In December 2011, an oil workers’ strike in the city of Zhanaozen in south-west Kazakhstan dissolved into a riot. Security forces opened fire on protesters. According to unofficial statistics, up to 64 people were killed and 400 wounded. Novaya Gazeta correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko arrived in Zhanaozen immediately after the disturbances and wrote about what she saw. Half a year later, Kostyuchenko chose to return to the city — but found herself unable to write anything. Now she explains why.
I had 12,000 roubles on my card, which I thought would be enough. For some reason, I didn’t want to ask our editorial team to cover the trip. I didn’t even want to mention it to them. I agreed with my colleague Artemyeva that she would cover for me. For several nights in a row, I took a taxi to the airport, planning to buy a ticket and fly there and then. But every time, I arrived too late and didn’t make it. I would return home on the airport express train. I finally boarded a flight on my fourth attempt.
It was a cold May. Half a year earlier in the city of Zhanaozen, policemen had fired on striking workers. Back then, the city was surrounded by the army. Clashes erupted on its streets by night, while police raids intensified and all communications were cut off. I was somehow able to obtain evidence that at least 64 people had been shot, while the authorities maintained there had been only 15 fatalities. I had planned to return, in order to search for their graves
I really didn’t warn anybody about my return. The family that had helped me so much on my last visit turned out to be away. I ended up staying elsewhere, in a house with two twins — a boy and a girl. Every evening, they watched Three Steps Above Heaven, a film about Spanish teenagers. Their quiet mother would bring food and ask me whether it was expensive to rent an apartment in Moscow. Neither the twins nor their mother wanted to discuss the shootings — yet they couldn’t kick me out, because someone had asked them to take me in.
Zhanaozen was ablaze. I collapsed from the heat, dragged myself up from the scorching ground, and came and went with the wind. The houses, lined with sandstone, stood like furnaces. I heard of a certain “A.”, who I was told was compiling lists of the victims. A. had disappeared several days earlier, and his family had no idea of his whereabouts. “He’s a drinker,” said his wife, barring the doorway to their home with her belly.
On the square where police shot into the crowd, the paving slabs have been changed, and mothers push prams across the concrete.
So I turned away from her door. I walked among the houses and the workers’ dormitories, I was poured tea, brought cushions, shown photos of children, and asked about the weather in Moscow. I visited a guy with a stoma tube sticking out of his abdomen (in a white room without a window; a fan churned the boiling air as he tried to sit up). I visited a guy with a crippled leg (the metal splint bangs against the balcony when he smokes), and drank tea with a woman whose son had been killed while she was at the hairdresser’s (in a cold, empty, and dark apartment, with a great deal of food laid out — but for whom?). The wounded told me about new job opportunities; one woman planned to move to Dagestan with her son’s bride-to-be. I went out onto the street, where the heat poured out, and the sun beat down on the back of my neck.
Trees don’t grow here, so there is no shade in Zhanaozen. Workers change the colourless panels of bus and tram stops for bright blue ones. Women shawled in Keffiyehs and hidden behind sunglasses plant roses in dry loam soil on the roadside.
The May holidays are approaching. On the square where police shot into the crowd, the paving slabs have been changed, and mothers push prams across the concrete. While searching for this or that address, I would come across weddings — the mourning period had ended, and young people were getting married en masse. The bridegrooms were dressed in black suits, their brides in white dresses and hats. Over the wedding feasts, the same burning silence reigns — the new relatives are afraid to speak openly amongst themselves. As a mass gathering, every wedding needs to be agreed upon by the police.
One day, Aluatdin Atshibayev, a 52-year old driver, hung himself. He hadn’t taken part in the strike himself, but his friends did. As a criminal case against the surviving oil workers was opened, he was dragged to the offices of the KNB, Kazakhstan’s security services. Atshibayev’s family say that after every round of questioning, he arrived home “lifeless”. Atshibayev told his family nothing about the interrogation itself, other than that the investigators were very young — “practically boys”, he said. Atshibayev complained that his head hurt, and went away to lie down in his room in the dark.
One morning, before his next (fifth) interrogation, Atshibayev tidied up the apartment, put on a white shirt, and went down to the cellar of the five-story building where he lived with his family.
She arrives, and sees her husband hanging from the ceiling.
As Atshibayev’s wife was the oldest in the building, the district police officer called her down to the basement to identify the tenant who had taken his own life in the cellar. She arrives, and sees her husband hanging from the ceiling. And that was that.
I was also told of another guy who hung himself — a driller from the Aksai district. Officers of the KNB turned up at the young man’s wake, warning the family against talking too much. They didn’t — as I wasn’t able to find out any further details.
There’s a woman in Zhanaozen whose shop was burnt during the street battles which erupted after the shootings. She’s one of the plaintiffs in the case against the oil workers. As she puts it, she doesn’t feel any hatred towards them. She didn’t want them to be put on trial, and she didn’t want their families to pay for her shop. She made it clear that the Akimat (local authorities) convinced her to file the lawsuit, along with — she hinted — the KNB. At the same time, she had no doubt that she would receive the money for damages. With some restraint, she voiced her pleasure that justice would be served, and wondered where she might spend the money.
I met the daughter of a trade union activist — one of the heroines of my report — on the square where the shooting broke out. The sun had set, and darkness was quickly falling. The new paving slabs, of seven different varieties, had been laid in those parts of the square where fires raged and blood was spilt. In some places, the job was ongoing — workers hammered away in the darkness. By the time violence broke out, my heroine had already been arrested. She was then taken to a prison cell and raped with a steel bar. She testified to this at court, after asking her relatives to leave the courtroom. Her family members stayed put, and she was enraged at them. “She still doesn’t forgive us,” says her daughter. She holds a pink telephone, and casts her perfectly mascaraed eyes downwards. We’re sitting on a new bench. Identical men in black trousers and white vests walk past us, then mothers with prams, then some pregnant women, then couples in love. Every time they pass us by, the girl pauses for a long time. Finally, she puts on her sunglasses — rendering the darkness absolute. After her mother was arrested, she fled town and hid her younger sister and brother.
I met another trade union activist. She still hasn’t been jailed — for now, she’s under house arrest. She shouldn’t have invited me in, but did so anyway. She’s beautiful, jolly, and well-groomed. She seems crazy. She giggles, become embarrassed, runs up to the window and back, sometimes speaks loudly, sometimes whispers. She’s constantly being watched, and knows it — “they’re all the same. Stocky little people. You can tell by their faces”. All the telephones are tapped, while threatening and compromising letters are sent out under her name. Her daughter is deliberately bullied at school — clearly on the instructions of the KNB.
I found a family whose son’s head had been cracked open — not that his name appeared in the official lists of victims.
I turn her speech over in my head, and try to spell it out in text — on paper, it looks even crazier. Towards the middle of our chat, the cops ring the doorbell — to check that she’s at home, and alone. Smiling, she opens the door and goes to them. I try to hide in the hall (with its glass door), and wonder what I’ll say when the armed police burst in with their machine guns. What will I do when they jail her? When I leave the building’s front door, somebody followed me. Yes, somebody stocky. I changed taxis twice on the return journey.
I found a woman whose brother had disappeared. Two months later, they dug his body out from the rubbish in a ravine. Or to be honest, I overheard about the woman. I knew only the name of her district, and walked for ages between high fences before I found her. It turned out that her brother was “weak-minded”, and didn’t disappear on the night of the shooting, but a month after. I had heard that the woman suspected soldiers, but told me that she suspected nobody. I know what’s going on here: in order to retrieve her brother’s body, this woman had to sign a statement that she “had no pretensions [claims]”. Claims against whom? How was the document laid out? Her father came in and kicked me out the front door. I found a family whose son’s head had been cracked open — not that his name appeared in the official lists of victims. A wedding was underway at their house, and I was sat at the head of the table.
Sometimes I drifted about. Suddenly, I ended up in the performance hall of the Akimat, where a fat girl was plucking out the tune to “Moscow nights” on a dombra (a traditional Kazakh stringed instrument). The violinists were getting ready. At a parking lot for oil trucks and equipment, a Russian guy holding a folder explained to me how drilling rigs operate. A bus travels across the endless steppe, and the women riding it knot handkerchiefs into their dishevelled hair. As the nights fell, I didn’t always understand what I was doing by day. The sun fell, and I was left with the air-conditioned darkness (the twins were watching their film in the kitchen). I knew I had to leave this place, but I couldn’t.
The teenagers never asked me what I did during the day. They referred simply to “the events”, then changed the subject.
Reality melted away like butter, and an inner silence reigned. One night, passing by that square, I saw a hundred soldiers stand to attention. They were black, motionless figures. I asked the driver to break, but he pushed the gas pedal instead. I heard the start of a song, and saw my legs begin to shake. I kept quiet about the encounter for two days, experiencing my madness as a cold, clammy terror. Then the kids told me that after the “events” in the city, the once-disbanded military barracks had been reopened. And every day, exactly at nine o’clock in the evening, the soldiers switch shifts on the square where the shootings happened. Then they march in file through the city — in song, of course.
The teenagers never asked me what I did during the day. In a very adult manner, they referred simply to “the events”, then changed the subject. I tormented them. “Do you speak about this at school?” “Of course not.” “Do you speak about it at home?” “Never.” “Do you speak about it between yourselves?” “Elena”, they responded, what’s your favourite band? What do you listen to over there in Moscow?”
Three and a half years later after a routine vaccination, the children of Zhanaozen — now grown up — start to choke and stop walking. Nearly 200 of them are affected, in a mass hysteria. The authorities refuse to associate the outbreak with the shootings.
Having tired of my questions, the teenagers arranged for me to meet the orphan Sasha Bozhenko. During the trial of the surviving oil workers, he left the secret witnesses’ room and refused to testify against them. Attempts were made to force Sasha to testify against Zhannat Murinbayev, an oil worker who had practically become his adoptive father.
When I sat down in the car, the driver kept quiet for a long time. “You don’t think those mounds are graves, do you?”
We ate chebureki [meat pies – ed.] at a tyre repair shop on the outskirts of town, surrounded by smoke, gasoline, plastic tables — the smell of vodka and the smell of sweat. Sasha constantly glanced about him and laughed, swearing incessantly. He showed me his hand, crippled by torture, and asked if they could operate on it in Moscow. He said he had dug out a hole in the steppe, where he lives. Four months after our meeting, he’ll be murdered when he enters a nearby shop to buy food.
Sasha said that those shot on the square were apparently buried in the city’s northern cemetery. It’s an Orthodox Christian cemetery where Russians were once buried, but there are next to no Russians left in Zhanaozen today, and the cemetery is abandoned. The woman I was living with at the time found me a driver — a jolly man in a short-sleeved shirt. He wasn’t in a rush. First, we visited the market together to buy water and pies. He recommended I take some dried cheese back to Moscow, about which he was very enthusiastic.
A few houses stood at the back of the cemetery, where chickens wandered and clucked away loudly. A young woman was breaking the dry soil with a pickaxe. I asked her whether anybody had dug at the cemetery recently. The driver began a long conversation with her in Kazakh, to which she responded emotionally. The driver took me to one side and explained that the girl didn’t understand anything, didn’t know anything, and was going to sit inside with her children. I asked him to translate the entire conversation to me, word for word. The driver chuckled behind his moustache, grinned, and was silent. The young woman went home in a hurry.
The cemetery itself lay just 50 metres away, but for some reason we drove the distance by car. A white cow was grazing nearby. White stalks of grass stuck out of the parched, sandy soil like hair. Rusted crosses stood in the ground, flecked with remnants of blue paint — cowpats punctuated the rows. In one far corner of the cemetery was a cluster of mounds. There were no traces of grass nor of memorial plaques upon them. I started to count the mounds. They numbered about 40, but every time I ended up with a different figure. The mounds flowed into one another, and I became confused — the red clay was the same everywhere. As there were no rocks with which to mark the mounds I’d already counted, I decided to use grass instead — but the hot wind blew it away. I tried to photograph the area, but the resulting images showed that same ochre-sandy colour — no mounds were visible at all.
My head began to spin, and I didn’t understand what was happening.
When I sat down in the car, the driver kept quiet for a long time. “You don’t really think those mounds are graves, do you?” he then asked. I said nothing.
“There’s nothing there,” he added. “You photographed the land yourself!
I started to shake.
“Are you looking for graves? I’ll show you,” said the driver, and quickly drove off. We glided past the oil pumps. Some rumours hold that bodies were even dumped into their wells.
The Muslim cemetery of Zhanaozen is surrounded by a high white wall. A family came out from its gates. We walked past the graves and fences, before stopping at a black headstone.
“Here. This is my cousin,” said the driver.
“Was he killed?” I asked.
“No. He passed away three years ago — he was ill.”
The driver sat down to pray, and then asked me whether I’d like to visit a new oilfield nearby.
That day, I left Zhanaozen.
I returned to Moscow, where I wrote nothing.
Silence had won.