Inside the epicenter of the violent unrest that rocked Kazakhstan – where nothing will ever be the same | World news

The options for getting from the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan to Almaty, with Almaty airport closed, are not great. Eighteen hours by car or 15 hours by train. Except there aren’t enough seats on the fastest train, so it ends up being 20.

Outside, the region of the Kazakh steppes scrolls past, frozen, featureless and muddy. This part of the world has a habit of massively overheating its interiors when it’s cold outside and in those sweltering train compartments even the frozen steppe looks inviting.

Almaty is back on her feet and on the move. The station is lively. Traffic is at full speed.

The prosecutor’s office burned down in the city

We see in-store salespeople glued to their phones, catching up after six days of internet blackouts. It’s the same story for a lot of the contacts we call.

One of them said, “I can’t meet today, I just got back on the line – I have a lot of catching up to do!”

And of course, there is the 11pm curfew. The whole country is still in a state of emergency. Alcohol is not available for purchase in stores. Our hotel has its own curfew at 8 p.m. and there is no light in the lobby. We thought we had fallen in the wrong place.

The people of Almaty emerge, flashing in the lamppost.

“They were strangers”

Bekzat Malkashdarova sings as she walks down central Arbat street where looters raided the city’s largest store six days ago.

I ask him how was last week.

Security forces in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Security forces in Almaty, Kazakhstan

“We were at home all the time, with no internet, but we had enough food,” she says.

“We didn’t start going out until about the last day.”

President Tokayev called last week’s unrest a coup, an act of aggression against the state of Kazakhstan by international terrorists. I want to know if people believe it.

“They were not Kazakhs, they were foreigners,” said one salesperson to whom we ask.

Our driver also thinks it is quite possible. It appears that the president’s rationale for calling on Russia’s help to get him out of a very tight turn has a receptive audience.

A largely deserted shopping street in Almaty, Kazakhstan
A largely deserted shopping street in Almaty

A system that has enabled a few individuals to acquire untold wealth

“It was a coup orchestrated by the security services,” said Fyodor, a homeless man who is desperate to speak.

He’s a builder, but he’s been on the streets for the past six years and he understands why people have come out to protest.

“People are poor here,” he says.

“There are no decent paying jobs, but there are jobs that pay pennies.”

President Tokayev criticized his predecessor, longtime Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, for presiding over a system that allowed a few individuals to acquire untold wealth, even by international standards.

He called on them to pay their due to the people.

Nur-Sultan frozen train station, Kazakhstan
Nur-Sultan frozen train station, Kazakhstan

The question is to what extent Kassym-Jomart Tokayev himself is part of this system. Whether this New Year’s break has the ability to take root or whether Kazakhstan will return to the same.

In the meantime, 10,000 people will not sleep at home tonight, detained – some missing – for participating in the protests. And there are the families of the 164 people declared dead in the violence, including a four-year-old girl.

For them, nothing will ever be the same.

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