cameras got smashed, probably with pleasure.

As we approached the square, there was growing tension. Folk were expecting it to be defended and were getting ready for another bloody clash. But the small police units stationed there, when they saw the column of people approach, quickly retreated down Satpayev Street. No wonder, because at the very sight of this avalanche of people banging riot shields, one could easily soil one’s trousers. Stopping this onslaught was already completely unrealistic, because the people were already furious. Along the way the protesters quickly overran the abandoned mayor’s office, and it was soon ablaze.

The square gradually filled with people. My friend and I were photographing the burning mayoral office building, because that’s not something you see every day, and then we went to check what had burst into flames on its eastern side. That turned out to be a car. Beyond the green, people were gathering, firmly determined to storm the president’s palace which was being guarded by a military unit. From that direction came the constant booming of grenade explosions, and thick smoke. A lad was running up and down the green shouting “Are there any more soldiers, I’ll take them?” And there we saw a pair of soldiers. This was my most vivid memory from the past day, despite what I will tell you later.

The soldiers turned out to be quite simply, children. Conscripts or trainees, I don’t know. But they looked 17 or 18. Those bastards sent teenagers to defend their regime and then left them there to their fate. Stripped to their underwear, barefoot in the snow, badly beaten, confused and utterly despondent. This was a heartbreaking sight. The protesters who had defended them had pulled them out of a fight, and were trying to wrap them up in coats. Then they were evacuated by that guy from the green. Where these soldiers had come from, I have no idea. Possibly from the army truck captured earlier in Furmanov Street.

I had seen a column of four of these trucks that were trying to get through Furmanov under a hail of rocks and sticks. When I say a “hail of rocks”, I mean it was literally hailing rocks. The protesters owe thanks to Baibek [leader of the ruling Nur Otan party Bayurjan Baibek] for such a haul of quality ammunition for the proletariat. With this vehicle, that the protesters had managed to capture, they later rammed the fence around the presidential residence.

Afterwards we heard some desperate screams nearby, including a woman’s voice. We couldn’t clearly see anything, smoke from the grenades was all around, but we could see that there was some sort of fight going on. There were constant explosions, like New Year fireworks.

We ran, and then suddenly we saw the Kazakh opposition politician, Zhanbolat Mamai, whom his wife, Inga Imanbai, was desperately trying to defend from two or three attackers, who were shouting “die, traitor” at him. One guy, armed with a sapper spade, was doing all he could to beat them off Zhanbolat, but Zhanbolat still got hit badly over the head with a riot shield. We ran over and helped fight off the attackers. So Zhanbolat, whom I had heard the police had beaten badly beforehand, also got attacked by his own side.   He was semi-conscious and looked barely recognisable. His face was swollen and covered in blood.  If it hadn’t been for the guy with the spade, he would have been killed, most likely, there and then. Because this was happening on the green, and there was nobody around.

The attackers backed off and walked away up Furmanov Street. Zhanbolat and Inga, accompanied by the guy with the spade, started walking up Furmanov Street. We wanted to walk with them, because it was risky for them to walk past the rioters storming the palace. But in the chaos and smoke, we quickly lost them. Later on,  we saw that same guy with the spade, and he said that he had led them away to a safe distance. I hope that Zhanbolat is alive, safe and is getting medical help.

This is how we ended up in Furmanov-Zholdasbekov Street, which is now Furmanov again by the way, because not one street sign is left that calls it Nazarbayev Avenue.

Behind the fence of the presidential compound stood the military, looking tough, like American commandos, armed to the teeth, assault rifles at the ready. My friend and I came up to the fence and started shouting to them “Don’t shoot at the people!” but they threw smoke grenades at us in response. One of these blew up at my feet and I briefly lost my hearing, and could only hear a whistle. We ran back, but then returned, to say what we wanted to say, because they could clearly hear us and were listening. Either way, at some point they stopped pelting us with grenades. I didn’t film what was happening because the protesters had asked me not to film. But I should have filmed my friend’s speech, and I very much regret that I didn’t.

It was a powerful speech. In beautiful Kazakh he shouted to the soldiers: “Brothers! You were birthed and raised by Kazakh mothers too. If a war breaks out tomorrow, we are those who will stand with you shoulder to shoulders to the end. Don’t shoot at your own people! Don’t be Nazarbayev’s slaves! He will sell you out as soon as you stop being useful to him. Just looks at the lads who got captured. These are our children’s age! Think, please, and serve the people only! Don’t take orders from those who would turn us on each other. Throw down your arms, and come over to the side of the people! Don’t shoot at your people, think how you will live among us afterwards? How will you look your children in the eye!” I had a lump in my throat, but, sadly, those words went unheard.

We had no plans to take part in storming the presidential palace because we considered it pointless and wrong, because taking control of the mayor’s office has been symbolic enough already. We decided to return to the square and see what was happening there. That was a fairly calm moment, so we ran down Furmanov Street. It turned out that we had just been through the calm before the storm, and this was the instant they started storming the building. We got caught in the epicentre of the events.

Protesters showed up in an army truck, turned it around and drove it at full speed to ram down several sections of the fence. It made a breach, and at that moment grenades began to explode, and hellish gunfire broke out. At that instant I found myself right in the crossfire, and barely had time to crouch down.  Right then, a young guy ran out of the thick smoke, it was the guy who had been at the wheel and had rammed the fence. I had just started thinking that the driver must have been killed because I had seen bullets hit the driver’s cabin. There was an avalanche of gunfire, and I remember the rest as though in slow motion. A bullet hit him in the leg, he fell and then tried to crawl forward. I was about to dash over to him, but right then a smoke grenade smashed in front of me, and I couldn’t see a thing, so I crouched back down. A few seconds later, as the smoke started to thin out, I saw an outline of some guys who were carrying him out, holding him under the arms. All through gunfire. Everyone was shooting blind. There was no way to take aim through a thick wall of smoke. In these circumstances, there was a likelihood of getting shot, so I ducked behind a police box.

There, in Furmanov Street, there was a police box, that the protesters wanted to pull up and use as a shield as they advanced. The box was very solidly made, clearly the police had spared no expense to protect their own safety. So, nobody managed to pull it up, and the box still stood rooted into the ground at an angle. A couple of lads took cover there. Next to it there was another breach in the fence, and the rioters were trying to get through it. They were using the police box as a bridgehead. But every time they got stopped by a tide of gunfire. They retreated but never left the wounded behind, each time they pulled them out under gunfire. I don’t know if these were live rounds or rubber bullets, but blood gushed from the bullet wounds. That place is probably still drenched in blood. Some wounded got lifted out straightaway, others were pulled first into the police box where they would be laid out on riot shields and others would carry them out on those. As it turned out, riot shields made excellent stretchers. I can’t say precisely, but about ten guys were carried off wounded from that attack. I didn’t see any dead, but I can’t be sure than none of them died later. They had lost a lot of blood.

When the attack subsided, we moved onto a nearby green, but judging by it all, the storming of the compound had only begun, because more and more people crowded around it, determined. Later, the presidential palace fell, and the soldiers got evacuated somewhere. The building itself was torched.

I’ll say straight away that if you think these guys [who attacked the palace] were trained paramilitaries, you couldn’t be more wrong. These were ordinary blokes, proper brave lads with balls, not armchair experts. They went there to say “no” to the Nazarbayev regime, but it was the authorities themselves that had angered these people, having opened fire. There was a feeling that these guys would stick it out to the end. They were not hired provocateurs, because provocateurs NEVER risk getting shot at. Nobody there knew each other, the folk were united by their will for freedom and their hatred of the regime.

If any of those guys read these words, please know — we are brothers. I knew for certain that had anything happened to me, they would have pulled me out at any cost. And you know what, no matter what anyone calls them, no matter how they get smeared, I swear, from this day I will be proud of my people, to the end of my days. And all my words and gripes with Kazakhs as a nation, all my doubts about the future of our people, I take them all back. We are a nation, and we are a nation with a strong character.

When we got back to the square, I was desperate for a sip of water. We perched on a bench, but paramedics chased us off it. They laid down a wounded lad and started to examine him. As I understood, they were an ambulance crew. When asked why they weren’t taking him straight to hospital, they said “we might not get him there alive”. Also, I reckon, the hospitals must have been overwhelmed. It was dangerous for ambulances to try to get through there anyway because people weren’t letting them though and were attacking them. One such smashed up ambulance lay overturned on Zheltoksan Street.

WHY, YOU ASK? I asked too. And I heard the same response from everyone. During the clashes overnight, the police used ambulance vehicles to bring grenades and weapons to their units. And many of the grenades that ended up in the hands of the rioters were taken from these ambulance vehicles. I can’t verify this, of course, as I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but knowing our authorities’lack of morals, I don’t doubt it one bit. Especially since they couldn’t use police vehicles to carry them. They must have seen how many police cars were lying around, smashed up.

There were big crowds in the square. More and more people arrived. But this mass of people just could not get organised. Because this was spontaneous rallying, no matter what lies anyone feeds you. There was no preparation, people were constantly trying to organise, were trying to form a committee of activists, but they didn’t even have loudspeakers for that.

Everyone was saying that we should build barricades at least at the two sides of the square, about the need to find tents and food, how nobody was planning to leave, how they couldn’t surrender the square because a cleanup operation was coming, and the police would wait and then return. People talked about how they could not permit looting or violent marauding. They wanted to organise patrols, but they needed to get more people together. People carried on making spontaneous speeches in the same vein, but nobody could hear them, and even such famous people as the opposition politician Zhasaral Kuanyshalin struggled to attract an audience. He quickly lost his voice, he had been speaking about the constitution, about safeguarding law and order, about elections. The same for the other speakers, they all said the right things, about how the protesters needed to make clear demands, first and foremost to demand that Nazarbayev finally left power properly and that he disbanded the ruling Nur Otan party, but none of this resulted in anything, because these people simply did not have the resources. At that point I envied our brothers in Atyrau and Aktau, who had clear leaders, where they were all local and could organise tents, food, medicines etc. The Almaty protesters had none of those things.

Periodically someone would drop off some water and flatbreads, but this was a drop in the ocean. Then, as if out of nowhere, the famous criminal underworld figure Wild Arman showed up. He was saying something, but I could not hear. Then he led about a third of the protesters out of the square. The rest shouted after them, warning them not to fall for KNB [security services] provocations. Later he returned and said something else, but I could not hear it all. When I asked another protester, he said that Arman “was spouting pure gibberish”, and the protesters chased him away themselves. There is nothing more I can say about it.

By the time it started to get dark, people had got really cold. Some left to stay with relatives to warm up and rest. My friend and I returned after a couple of hours, by that time the president’s residence had been burned down, and a lot of firefighting equipment was lying about in the roads. Nobody was regulating transport in the city, so cars just drove around these burning wrecks in Furmanov Street, despite the risk of explosions. Part of the crowd had stayed in the square. They were doing what they could to build barricades and were hanging up the giant flag that had been torn down from the mayor’s office. Nobody was storming the square, there were no police. But it was clear that there was no way we would be able to hold the square. The larger part of the crowd, as I gathered, had gone on to storm the airport.

I am amazed at how these people had the endurance, on the second day of resistance, to go and storm an airport, guarded by the military, 30 km away. But people were hurrying, because news got out that Putin’s army was getting ready to land. The folk were waying that if we didn’t storm the airport then, they would be slaughtered by the “theywereneverthere” troops. The airport, as you know, was seized but it was not held for lomg because by that time the first military carrier had already landed at Burundai, so there was no point in holding the Almaty airport.

I don’t know what is happening now in our sacred square that had soaked up the blood of our Kazakhs in December 1986 [in the Zheltoksan protest movement] and which has soaked up the blood now, in January 2022. There really were a lot of bloodstains there. So there must have been some earlier clashes there already. We will know in time. But right now I know nothing, and this is really gnawing at me. I only heard some shreds of news that when the square was stormed by the city security services, ROVD, they killed a lot of protesters, that there was shooting in Kalmakan that left many dead, and that the city is overrun by bands of looters.

When it comes to the looters, it was clear from the outset that the authorities would bring in mercenaries so that they could discredit the protests, allowing it to surrender the country to Putin’s boot. This became clear the instant Wild Arman showed up in the square. At night my friend and I left the square and walked many kilometers on foot down Al Farabi Road, because it was impossible to get a taxi. I am ashamed to say that I am a man who walks from the car door to the front door, and I am not used to such night-time city strolls. So today I can barely walk.

I believe that I have been entrusted to write this text by the guy who brought water and food to the square and told us the news, how Tokayev called in the OCST [Collective Security Treaty Organisation] army. When you are sitting in a middle of an information blockade, every bit of news in a breath of fresh air. I think that one day they will tell about these events the way they tell about the Battle of Anyraqai or about the events of December 1986, or about the slaughter of Zhanaozen strikers in 2011. And this is when this guy, this brother said — he said: “Tell everyone that WE HAD COME TO A PEACEFUL RALLY. And what is happening today is solely the government’s fault because they attacked their people first and opened fire on the Kazakhs. Tell everyone who has ears, who has a brain, who has a heart, all that you have seen today with your own eyes. Use any means. Tell every compatriot, that WE ARE NOT TERRORISTS, we are fighting for our Motherland, for the future of our children, for the future of your children. And we will not retreat.”

But today, as I listened as Tokayev spouted brazen lies and smears, as he claimed the protesters were looters and terrorists, I, Kazakh architect Aidar Ergali, realised that I have a duty to tell you what really happened in the Almaty central square.

Yes, not everything was right, but there were no leaders. And where would leaders have come from, if for 30 years straight Nazarbayev has been killing and repressing anyone who dared raise their head? But in these few days, many Kazakhs realised that they are no longer slaves to dictators. Kazakhs are a people. We are all Kazakhs we are bauyrlar [brothers]. We can always reach an agreement between us. We can create a powerful democratic state, the state of the Kazakhs, the state of free people.

And here is my amanat, by bequest to everyone who has read this. I don’t know what will happen to me after this, but if you are in solidarity with us, please help these text reach everyone, I don’t need reposts, just copy these texts on your page. Alga Kazakhstan! Shal ket! Forward, Kazakhstan! Old man [Nazarbayev], be gone! 6 January, Almaty.

Warmest thanks to PS for this translation in to English.

■ See also: Revolt and repression in Kazakhstan

5 Responses to Kazakhstan: an eyewitness to the uprising in Almaty

  1. […] By Wednesday 5 January, protesters in Kazakhstan had occupied government buildings in a number of cities, and airports. They had blocked roads and railways. There were (unconfirmed) reports from Mangystau that police units have gone over to the side of the protesters. In Almaty, the largest city and commercial centre, a huge demonstration took over the city centre before security forces began to fire on it. (Please read this linked post: An eyewitness to the uprising in Almaty.) […]

  2. […] By Wednesday 5 January, protesters in Kazakhstan had occupied government buildings in a number of cities, and airports. They had blocked roads and railways. There were (unconfirmed) reports from Mangystau that police units have gone over to the side of the protesters. In Almaty, the largest city and commercial centre, a huge demonstration took over the city centre before security forces began to fire on it. (Please read this linked post: An eyewitness to the uprising in Almaty.) […]

  3. […] Kazakhstan: an eyewitness to the uprising in Almaty […]

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