Elena Kostyuchenko is a reporter from the Russian “Novaya Gazeta” newspaper who was in Zhanaozen in the days after 16th December. She was interviewed by Sultan-Khan Akkuly for Radio Azattyk, the Kazakh language edition of Radio Liberty. Kostyuchenko’s account is completely different to the regime’s story, which the vast majority of the world’s media have reported.
Here we publish a shortened version of her interview.
S-K. A: According to the official statistics, 16 people died in Zhanaozen and another 1 in Shepte, over 100 were wounded. You were in Zhanaozen and spoke to those who live there, to eye witnesses. How many do you think died?
E.K: When I arrived the authorities were talking about 11 and then about 13 dead. But the local people had completely different figures.
One woman I spoke to was helping to carry the dead and wounded from the Square to hospital and then stayed overnight to help the doctors. She says that by 9 in the evening on the 16th there were already 21 bodies in the morgue, when it was shut and locked for the night. Other bodies arriving were then placed in the neighboring room and by morning a further 43 dead had accumulated.
I spoke to the ER surgeon in this hospital. She told me that she personally had 22 people die in her presence on the 16th and another 1 on the 17th.
As for the number of wounded, there are completely different figures given. Doctors and eye-witnesses say that by the morning of the 17th there were more than 400 wounded. People were being transported to Aktau, and many of those who could still walk simply didn’t bother reporting to the hospital, preferring instead to get as far away as possible. In the same way, not all relatives brought their dead to the morgue.
This is why it’s very difficult to count the number of dead and wounded, a task made more difficult because the authorities have still not released all the bodies to relatives.
S-K. A: What are they saying about the use of weapons in Zhanaozen?
E.K: The police began to shoot as soon as they came around the corner from the head Office of the “OzenMunaiGaz” company at people who were simply standing to look at the building burning. Many people told me the same story, not just those who were on the Square but people who lived nearby and were watching from their windows or who were just passing by at the time.
They just opened fire on a crowd where there were many onlookers. Amongst the dead were at least 2 children, a 10 year old lad and 16 year old girl.
S-K. A: The authorities say that both the police and ordinary citizens were being threatened by the instigators of disorder – do you agree?
E.K. No, I am not convinced. I also spoke to several policemen. They of course say that the crowd started to thrown things and attack peaceful people but I have not found one eye witness that supports their version. I have spoken to many people in Zhanaozen, not just to the striking oil workers, and no-one says that any form of violence was being used against the onlookers.
The Akimat (City council) was burnt down, as was the building of “OzenMunaiGaz”. That’s a fact. But again, even if buildings were burnt down, that does not mean they can shoot people.
S–K. A: Do you think it was necessary to introduce a State of Emergency in Zhanaozen?
E.K: I can only comment as a journalist. It is extremely difficult to work in the conditions of a State ofEmergency. Theoretically, everything seems fine, the curfew was established from 11 in the evening till 7 in the morning so that the battles between the youth and riot police could be controlled, this was accompanied by searches and questioning of suspicious people.
But in practice the curfew was extended so that, even during the day, and I witnessed this, people, mainly men, were stopped, detained and carted off to the police stations, where they were beaten. This happened before my very eyes. As far as the police were concerned, they obeyed no curfew – for them it extended round the clock. Women were afraid to let their menfolk on to the streets, even to go to the shops for bread. I witnessed how a man was arrested just leaving a shop with products in his hand. His wife was left at home, she was in the ninth month of pregnancy. They just arrested him with no questions.
There were no telephones links, no internet. People found it very hard to get any information. I had some other colleagues in Zhanaozen in the past few days, they say that people there are frightened.
Literally on every corner in the city there are groups of several riot police standing, sometimes dozens together. They stop passers by and traffic, check the documents of everyone. They can arrest people at will.
I was told of cases where the riot police simply robbed people, taking any money, telephones and documents from those being searched.
The surgeon at the hospital told me that he had to treat a girl who had been arrested on the 19th December and then raped by the riot police.
All classes at the schools were cancelled. Once the conflict escalated the riot police who were brought in were accommodated in the schools and kindergartens.
Everyone, whether suspects or victims are being questioned and made to sign statements agreeing not to talk about the events. They are all scared off by being told that if they speak to journalists they will find themselves on criminal charges.
In Zhanaozen I saw the list of those arrested. On the 9th December there were more than 800. They released 50 that day, leaving clearly 750. 400 have had criminal charges opened against them, many more administrative charges. It should be said that often these people have made confessions after being tortured.
S-K. A: How and when did you get to Zhanaozen?
E.K: We arrived early on the 18th, me and three colleagues. We started to walk around the city (to get orientated) before splitting up. My colleagues were detained almost before they had left the Square. They had only been a couple of hours in the city.
The local residents helped me very much, they gave me changes of clothes, accompanied me wherever I went. I managed to last 2 and a half days without arrest. I recorded things on the go, often undercover. I just photographed the reality of Zhanaozen in those days, the crowd outside the police station, the queues for bread, bloodstains on the streets, the list of arrested, the riot police blocking the entrance to the hospital.
I have a photograph of Baparbaya Kenzhebaev, who was arrested on the 16th. He drives a tractor for the oil company, lives in a village outside Zhanaozen. His daughter was born on the 16th. He was arrested on the way to the maternity clinic. They kept him for 24 hours, beating him. Then apparently they found out that his son-in-law was related to a policeman and released him. I met him on the 19th. Two days later they phoned me to say he was dead. His intestines had burst following the beatings.
His relatives had been unable to phone the ambulance after his release, the phones had been cut. They were afraid to take him out on the street again – in case he was arrested again. People who were arrested a second time did not usually get released. They only got him to hospital on the 21st where they diagnosed and operated on him. But too late, he died.
I did not photograph his face, even though his face had been severely beaten. But I took his back. Covered in huge bruises. According to his wife, he had been badly injured in the groin. Of course, he didn’t show me – an Eastern man after all. But he admitted he was passing blood, and that in the first days after his release he was coughing blood too. During our discussion, he tried to sit several times but wasn’t able to. I photographed the shirt he was wearing when he left the police station, completely covered in blood.
When we published his name, the General Prosecutor of Kazakhstanannounced that this man was a victim of the mass disorders and that the police had taken him to hospital where he had rejected help. I hope the reason for his death will be objectively investigated and someone brought to justice. Including the Prosecutor General, who is simply lying to the whole world. They are lying about the death of this man, their citizen. They must not be allowed to treat their own people in this way.
S-K. A: Did you see anything unexpected in Zhanaozen?
E.K: I never believed the tales of Kazakhstan being an “island of stability” but , of course, I never expected to see such horrors. But what shook me most of all was not the shootings. When I flew there I already knew about them. What amazed me was that on the 17th, the whole city turned out in a peaceful demonstration. They still said they were prepared to negotiate with the authorities.
They gathered in the main square. More than 5000 people, more than there had been on the 16th. They stood with white sheets on which were written “Peace to the world!”
This determination to achieve peaceful negotiations, that the protestors in Zhanaozen had demonstrated throughout the 7 months survived even after this inhuman bloodbath – that completely shook me.
The fact that for seven months this non-violent protest had continued is simply unbelievable. But when people whose friends and relatives had been killed, had been shot and who had gone through that frightening night of the 16-17th can turn out again the next morning on another peaceful demonstration – I don’t know how else to say, it as an absolute example of the victory of the human spirit”.